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Kazakhstan Protests: A Geopolitical Crisis

‘Is democracy, the Tokayev way, just the same authoritarian regime skillfully imitating democratic institutions and procedures to legitimize itself?’ runs the tagline of an article titled ‘Democracy, the Tokayev way’. It raises a question to the democracies of the world that mask themselves behind the cover of legitimacy only to solidify their authoritarian ways.

Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev officially took up the office as the second president of Kazakhstan on 20 March 2019. He sought to continue a bunch of social and economic reforms just as his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev had done before him. But the ongoing Kazakh protests since 2 January 2022 have changed the entire equation. An authoritarian regime with human rights abuses has become the outcome of his leadership policies.

Political, economic and social change - when these three paradigms align in one time and place, chaos will be an omnipresence. The protests came as a consequence to the rise in prices of LPG which is the preferred gas for automobiles in the western region. The protestors soon took to the streets and the workers also joined in with solidarity toward the cause. It also resulted in the reshuffling of government positions on 5 January. The outcome was an utter display of abuse against the civilians. Special forces as well as the police were deployed to curb the protests and unofficial accounts estimate the number of protestors to be between 10,000 to 50,000 on 5 January.

Nur-Sultan, the capital city renamed by President Nazarbayev after himself. It was previously known as Almaty.
Nur-Sultan, the capital city renamed by President Nazarbayev after himself. It was previously known as Almaty.

Tear gas and grenades have also been used to contain the protests, with many prominent personalities - journalists and activists who were detained, murdered and arrested. It changed the political climate of Almaty into that of violence. According to many sources, this was the worst violence Kazakhstan has been involved in since its independence in 1991.

When put under a magnified perspective, it becomes evident that the protests didn’t merely stem from the rise in prices of LPG but it was the in-built frustration over the years, due to the economic problems in the country and the political suppression. The hardest to be hit were the middle-class. The predecessor of Tokayev, Nazarbayev is also to be held accountable. He was compelled to resign in 2019 due to mass protests against him where slogans such as ‘Old man, go’ had been raised. His influence still spreads over to the most prominent organizations in the country, NSC (National Security Council) being one of them.

However, for the people who demanded democracy before and are still deprived of it, were met with the statement that the ‘protestors were foreign-trained terrorists’ as said by the newly elected President. The security forces were commanded to ‘fire without warning’. All of this goes on to show that the country’s governance set-up is far from being democratic in actuality.

It is important to note that Russia is also involved in this Kazakh crisi. Since under the Eurasian Economic Union Russia and Kazakhstan have no border control. Hence, it can have implications for the economic relations, and the bi-lateral relations among the member states as well affect the countries who have contributed in the form of foreign direct investments. Moreover, the Russian minority has a strong chance of getting embroiled in the protests which may explain the cause behind prompt Russian intervention in the form of the CSTO or the ‘Collective Security Treaty Organisation’ at the request of Tokayev. The Russian paratroopers were sent to the country to help ‘stabilise’ the situation, according to the president.

Moving forth, it stands to be seen how and where this authoritative political climate masked behind the title of democracy will lead to. The involvement of armed forces and the brutality with which the civilians are dealt with has been topping the headlines lately and Kazakhstan is no exception to it. As a concession, the president has delayed removing the cap on LPG prices for the next six months. But there is a very high probability of continued protests because there appears to be a tug of war between the current president and the influence of his predecessor and not just the agitation of the civilians against the regime. Weighing the various international and domestic factors that are at play here, it can very well be said that Kazakhstan has entered into a mess of a geopolitical crisis that is bound to affect major countries, its position being quite prominent in Central Asia.