Young, leaderless and disorganized, protesters rallied and storm government buildings throughout Kazakhstan, dropped the statue of its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, burned down his former residence and clashed with police.
What united them was their song, “Shal, ket!” (Old man, go away!)
It referred to the 81-year-old Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan since the Soviet collapse in 1991 after five controversial elections. He remained Russia’s loyal ally who entered Moscow – dominated security and economic blocs.
In 2019 he retired after hand-picking an uncharismatic successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, but retaining power as head of the Security Council.
Tokayev initially tried to appease the protesters.
Wednesday he the government disbanded, Nazarbayev fired from the Security Council and reduced fuel prices that caused the unrest in a western town on January 2nd.
But as disoriented law enforcement officials were apparently unable to stop the rallies, violence and looting, Tokayev urged a Russia-dominated security bloc to help “suppress the terrorist threat”.
Civilians and police died in the clashes, with officers allegedly beheaded. There are no details about protester casualties in the strictly controlled country, where an internet outage on Wednesday made it even more difficult to access reliable information.
To some observers, Tokayev’s move indicates Moscow’s chance to recover its power in Kazakhstan, whose enormous hydrocarbon resources have made it the economic powerhouse of Central Asia.
“For some it is a popular uprising, and for some – an excellent opportunity to restore the USSR at the expense of fearful dictators who betray their country to save their skin and what is left of their power,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, ” an expert on the region and researcher at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
Moscow has distanced itself to some extent from the chaos.
The Kremlin said Kazakhstan could “independently solve its domestic problems” and warned against foreign interference.
At the same time, a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet states is on its way to Kazakhstan in an effort to restore order.
The bloc is known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and includes Russia and five former Soviet nations. The announcement of his readiness to jump in was made on Wednesday night by Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan.
‘This unrest is on a whole different scale’
While Kazakh officials regard the protesters as “extremists”, the crowds of mostly young Kazakhs are uncoordinated, have no apparent leaders and are not backed by Kazakhstan’s marginalized and broken opposition.
“There is no general [organisational] structures and obvious leaders, so far it has been protests from workers from the major resource industries, apparently, small businessmen and young people, ”Mitrokhin said.
The protests are also totally different from any unrest in post-Soviet Kazakhstan that has been easily localized and cracked down on, another observer said.
“This unrest is on a completely different scale – which includes the whole country – and shows the extent to which previous stability was superficial, and based on a division of the spoils by a small, unaccountable elite,” said Kevork Oskanian, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in the UK, told Al Jazeera.
The protests also point to a broader, regional longing for political change.
Four of the five former Soviet nations in Central Asia, a mostly Muslim, resource-rich region of more than 65 million strategically stretched between Russia, China and Afghanistan, were ruled by elderly leaders who cut their teeth in politics as communists has.
Even in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the region’s youngest president, 53-year-old Sadyr Japarov was a member of the Young Communist Movement and said he dreamed of “becoming someone like” one of the longest-serving Soviet leaders, Leonid Brezhnev.
For three decades after the Soviet collapse, Central Asia’s secular leaders used the alleged threat of “religious radicalism” as a pretext to stifle discord and opposition, and expand their rule through controversial elections, term extensions and popular referendums. “which has been criticized by the West.
The Kazakh protests are not just a warning to the Nazarbayev tribe that has created a “patronage, hydrocarbon-based dictatorship,” analyst Oskanian said.
“Other dictators across the region with similar patronage systems will watch carefully, not least [Russian President] “Vladimir Putin,” he said.
Even though Moscow’s own hard-line tendencies have led to last year’s invalidation ‘of Putin’s presidential provisions that enable him to remain in power until 2036, the Kremlin did not specifically cultivate the Central Asian strongmen.
It has increased ties with Kyrgyzstan and convinced it to oust a US military base after three popular uprisings overthrew three presidents in 2005, 2010 and 2020.
His ties with Uzbek President Islam Karimov were lukewarm until his death in 2016 and improved under his reformist successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“Russia is deliberately cementing anything in the region on purpose, anything but its physical and institutional presence,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
This presence manifested in military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a Soviet-era food dream in Kazakhstan, a navy in the oil-rich Caspian Sea, and Moscow’s role in the peace process in Afghanistan bordering three of the five former Soviet outposts. , ”Luzin said.
As for the average Kazakh, the protests were something they saw coming – and dreaded.
“It’s a mixture of hope and fear,” said an Almaty resident, who requested that Al Jazeera withhold his name due to the uncertain situation.
He is concerned about the possible involvement of right-wing nationalists, which is seen by Kazakhstan’s secular residents and multiple ethnic minorities as a threat.
National patriots “will be the worst,” he said, fearing for his wife, who is ethnically Korean.
Moscow and Beijing, another increasingly dominant force in the region, prefer to support these leaders, but political or financial support means little to the post-Soviet generation who see few career opportunities in politics and need a chance to oust them. to express dissatisfaction.
An international observer said President Tokayev may be able to quell the protests for the time being with a combination of police repression and concessions.
“But the protests have clearly created deep-seated anger among the population over much bigger issues than gas prices,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a right-wing watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
Dale lived in Kazakhstan for several years and visited the town of Zhanaozen, where the protests began on January 2 – and took place in 2011, leading to the killing of 16 protesting oil workers by police and a series of sanctions across the country.
“It is no coincidence that it started in Zhanaozen, where authorities forced a lid on discontent ten years ago. The corruption surrounding the elite in Kazakhstan is clear to everyone, and can not be hidden by constantly blocking news websites or closing independent newspapers. “Something more fundamental needs to change,” he said.