(CNN) — Violent protests in recent days in Kazakhstan have led to the resignation of the government and the declaration of a state of emergency, while troops from a Russian-led military alliance are heading to the Central Asian country in chaos to help quell the riots.
It is the biggest challenge to the rule of autocratic President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, which began with protests over rising fuel prices that later expanded into broader discontent with the government over corruption, low living standards, poverty and unemployment in this oil-rich ex-Soviet country, according to human rights organizations.
On January 5, protesters stormed the airport of the country’s largest city, Almaty, forced their way into government buildings and set fire to the city’s main administration office, local media reported. . There were also reports of deadly clashes with police and the army, amid a nationwide internet blackout and damage to buildings in three major cities.
Local media reported that eight police officers and national guard personnel had been killed and more than 300 officers had been injured. It is unclear how many civilians have been killed or injured. The country’s interior ministry said more than 200 people have been detained.
Here’s what you need to know about the riots and their significance.
What has caused the protests in Kazakhstan?
The demonstrations were sparked in the oil-rich western region of Mangystau when the government lifted price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) earlier in the year, Reuters reported. Many Kazakhs have converted their cars to run on this fuel due to its low cost.
Kazakhstan, an oil producer and ninth country in the world by area, has attracted billions of foreign investment and has maintained a strong economy since independence 30 years ago.
But the LPG subsidies created a situation where Kazakhstan regularly faced oil shortages, Reuters reported. The lifting of the price caps was a means of the government to alleviate those deficits and ensure supply to the domestic market. However, the plan backfired, and LPG prices more than doubled after the caps were lifted; the protests then quickly spread throughout the country.
There are also longstanding issues driving the protests, such as anger over endemic corruption in government, income inequality, and economic hardship. that have been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemicaccording to Human Rights Watch.
While the country’s natural resources have greatly enriched a small elite, many ordinary Kazakhs they feel abandoned.
Amnesty International said the protests are “a direct consequence of the authorities’ widespread repression of basic human rights”.
“For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakh people in a state of turmoil and despair,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, in a statement. release.
What has been the government’s response?
The authorities declared a state of emergency throughout the country, with a curfew and movement restrictions until January 19, according to local media reports. Internet outages have been reported across the country and President Tokayev said military personnel had been deployed.
In an effort to quell the unrest, Tokayev ordered the government to lower the price of LPG to 50 tenge (US$0.11) per liter “to ensure stability in the country.”
He said that a series of measures aimed at “stabilizing the socioeconomic situation” had also been put in place, including government regulation of fuel prices for a period of 180 days, a moratorium on tariff increases of public services for the population during the same period, and the consideration of rental subsidies for “vulnerable segments of the population.”
Prime Minister Askar Mamin and the Kazakh government resigned and Tokayev took control of the country’s Security Council, replacing former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
These concessions, however, failed to stop the protests.
Tokayev has vowed to act “as hard as possible” to stop the riots. He called those who allegedly stormed the airport “terrorists” and accused the protesters of undermining the “state system,” saying “many of them have received military training abroad.”
A Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet states responded to his plea for help quelling the protests. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – is sending “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan “to stabilize and normalize the situation”, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said.
Where is Kazakhstan and how is it governed?
Kazakhstan is the largest economy in Central Asia, bordering on Russia to the north and China to the east. Its leaders, who have often boasted about their stability in a region that has seen its fair share of conflict, maintain close ties with Russia.
Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian ethnic minority, which makes up about 20% of the former Soviet republic’s 19 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Moscow also relies on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan as a launch base for all Russian-manned space missions.
Much of the protesters’ anger has been directed at Kazakhstan’s leadership, who tightly controls the country.
Even before independence in 1991, the country’s political scene has been dominated by one man: Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81 years old. The veteran president and former Communist Party official ruled for nearly three decades before stepping down in 2019.
His autocratic method of rule sparked international concern as Kazakh authorities harshly cracked down on protests, jailed critics and clamped down on press freedoms, according to human rights groups. Critics accused Nazarbayev of appointing members of his family and his allies to key government posts and his family is believed to control much of the Kazakh economy, Reuters reported.
Nazarbayev was best known in the West for renouncing nuclear weapons and for his move from the capital to the futuristic city of Astana, which was later renamed in his honor as Nur-Sultan.
The US State Department’s 2018 human rights report noted that the 2015 presidential election in Kazakhstan, in which Nazarbayev received 98% of the votes cast, “was marred by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition.” “. There have never been any elections in Kazakhstan deemed free and fair by international observers.
When Nazarbayev resigned, he transferred power to Tokayev, but continued to be an influential but controversial figure behind the scenes. Until January 5, he remained the president of the country’s Security Council and retained the title of Elbasy (Leader of the Nation).
His removal from the council by Tokayev does not seem to have stopped the current unrest.
With information from Rob Picheta, Anna Chernova, Radina Gigova, Ivan Watson, and Sugam Pokharel.