Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

While the city hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, was on fire and protesters pulled down the statue of the country’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the image of the post-Soviet country as a beacon of stability in the volatile region crumbles.

Protests are rare in Kazakhstan, and the New Year is an even more unlikely time for protests as people take advantage of public holidays to spend with their families and night temperatures can drop to well below zero.

This year, however, January 2 was the beginning of the biggest protests in Kazakhstan since the country’s independence in 1991.

That day, a protest took place in the western town of Zhanaozen against doubling the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which most Kazakhs use as motor fuel.

The price increase came when the country ended a gradual transition to electronic commerce for VPG to stop government subsidies for fuel and let market prices dictate.

Over the next few days, protests extended to other Kazakh towns and villages – which unleashed the most geographically widespread protest in the country’s history – and included wider grievances.

Even though the government announced on Tuesday that fuel prices will be reduced to a level even lower than before the increase, and on Wednesday President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev fired his cabinet, the protests continued.

“Tokayev and the government may discuss the social and economic situation in the country and they may decide to increase salaries and social payments in the hope that it will ease tensions. But in the end, everyone understands that the reforms will not be real, “said Daniyar Khassenov, a Kazakh-based political activist based in Kiev.

Kazakh law enforcers protest over fuel price hike in Almaty, KazakhstanRiots rage on protesters marching on Almaty, Kazakhstan [Vladimir Tretyakov/AP Photo]

‘Old men must go’

The song “Shal ket!” (“Old men must go!”) Was on the lips of protesters across Kazakhstan. And it’s no secret who Kazakhs have in mind.

Nazarbayev officially stepped down as president in 2019 and was replaced by his ally Tokayev. Nazarbayev then took over as head of the Security Council and it became clear that the old ruler was not eager to relinquish his power.

“Everyone in the country understands that Tokayev is only a nominee and that he has no political power and influence within the country. The hymns refer to the whole system that Nazarbayev built – his regime, “said Bota Jardemalie, a Kazakh lawyer, human rights lawyer and political activist who received political asylum in Belgium in 2013.

“This means his family members, his daughters who despise the country, his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev who has a monopoly in every sector of the economy, especially oil and gas, and everyone understands that it is the monopoly that is behind the rises. in [gas] prices.”

Since its independence, Kazakhstan has been one of the few success stories of post-Soviet transformation. Rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, copper, coal and uranium, and with one of the lowest population densities in the world, it was well placed to thrive without its former Soviet protector.

By the 1990s, Nazarbayev’s main slogan was “economy first”. He allowed private enterprises to develop while entrenching his political control to dominate parliament.

“Then he started taking over the economy sector by sector. “His family has always controlled the oil and gas industry and other natural resources, but they soon started taking over other industries such as construction, banking, telecommunications, retail,” Jardemalie said.

“Now, we have both: political and economic monopoly of Nazarbayev and his tribe,” Jardemalie said.

Meanwhile, the government has in recent years begun to restrict individual freedoms and civil rights.

Journalists and political opponents were silenced or sent to prison while the government waged smear campaigns against its critics, with arbitrary detention and the use of Interpol to pursue those who left the country.

While Kazakhstan has seen protests in the past, especially in 2016 and 2019, analysts say this time that the seemingly-leaderless protesters seem determined to bring down what they see as Nazarbayev’s regime.

“Fuel prices were a catalyst that sparked mass protests over protracted grievances in a country riddled with corruption, lack of political choices and civil liberties and where ordinary people often struggle to get out while the elite lead luxurious lives,” Marius said. Fossum said. , a regional representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee based in Almaty.

“Law groups have been warning against such developments for years – this crisis is partly due to the regime’s persistent failure to adequately engage with the population and listen to and address people’s legal grievances.

“On the contrary, the regime suppressed freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and suppressed conflicting voices, which led to a kind of pressure cooker situation in the country.”

“We can change the system”

While President Tokayev has announced that Nazarbayev will step down as head of the Security Council, few believe it will satisfy protesters. The official rhetoric also remains confrontational.

A state of emergency has been imposed in several places, including Almaty, and internet connection has been blocked across Kazakh cities, making it difficult for the world to follow developments on the ground.

However, it is clear that the police used tear gas and stun grenades to stop protests while protesters began taking over public buildings and that at least 190 people were injured in clashes.

Tokayev blamed “financially-motivated conspirators” for inciting the protests.

“Do not succumb to provocations from within and outside the country,” Tokayev said on Wednesday.

“Exhortations to attack civilian and military facilities are absolutely illegal. This is a crime that will be punished. The authorities will not fall, and we do not need conflict, but rather mutual trust and dialogue. “

Later on Wednesday, Tokayev said he had sought help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-backed security alliance, for help in suppressing the protests, which he said were led by “terrorists”.

“I called on the heads of CSTO states today to help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat,” he told state television.

While Tokayev’s words may sound ominous, the protesters and the regime’s victims abroad retain cautious optimism.

“I believe that Kazakhstan is not a failed state, that we can change the system and that the fall of the regime is a matter of time. The current regime will not be able to solve the crisis, it can only prolong its own existence, ”says Jardemalie.

“But they can not solve the problem, because they are at its origin. The problem cannot be solved by itself. “

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