An anti-government movement is growing in Kazakhstan. Why are Russian soldiers the ones crushing it?
Claudia Williams, narrating:
Hello, Iâ€™m Claudia, and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
Todayâ€¦ an anti-government uprising has broken out in Kazakhstan.Â
So why are Russian soldiers the ones crushing it?Â Â Â
Itâ€™s New Yearâ€™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 â€“ only a few dozen people at most.Â
Still, itâ€™s an unusual sight.
Because Kazakhstanâ€¦ a huge country bordering Russia and China in Central Asiaâ€¦ is a dictatorship. Public demonstrations without permits are illegal.Â
But that modest protest on New Yearâ€™s Dayâ€¦ well, it lights a fuse under the rest of the country.Â
[Sound of protest, Radio Free Europe]
In a matter of days, the protests snowball into mass demonstrations against the government.Â
People in Kazakhstan are angry about a lot of things.Â
High unemployment rates, low wages, a massive wealth gap and staggering levels of government corruption.
A lot of their rage is directed at one manâ€¦
[Sound of protesters chanting, Radio free Europe]
You can hear them there â€“ chanting â€śgo away old manâ€ť.
Theyâ€™re talking about Nursultan Nazarbayev, the countryâ€™s 81-year-old former president.Â
He was Kazakhstanâ€™s first â€“ and only â€“ president from its independence from the USSR in 1991 all the way up until his resignation in 2019.
Officially, thatâ€™s when Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped downâ€¦
He even named a successor: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current president.Â
But in reality Nursultan Nazarbayev kept his grip on power. He was still pulling the strings behind the scenes.Â
He gave himself the title â€śleader of the nationâ€ť and ran the countryâ€™s national security council.Â
That isâ€¦ until last week, when demonstrations in Kazakhstan spiralled into the countryâ€™s worst political violence in 30 years.Â
â€śThousands 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.â€ť
â€śOvernight more violence and deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Kazakhstan.â€ťABC News
Angry mobs set fire to government buildings and tried to seize an airport.Â
Dozens of people have died and so far more than 3,000 have been arrested.Â
The countryâ€™s new president has been forced to act.Â
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dissolved the government, promising elections.Â
He tried meeting some of the protestersâ€™ demandsâ€¦ 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.
â€śPresident Tokayev appealing overnight to that alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organisation â€“ the CSTO â€“ 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.â€ťFrance24
Kazakhstan is a key player in Russiaâ€™s sphere of influence in Central Asia.Â
And it seems like Vladimir Putin and the Russian-backed CSTO were only too happy to step in.Â
The CSTO is meant to be a â€śpeacekeeping forceâ€ť but this is the first time that the alliance has actually deployed troops since it was founded 30 years ago.Â
Russian troops arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.Â
Reading between the linesâ€¦ it looks like Vladimir Putin is worried about whatâ€™s going on in Kazakhstan.Â
So, why does it matter to him?
Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia â€“ it covers an area the size of Western Europe.Â
Itâ€™s a major oil producer and holds vast reserves of minerals.
And itâ€™s right in the middle of a really strategic part of the world because itâ€™s bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south east.Â
â€śIf 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.â€ťBBC
The country has strong Chinese trade connections, but politically its leaders have always been aligned with the Kremlin.Â
Keeping a friendly government in power in Kazakhstan is very much in Vladimir Putinâ€™s strategic interests.Â
And the unrest is also an opportunity for the Russian president to show off his continued influence among post-Soviet states.Â
But thereâ€™s another reason Vladimir Putin might be finding the uprising in Kazakhstan unsettlingâ€¦
Because itâ€™s the sort of thing that could happen in Russia.
There are parallels between the two powers.Â
They are both massive countries that are rich in natural resources.Â
And both of them have been ruled by strongman leaders who have exploited those resources to enrich themselves, their families and their croniesâ€¦ but not their people.Â
If a country that looked so similar to Russia were to start bowing to the demands of anti-government protestersâ€¦ that wouldnâ€™t suit Vladimir Putin at all.Â Â
Ultimately, the Kazakhstan emergency is kind of a pain for President Putin.Â
His attention right now is mainly on another former Soviet state: Ukraine. Heâ€™s massed thousands of troops on the countryâ€™s border as a projection of force ahead of talks this week with NATO.Â
Can he manage a crisis and a big geopolitical power play at the same time?
Todayâ€™s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.
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