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Kazakhstan’s Almaty protests

On 6th January, violent clashes erupted between protestors and the state’s security forces in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan. This was the result of protests that began on 2nd January, immediately after the Kazakh regime lifted a cap on fuel prices, leading to the price of the state’s most popular gas doubling. The protests subsequently spread to other areas and have come to represent political grievances as well. The violence has led the government to resign, and a state of emergency has been declared nationwide as troops from the Russian-led military alliance are heading to quell the social unrest. 

On 5th January, angry protestors stormed Almaty’s airports and forcefully entered government buildings; they also set fire to the city’s major administrative office, as reported by the local media. Moreover, there were also violent clashes between police and the military and a nationwide communication blackout. As of 7th January, 18 law enforcement personnel had been killed and nearly 750 badly injured. Reports also suggest that more than 100 protesting individuals have been detained. These events represent what is being referred to as the ‘worst violence’ to have erupted in Central Asian nations since independence in the 1990s. 

Fuel price hike swells into anti-government movement 

At the beginning of 2022, the government uplifted price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the oil-rich Mangystau region. Kazakhstan, one of the world’s major oil-producing country and the ninth-largest nation by landmass, has attracted foreign investment worth billions of dollars and have successfully maintained a stronghold on the economy for the past 30 years. However, the LPG subsidies generated a situation where the country had to face regular oil shortages. While the lifting of price caps was meant for the regime to ease oil deficits and ensure adequate supplies to domestic markets, the plan proved to be counterproductive as the price of LPG increased two folds. 

Throughout 2021, one liter of LPG cost 50 tenges ($0.11); however, in the first week of January, the price of one liter rose to as much as 120 tenges ($0.28). The major cause of the price hike relates to reforms in the fuel market that were aimed to put an end to subsidized fuel for consumers. Therefore, the removal of price caps was a way to allow market forces to decide oil prices. The result was an increase in oil prices at a time when demand was also high. One of the reasons for protests was that almost 90 percent of the vehicles in the Mamgistau region relied on butane and propane for re-fueling purposes. Butane and propane are also known as ‘road fuels for poor’ because of their low cost. 

The entire situation reflected poorly on Kazakhstan as a whole as it tapped into a broader sense of discontent within people over endemic corruption, income gaps, economic downfall, etc. The Covid’19 pandemic further enhanced these problems. The vast natural resources of the Kazakh region have concentrated most of the wealth in the hands of political elites; moreover, inflation in the state has increased up to 9%, the highest figure in the past five years. 

Why does it matter? 

  • Geostrategic significance of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a landlocked country strategically located between Russia and China. It is the world’s largest landlocked country with a population of 19 million. The state is rich in hydrocarbon resources and contains sizeable deposits of metal, attracting billions of dollars of investment since its independence. 

The recent events are of utmost importance due to several reasons. Firstly, up until now, the region was considered as a pillar of economic prosperity and political stability in an otherwise unstable region. Secondly, protests are important because of the Kazak-Russian alliance; Putin views the state as a part of its sphere of influence, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization has also intervened to prevent the crises. This move has the potentiality to have profound consequences for the region’s geopolitics. Thirdly, other post-soviet nations are also watchful towards the situation because it could have a spillover effect on the neighboring regions as well. Fourthly, Kazakhstan is important for the USA due to its energy needs; American enterprises such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron have considerable stakes in the region. Kazakhstan also maintains cordial ties with the USA and views it as a counterbalance to the Russian influence in the region. Lastly, Kazakhstan strategically links with the largest-growing economy of China and South Asia with that of Russia and Europe through a network of rail, roads, and ports in the Caspian region. 

  • Economic potential of the state

Kazakhstan’s economy is one the largest Central Asian economies in terms of both absolute and per capita income. Moreover, the state has attracted more than 370 billion dollars worth of external investment from the 1990s till the present. Apart from mineral reserves and metal deposits, the agricultural potential of Kazakhstan is high, due to which it can accommodate both productions of gains and livestock. The industrial sector of Kazakhstan depends on the processing and extraction of the country’s natural resources. The GDP of the country stands at $179.3 billion, with an annual growth rate of 4.5%. In 2020, the Per Capita GDP of Kazakhstan was $9122; these figures are a little over that of Turkey and Mexico, as reported by the World Bank. The country reached its annual peak in terms of GDP in 2013 with that of $140000.

In the wake of the Covid’19 Pandemic, the government of Kazakhstan initiated a stimulus package worth 6% of the national output; its purpose was to facilitate small and medium-sized enterprises in terms of their businesses. According to World Bank’s projection, the economic growth will rise as much as 3.7% in 2022 and 4.8% in 2023. However, addressing social inequality would require the state to increase competitiveness and restrict the role of larger state-owned businesses.

  • Social conditions and human rights situation

Kazakhstan has been ranked 128th out of 167 states as an ‘authoritarian government’ in the Democracy Index and ranked 157th out of 180 states in Press Freedom Index in 2020. Internationally, Kazakhstan’s human rights record has been described as poor; it is widely recognized that the country has imposed restrictions on various kinds of freedoms, including assembly, speech, religion, etc. As of 2014, Kazakhstan introduced new criminal procedural and administrative codes, and a new law on trade unions, all incompatible with international law. Moreover, torture has remained a common practice in detention places. For a long time, Kazakhstan has been criticized by the West for its authoritative governance, intolerance of dissent, lack of freedom of the press, and unfair elections. 

According to Amnesty International, the recent protests are the result of widespread violations of human rights that has led people in a situation of despair and agitation. Therefore, much of the anger is directed towards the state leadership that has been dominated by a single person since 1991- Nursultan Nazarbayev. He ruled for 3 decades until he stepped down in 2019. His governance style sparked global concerns, such as harsh crackdowns, stifling press freedom, jailing critics, etc. According to the US human rights reports, the 2015 elections were marked with ‘irregularities and lack of genuine political competition.’ Even after his step down, he maintained considerable power and became chairman of the state’s Security Council. 

Government response to the escalating violence 

According to some reports, the protests are used by Tokayev to undermine the influence of former president Nazarbayev who held the position of chief of Security Council. Nazarbayev has made no public appearances or statements in the aftermath of the protests; therefore, it remains unclear that to what extent the demonstrations will diminish his political power and businesses. 

 Tokayev's regime responded with a combination of concessions and repressive measures in the wake of the current situation. On the one side, president Tokayev has attempted to pacify the anger of protestors; on the other side, he employed repressive measures to crackdown on the protest movement through the state’s security apparatus. He gave the order for shoot-at-sight; the army now patrols the street of Almaty and other towns to maintain stability. The state of emergency has been declared for the next 14 days with a night curfew as well. Simultaneously, to address the demands of the people, Tokayev has removed Nazarbayev as head of state’s Security Council; with his removal, one of the major demands of the protestors has been met. 

Furthermore, the government has resigned, and the president has acknowledged the resignations of ministers; the president has also announced the reversal of the fuel price hike from 120 Tenge to 60 Tenge per liter. Moreover, state regulation of prices has been announced as the regime is also considering subsidizing rents for poor people, freezing utility costs, and creating a law on personal bankruptcy. Thus, this reveals that government is worried about the recent events and is employing a carrot-and-stick strategy to regulate the situation. 

Written By: Olivium's Staff.

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