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Qishloq Ovozi

Thursday 6 January 2022

Russian servicemen board a military aircraft on their way to Kazakhstan, at an airfield outside Moscow on January 6.

Sparked by a small protest over a fuel price increase in the western oil town of Zhanaozen a few days earlier, angry crowds flooded the streets and squares of Kazakhstan’s major towns and cities on January 5, shouting their discontent with the authoritarian government's domestic policies.

Alarmed by the scale of the demonstrations, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev quickly ordered fuel prices to be lowered, special commissions created to resolve economic problems, and accepted the resignation of his government.

But the protests only intensified and Toqaev decided to change his narrative of the unfolding events.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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The people responsible for the protests were “international terrorist bands who had undergone special training abroad and their attack on Kazakhstan should be seen as an act of aggression," the president told Kazakhs in a televised address.

Toqaev then appealed for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led alliance of six former Soviet republics (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) created in 1992.

The CSTO had never deployed its forces to intervene in a conflict in another country. But when Toqaev appealed for help, the CSTO agreed.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)

Russian troops quickly landed in Kazakhstan on January 6, with more coming from the other CSTO countries.

The CSTO stayed out of the 2005, 2010, and 2020 revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, the June 2010 interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in autumn 2020, and did not attempt to intervene or mediate in the brief border fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late April 2021 -- even though all of the CSTO defense officials were meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at the time.

According to Article 4 of the CSTO Charter, the organization will only send troops to help a member state whose territory or sovereignty is threatened by an external force.

None of the aforementioned conflicts in CSTO member states met that criterion.

But none of the countries involved share a 7,000-kilometer border with Russia, as Kazakhstan does, so Toqaev’s carefully crafted phrasing to include international "terrorist bands" trained abroad was deemed sufficient to invoke CSTO aid for his besieged government.

The move might help Toqaev’s government hold onto power, but the arrival of foreign troops on Kazakh soil is likely to be unpopular among many Kazakhs and will be an indelible stain on Toqaev’s reputation.

Kazakhstan recently held ceremonies to mark the 35th anniversary of Zheltoqsan, the time in December 1986 when Soviet troops came to Kazakhstan to crush large protests against the dismissal of the longtime Soviet-era leader of the republic, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, and his replacement -- Gennady Kolbin -- who had never worked in Kazakhstan before he was appointed head of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.

Officially, several people were killed in the violence but people who were there say the number of dead was in the hundreds for which Kazakhs hold Moscow responsible.

Swift Criticism

Toqaev’s appeal for CSTO troops was swiftly criticized.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan William Courtney wrote on Twitter that “Kazakhstan's people know this is a popular uprising against corrupt tyranny, not an ‘act of aggression’ by ‘foreign-trained terrorist gangs.’"

In a separate tweet, Courtney suggested that “Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan is likely to alienate its people. They have come to prize their country’s sovereignty and independence,” and “intervention could undermine three decades of friendly relations between the two neighbors.”

Nargis Kassenova, a native Kazakh who works at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said Toqaev’s call to the CSTO for aid was a “horrible decision” that will “undermine [his] chance to gain legitimacy."

As if to emphasize these points, after Toqaev announced he was seeking CSTO intervention, RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan said on Twitter that “Of course we should help. We absolutely should help. But there are several conditions to make -- recognize Crimea (as Russian territory), return the Cyrillic alphabet, (and institute) Russian as a second state language, like in Kyrgyzstan…"

Kyrgyzstan is a CSTO member and, so far, the only country not to have announced its contribution to what is being called by some a “peacekeeping force” for Kazakhstan.

The issue sparked hot debate in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on January 6.

Deputy Iskhakh Masaliev, who once headed Kyrgyzstan’s Communist Party, said he was against the idea of sending Kyrgyz troops to Kazakhstan.

"As I understand the meaning of this organization (CSTO) and its responsibilities, the military can be used only if there is an external threat to one or another CSTO member," he said.

Fear And Hunger: Reporters In Kazakhstan Describe Tense Mood
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Kyrgyz political analyst Aida Alymbaeva said Toqaev’s move to call in the CSTO to prop up his government “creates a precedent for the authoritarian leaders of Central Asia.”

There were even protesters outside the Kyrgyz parliament calling for deputies not to send soldiers to Kazakhstan.

A vote on the issue was postponed due to a lack of quorum, but deputies planned to return on January 7 to make a decision.

Reforma party leader Klara Sooronkulova said deputies will inevitably approve the troop deployment because Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is in favor of it. That makes it almost certain that a majority of deputies will back the proposal due to there being a majority of pro-government deputies in the parliament.

Kyrgyz politician Klara Sooronkulova (file photo)
Kyrgyz politician Klara Sooronkulova (file photo)

But Sooronkulova was skeptical of the need for any foreign troops in Kazakhstan.

“Toqaev says that these are terrorists, but this is not true” Sooronkulova said. “If these are terrorists then why are members of the [Kazakh] military going over to their side?”

Russia is reportedly sending 3,000 soldiers to Kazakhstan, Belarus some 500, Tajikistan 200, and Armenia 70, with Kyrgyzstan set to decide on January 7.

According to Russian and Kazakh officials, the CSTO troops will be used to guard strategic facilities, not to participate in what Kazakh authorities are calling an “anti-terrorist” operation.

But many inside and outside Kazakhstan will see the placement of foreign troops in the country as sacrificing its sovereignty and an example of the Toqaev government's weakness, which carries with it ramifications for the future when Russia will remind Toqaev of the service it has rendered and told what loyalty the Kremlin expects.

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.

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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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