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Qishloq Ovozi

Wednesday 5 January 2022

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A monument to former President Nursultan Nazarbaev was demolished by protesters in Taldyqorghan in southern Kazakhstan.

Tensions have been simmering in Kazakhstan for years, but no one thought a protest by dozens of people in the western city of Zhanaozen on January 2 would lead to massive nationwide demonstrations that ousted the prime minister and have protesters surging into government buildings and disarming police and soldiers.

But the doubling of fuel prices in Zhanaozen was just the trigger for the built-up desperation that Kazakhs feel after years of government corruption, bad economic conditions in a country rich in natural resources, and the absence of free and fair elections.

People in Kazakhstan had finally had enough of their authoritarian government's unfulfilled promises and lip service to real reform.

In spring 2016, many thousands of people demonstrated across Kazakhstan against the government’s land-privatization reforms that sparked rumors that land would be bought by foreigners, specifically Chinese.

But there were other issues.

One of the most prominent on the ever-growing list of demands by protesters was debt relief for those who had taken out hard-currency loans just before the government allowed the national currency -- the tenge -- to depreciate and lose half of its value.

WATCH: Video showed protesters storming City Hall in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, on January 5. After overwhelming police, they stripped them of their riot gear and made piles of shields and batons next to the building.

Video Shows Kazakh Protesters Storming Almaty City Hall
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Added to that was bad inflation that occurred when the tenge fell from 182 to $1 to 340 tenge to $1 at the end of 2015, affecting nearly every Kazakh and adding to the number of people who came out to protest in spring 2016.

The government withdrew the land-reform proposal, worked with banks to lessen the burden on debt holders, and increased wages and social benefits.

But those changes only partially addressed people's problems.

In March 2019, Kazakhstan’s first and hitherto only president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, resigned and turned over leadership of the country to longtime friend and supporter Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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One of Toqaev’s first moves was to rename the capital, Astana, to Nur-Sultan in honor of Nazarbaev. He also named Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha, as the speaker of the Senate, the second-highest post in the country.

Those moves angered many Kazakhs who thought the long reign of the Nazarbaev family was really over, prompting people to protest the new name of the capital and Darigha's lofty appointment.

The Kazakh words “shal ket” or “leave old man” have been heard increasingly in recent years in Kazakhstan.

There were protests again prior to and after the snap presidential election on June 9, 2019, as people again vented their frustration at the orchestrated change in leadership in which they played no part.

Even though Toqaev promised changes, Nazarbaev remained the major force in Kazakh politics in his new powerful role as secretary of the Security Council.

Perhaps most importantly, any attempts at reform by Toqaev continually fell short of what the people were hoping for.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic provided the authorities with a reason to keep people from assembling for demonstrations.

But protests still took place before and after the January 10, 2021, elections to the Mazhilis -- the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament -- and the results of those undemocratic elections showed the same pro-government parties winning seats in a vote that opposition parties were largely kept from participating in.

Adding to the people's frustration of those staged elections is the fact that Kazakhs do not even get to vote for the members of the Senate.

It was telling that in Zhanaozen, where the recent protests started, officials sent by the government were scorned by the protesters and, in some cases, chased from the scene.

At about the same time, the term “kettling” entered Kazakhstan’s lexicon as police increasingly used the tactic of surrounding protesters and not allowing anyone to enter or exit an encircled area for any reason -- sometimes for many hours – in an effort to frustrate protesters.

A new law was passed on public rallies that fell far short of expectations as it obliged the prior approval of authorities for any gatherings and such approval was almost never given to groups planning to demonstrate against government policies.

Authorities instead started carrying out preemptive raids on activists and rally organizers, taking people into custody days ahead of demonstrations that were organized on social networks and holding them on spurious charges until the rallies were over.

Meanwhile, none of the socioeconomic problems the people were complaining about were ever fully resolved. Although some social benefits were improved, the people did not get everything they were demanding.

Prices for almost everything went up in 2021, sparking the largest number of worker protests and strikes in Kazakhstan in more than 20 years.

WATCH: Kazakh police used stun grenades in the early hours of January 5 as hundreds of protesters tried to storm the mayor's office in the country's biggest city, Almaty.

Police Fire Stun Grenades On Protesters In Kazakhstan
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Striking employees were given small concessions to their demands, but they were not satisfied and often went on strike again.

When Nazarbaev stepped down, expectations were raised that Kazakhstan would embark on a new era in which people had a greater role in politics and their lives would noticeably improve. But nearly three years later, none of that has happened under Toqaev and the result is the current situation of mass protests by a frustrated populace.

