The Crisis in Kazakhstan:
The Crisis in Kazakhstan, the most violent in its post-soviet history, was caused by fuel price hikes. Protesters surged into the streets in the largest city, Almaty, after the fuel price doubled overnight due to the removal of price controls. Kazakhstan has many underlying issues with widespread inequality and wealth concentrated in the hands of a small elite, mainly from the opaque oil business. In Almaty, protestors stormed government buildings, took over the airport, and set a state broadcasting station on fire. Even after the Government reinstated price controls on fuels and essential food products, Protests continued. President Tokayev labelled the protestors as terrorists and blamed foreign interference, not his economic policies, for the uprising. Tokayev placed a shoot to kill order on Protestors, a stark reversal of his earlier promises of tolerant governance. Tokayev was hand-picked as a successor by Nur Sultan Nazarbayev, who had been in power since 1989 when he was the first secretary of the communist party before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Crucially, Nazarbayev remained the head of the security council, which has authority over security forces and the military.
Tokayev has since replaced Nazarbayev as head of the security council and has solidified his power over the country, arresting Nazarbayev allies in the security services. Most notably, the former security chief Karim Masimov and two deputies. The biggest news of geopolitical relevance coming out of this crisis was the arrival of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) forces led by Russia. CSTO forces have to be invited by the Government, and Tokayev invited them to bolster his political position and send a clear message to domestic and international audiences that he is in control. This is the first time since the CSTO’s founding in 1994 that the collective security provisions (Article 4) have been exercised.
Nevertheless, the CSTO is very selective, ignoring the 2010 protests in Kyrgyzstan and the war over Nagorno Karabakh in Armenia. The CSTO frame these events as internal disputes, like categorizing the brief war with Azerbaijan as a border dispute, much to the chagrin of the Armenian people. But Tokayev used the correct language, framing protest unrest as the work of foreign intervention and therefore an external attack, one of the necessary conditions of Article 4. The kremlin peddles a similar narrative framing any political demonstrations in Russia and the post-soviet space as the work for foreign agents.
As the graph shows, Russia is by far the most significant troop contributor to the CSTO task force, initially pledging 3000 troops. These troops did not directly involve themselves in the unrest but manned key strategic posts freeing up Kazak forces to quell the unrest. The CSTO presence also sent an important message internally that no matter the Challenges to his rule, Tokayev was very much still in control. Whilst only about 2500 troops arrived in Kazakhstan, all via Russian provided airlifts, they left after ten days. This was because the Kazak security forces had restored order and many Kazaks have negative feelings about the presence of Russian Troops in their country.
According to government sources, 19 security force officers and over 230 people have been killed in the violence. Activists claim many protestors have also disappeared, with 10,000 civilians arrested since early January. Kazakhs are struggling to find out what has happened with their family, with many having to turn to social media for more information. The crisis appears over for now. The clear winners are President Tokayev, who has strengthened his position vis a vis other elites and Nazarbayev, and Russia, which has solidified its status as a regional security guarantor.