Kazakhstan’s president called the protesters “terrorists”. Russian President Vladimir Putin described them as “external forces”Bent on“ revolution ”. Some believe the unrest in the Central Asian republic is a power struggle among domestic elites.
What is undisputed about the Kazakhstan protests, which left 164 people dead and led to nearly 8,000 arrests, is that it started a week ago in a remote city with only a few hundred protesters.
The protests then snowballed. Within days, large crowds across the country demanded social and political change. Violent clashes, the seizure of the international airport and the looting of civilian buildings prompted the government to ask Russia for troops to stop the unrest.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s president, justified the request to Moscow by claiming the violence was a “coup attempt” coordinated by a “single [command] centre”. Instead, it seems that the uprising arose through a spontaneous protest that exploited deep social and economic resentments.
“Initial protesters were people who traditionally protested. . .[but]with them the youth of the suburbs joined. . . the poor who are dissatisfied with the staggering social gap that exists in Kazakhstan, ”said Evgeny Zhovtis, a prominent human rights activist in Almaty.
The first demonstration started in the small town of Zhanaozen on a local issue: a doubling in the price of liquefied petroleum gas, motor fuel of choice in Kazakhstan’s energy-rich west.
More than a thousand kilometers southwest of the capital Nur-Sultan, Zhanaozen is a national adverb for human rights abuses after police killed 14 oil workers protesting in 2011 over labor rights.
The widespread protests soon accepted other demands – mainly the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family from their behind-the-scenes positions of power and grip on the economy. Protesters shouted “Old man out!” sung, a reference to the 81-year-old autocrat who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades until handing over the presidency to Tokayev in 2019.
Tokayev conceded to the protesters’ demands. He fired his cabinet, reversed the fuel price increase and removed Nazarbayev from his post as head of the powerful Security Council.
However, the situation in Almaty – Kazakhstan’s capital until Nazarbayev moved it to another city, he later renamed to himself – continued to get out of control.
With a semblance of peace apparently restored by the weekend, the government has since tried to distinguish between the fuel protests and the ensuing violence.
“We heard everything[their demands]. . . but it did not mean anything, “Tokayev said on Monday. “A wave of mass disturbances disguised as spontaneous protests erupted.”
Yet his idea that the unrest was planned does not fit with the chain of events, analysts said.
For one, the protesters had no clear leaders or shared demands – other than a general dissatisfaction with Nazarbayev, Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former official living in exile in France, argued.
“In an authoritarian country there can be no single [protest] leaders because they are being destroyed, ”he said. “People were just tired of Nazarbayev, things have reached a critical mass.”
Almaty was also a natural environment for the eruption. The country’s largest city is a key destination for internal migrants, has recently suffered an increase in crime and has a reputation as a hub for protests, said Alexander Gabuev and Temur Umarov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“It was possibly the large number of angry young men who had nothing to lose. . . the transition to violence, ”they said in a recent analysis.
Tokayev claimed the protests were then taken over by “religious radicals, criminal elements, out and out bandits, poachers and petty thugs”.
Indeed, local bloggers and social media posts suggest that some protesters in organized groups arrived on buses. Some claimed they were paid. Social media videos also show people stealing weapons from the police and removing weapons from cars.
“It got out of hand,” Zhovtis said, adding that Islamic radicals, which he said existed in small numbers in the southwestern part of the country, may have played a role.
But the claim by Kazakh officials that these “terrorists” were directed from abroad is not supported by strong evidence. Tokayev even claimed that the “terrorists” had taken their fallen comrades’ bodies from morgues at night. “This is how they cover their tracks,” he said.
The case of Vikram Ruzakhunov shows how difficult it can be to discern protesters’ motives. The prominent pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan appeared on Kazakh TV last week with bruises on his face, admitting he had accepted $ 200 to join the riots. But after Kazakhstan released Ruzakhunov on Monday, on arrival in his homeland, he told reporters he had made a false confession in hopes of being extradited.
Some analysts believe the root cause of the problems is an internal power struggle between Tokayev and his predecessor, Nazarbayev, which has not been seen since the protests began.
The Almaty clashes erupted around the Altyn Orda market, which is believed to be controlled by Nazarbayev’s younger brother, Bolat. Tokayev also fired the country’s intelligence chief Karim Massimov, a close Nazarbayev ally.
“It was not surprising that Tokayev’s first step was to fire Massimov,” said George Voloshin, an analyst at Paris-based consulting firm Aperio. “What we see is a struggle for power.”
Still others in Nazarbayev’s inner circle appear to be untouched for the time being. So Massimov may have been made a trap for the crisis, says Simon Glancy, founder of Almaty-based Strategic Solutions Consulting.
“It’s clear that some negotiations are underway,” Glancy said. “In any case, the Nazarbayevs are no longer a significant political force.”
Tokayev, who convenes the Moscow-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, proposes the same.
Voloshin believes Tokayev needed backing as he was unsure whether Kazakhstan’s special forces would take his side after Massimov’s dismissal, given how they largely assisted when protesters burned down the president’s Almaty residence. Tokayev claims foreign involvement was only a pretext to legitimize the CSTO’s entry into a domestic conflict.
As Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s powerful president, has pointed out, foreign interference can not succeed without domestic dissatisfaction.
“The one thing you have to understand is that the external factor will never be enough on its own. You have to see the internal behind them, ”Lukashenko tell the CSTO on Monday.