Many people still find it difficult to make ends meet in a country that holds vast amounts of energy resources, and while they work hard, there have been more and more reports about the incredible wealth of Nazarbaev’s family and friends and the luxurious lives they lead.

And the political system continues to exclude the people.

Several opposition groups have tried to register new political parties, all without success.

It was telling that in Zhanaozen, where the recent protests started, officials sent by the government were scorned by the protesters and, in some cases, chased from the scene.

That happened in the summer of 2021, when officials from two pro-government parties went to meet with striking oil workers. They told them, “We are deputies whom you elected,” to which the striking workers replied, “You were named to your posts. The people did not elect you.”

Such sentiment seems to have washed over all of Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh words “shal ket” or “leave old man” have been heard increasingly in recent years in Kazakhstan and, if they referred specifically to Nazarbaev at first, they have come to mean the rigid system of governance Nazarbaev created during his 28 years as Kazakh president -- a system that has been maintained even without Nazarbaev officially at the helm.

The current protests -- unprecedented in scale for Kazakhstan -- are a popular expression of no-confidence in the government.

And it seems the half promises and partial concessions that officials are making to the Kazakh people will not work.

A video grab shows a military vehicle stationed on the Turkmen side of the Turkmen-Afghan border in December 2021.

Turkmen border guards were reportedly involved in a sustained exchange of fire with Taliban forces on January 3, the first known time the two have been in a shoot-out.

The facts of the incident are coming from the Afghan side, but the story thus far is amazing if for no other reason that Turkmen forces reportedly fired into Afghanistan.

According to Helal Balkhi, head of the Taliban’s Information Department in the northern Jowzjan Province, it was Turkmen border guards who started shooting and the incident came after Turkmen troops shot and killed an Afghan civilian in the same area several days earlier.

The Turkmen side has not commented on the incident and is unlikely to do so considering precedent. The Turkmen government and state media always go to great lengths to avoid reporting any bad news concerning Turkmenistan.

A stretch of the Turkmen-Afghan border. The secretive Turkmen government reveals little of what happens in its borderlands.
A stretch of the Turkmen-Afghan border. The secretive Turkmen government reveals little of what happens in its borderlands.

An example is Turkmen officials clinging to their absurd claim that the country has not had a single case of coronavirus, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Violent events along the border with Afghanistan fall into the same category.

Three Turkmen border guards were killed along the Afghan border in February 2014 and three Turkmen soldiers were killed in May of that year.

The only source for that information came from Afghan villagers and, in those cases, there was never any mention of Turkmen forces opening fire to defend themselves.

In recent years Taliban fighters have been chased to the Turkmen border by Afghan government troops and Afghan government troops were also forced to the Turkmen border by Taliban fighters, and every time Turkmen border guards told them they could not enter Turkmenistan. But there were no reports that Turkmen troops ever used their weapons.

Turkmen officials and state media have never commented on those encounters with forces from Afghanistan.

The only incident along the Afghan border when Turkmen troops seem to have opened fire happened in May 2018 when some were reportedly involved in an exchange of fire that left 25 Turkmen dead.

That appears to have involved a militant group or drug smugglers who were not part of the Taliban.

Turkmen officials and state media did not mention that incident, either.

In the current incident, some residents on the Afghan side of the border contacted RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and gave their version of what happened.

Turkmen border guards taking part in training along the Turkmen-Afghan border. (file photo)
Turkmen border guards taking part in training along the Turkmen-Afghan border. (file photo)

According to them, the shooting between Turkmen and Taliban forces went on for several hours and Taliban fighters shot rockets at Turkmen positions during the clash.

They said a man named Abdulkerim, an ethnic Turkmen citizen of Afghanistan from the Khamyab district, was shot dead by Turkmen border guards. But is not known why.

When the Taliban came several hours later to investigate, Turkmen border guards reportedly opened fire on them.

It is an unusual story, and the alleged aggressiveness on the part of Turkmen troops is even stranger.

The secretive Turkmen government unfortunately reveals little of what happens along its borders, but in the 30 years Turkmenistan has been independent there have only been two reported incidents, in 2015 and 2018, in which Turkmen troops used deadly force. Both of those happened on the Caspian Sea and involved Iranians.

Why Turkmen troops felt the need to apparently open fire into Afghanistan in this incident remains a mystery.

Turkmen authorities have been anxious to push through large energy projects that have been delayed for years due to instability in Afghanistan, so this shooting incident is even harder to explain as it will likely upset Taliban officials.

Turkmen authorities and the Taliban will likely gloss over the event, but whatever happened it was sufficient for Turkmen troops to use their weapons -- a clear indication that trust is still very low along the border.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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