An anti-government movement is growing in Kazakhstan. Why are Russian soldiers the ones crushing it?
Claudia Williams, narrating:
Hello, I’m Claudia, and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
Today… an anti-government uprising has broken out in Kazakhstan.
So why are Russian soldiers the ones crushing it?
It’s New Year’s day in a city in a remote corner of south west Kazakhstan. A group of people have gathered to protest peacefully about a fuel price hike.
The demonstration is pretty small – only a few dozen people at most.
Still, it’s an unusual sight.
Because Kazakhstan… a huge country bordering Russia and China in Central Asia… is a dictatorship. Public demonstrations without permits are illegal.
But that modest protest on New Year’s Day… well, it lights a fuse under the rest of the country.
[Sound of protest, Radio Free Europe]
In a matter of days, the protests snowball into mass demonstrations against the government.
People in Kazakhstan are angry about a lot of things.
High unemployment rates, low wages, a massive wealth gap and staggering levels of government corruption.
A lot of their rage is directed at one man…
[Sound of protesters chanting, Radio free Europe]
You can hear them there – chanting “go away old man”.
They’re talking about Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s 81-year-old former president.
He was Kazakhstan’s first – and only – president from its independence from the USSR in 1991 all the way up until his resignation in 2019.
Officially, that’s when Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down…
He even named a successor: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current president.
But in reality Nursultan Nazarbayev kept his grip on power. He was still pulling the strings behind the scenes.
He gave himself the title “leader of the nation” and ran the country’s national security council.
That is… until last week, when demonstrations in Kazakhstan spiralled into the country’s worst political violence in 30 years.
“Thousands of Kazakhs filled the streets of the capital Almaty, attacking government buildings and demanding an end to over three decades of oppressive one party rule.”
“Overnight more violence and deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Kazakhstan.”ABC News
Angry mobs set fire to government buildings and tried to seize an airport.
Dozens of people have died and so far more than 3,000 have been arrested.
The country’s new president has been forced to act.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dissolved the government, promising elections.
He tried meeting some of the protesters’ demands… he kicked the former strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev off the security council. (There are rumours that he has since fled).
But President Tokayev also turned elsewhere for help squashing the rebellion: he called on his allies.
“President Tokayev appealing overnight to that alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – the CSTO – it includes five other ex soviet states and within hours the alliance saying the first troops had been sent in. Russian media showing images of paratroopers and military units.”France24
Kazakhstan is a key player in Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia.
And it seems like Vladimir Putin and the Russian-backed CSTO were only too happy to step in.
The CSTO is meant to be a “peacekeeping force” but this is the first time that the alliance has actually deployed troops since it was founded 30 years ago.
Russian troops arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.
Reading between the lines… it looks like Vladimir Putin is worried about what’s going on in Kazakhstan.
So, why does it matter to him?
Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia – it covers an area the size of Western Europe.
It’s a major oil producer and holds vast reserves of minerals.
And it’s right in the middle of a really strategic part of the world because it’s bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south east.
“If you look at a world atlas this was one of the most inaccessible, most remote places on earth. Yet it is now a key gateway through which China sends its exports to central Asia and Europe.”BBC
The country has strong Chinese trade connections, but politically its leaders have always been aligned with the Kremlin.
Keeping a friendly government in power in Kazakhstan is very much in Vladimir Putin’s strategic interests.
And the unrest is also an opportunity for the Russian president to show off his continued influence among post-Soviet states.
But there’s another reason Vladimir Putin might be finding the uprising in Kazakhstan unsettling…
Because it’s the sort of thing that could happen in Russia.
There are parallels between the two powers.
They are both massive countries that are rich in natural resources.
And both of them have been ruled by strongman leaders who have exploited those resources to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies… but not their people.
If a country that looked so similar to Russia were to start bowing to the demands of anti-government protesters… that wouldn’t suit Vladimir Putin at all.
Ultimately, the Kazakhstan emergency is kind of a pain for President Putin.
His attention right now is mainly on another former Soviet state: Ukraine. He’s massed thousands of troops on the country’s border as a projection of force ahead of talks this week with NATO.
Can he manage a crisis and a big geopolitical power play at the same time?
Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.
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