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Kazakhstan: Unrest in Key Ally’s Territory Prompts Russian Intervention by Tristan Vanheuckelom

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Kazakhstan: Unrest in Key Ally’s Territory Prompts Russian Intervention

On Thursday, Russian paratroopers entered ex-Soviet republic Kazakhstan to provide security in the wake of its countrywide violent uprising, Reuters reports.

Under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), led by Russia, deployment will occur primarily in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, where police claim to have killed dozens of rioters. State television said 13 security force members died there, including two who were decapitated.

The troubles started on January 2nd in the southwestern cities of Zhanaozen and Aktau in the oil-rich Mangystau Region, when the price of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), which most of its citizenry use for car fuel, saw a doubling from 60 tenge (€0.12) to 120 tenge (€0.24) per liter. At the root of the price jump was a government decision to discontinue subsidizing the commodity, letting the cost of LNG fall under market control. Authorities claimed that the old model resulted in gas producers going perpetually in the red.

Subsequently, protests in the city flared, spreading out to centers to the west and north of the country. They remained largely peaceful however, limited to blocking of traffic until demands that LNG prices be brought down to previous levels were met. When law enforcement detained 69 people that day and the next, the situation changed.

Instructions by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to address the matter of soaring gas prices, including launching an investigation against owners of Kazakhstani gas stations, aimed at identifying price-fixing cartels, did not calm tempers but indeed, seemed to inflame them. Other factors, such as the prolonged economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic might lie at the root, with rising gas prices being the last straw. 

On the evening of January 4, violent clashes with law enforcement started in many Kazakh towns, lasting throughout the night. Policemen used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, who resorted to arson, setting government vehicles ablaze. 

That same evening, the government announced it was restoring the price cap of 50 tenge per liter, or less than half the market price, in Mangistau province.

The situation worsened still however. On Wednesday, Tokayev declared a two-week state of emergency in the western Mangystau province and Almaty, where his residence, the mayor’s office and airport were seized by protestors. 

Access to the internet was promptly shut off across the country, which makes the full extent of the violence impossible to confirm. In addition, Tokayev dismissed his cabinet, and distanced himself from his predecessor, Soviet-era Communist boss Nursultan Nazarbayev who stepped down in 2019.

He also announced he was taking over as head of the Security Council, a post which Nazarbayev had retained. It is thought that no small part of the protesters’ ire is directed at Nazarbayev, who firmly ruled the country for nearly three decades and, until recently, held considerable sway over its politics. Only late last December, he had an amiable meeting with Russian president Putin. Tokayev, his successor, was hand-picked by himself. No word of the latter’s whereabouts has surfaced since the unrest began.

The country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, where Tokayev is currently located and promised not to leave under any circumstances, also couldn’t escape the turmoil. 

The Kazakh president has described the protesters as terrorists with foreign training, and has given the go-ahead for counter-terrorist action. In a nationally televised address on Friday, Tokayev announced that he had ordered “law enforcement and the army to shoot to kill without warning” in the event of further disturbances.

Kazakhstan, the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, has not seen such unrest in its modern history. It was, in fact, famed for its stability, attracting large-scale foreign investment. The nation, the most dominant of Central Asia both economically and politically, generates 60% of the region’s GDP, primarily through its oil and gas industry, and has vast mineral resources to draw on. It also owns 12% of the world’s uranium supply,and is the world’s leading uranium producer, with almost 28% of world production. In 2019, Kazakhstan produced 43% of the world’s uranium.

It accounts for about a fifth of global bitcoin ‘mining,’ the electricity-intensive process of recording cryptocurrency transactions, as well. Kazakhstan’s internet shutdown has curtailed the computing power of bitcoin’s global network.

As a trading partner, it is therefore of vital importance to a neighboring Russia to its north. The fact that they share an extremely wide, hard to defend border, makes maintaining its equilibrium an existential matter to the Kremlin. It also serves as a link by land to China, an increasingly important trading partner as well as military ally.  

Another concern is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a spaceport which Kazakhstan leases to Russia. All crewed Russian space flights are launched from it. A space facility still under construction, Vostochny, which only has launched unmanned missions thus far, was intended to take on Baikonur’s capacities. Until it’s ready however, Russia will need Baikonur. A smooth operation of that site might be hampered by political instability. Sary Shagan, the first and only site in Eurasia for testing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems, and a testing range important to Russia’s security, is also located in Kazakhstan. 

Furthermore, the country holds a large Russian community: as of 2018, ethnic Russians make up 19.8% of the country’s total population. The safety of the Russian community is therefore of great concern to Russia.

Meanwhile, Western countries have called for calm. Chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Zbigniew Rau, stated in a tweet that “violence is never an appropriate response for resolving tensions”, and that “this is why I call for a peaceful return to order and respect for democratic processes, while rights and freedoms, including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, must be protected.”Neighboring China called the events an internal matter for Kazakhstan to resolve.

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.

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