As the city hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, stood in flames 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 disintegrated.
Protests are rare in Kazakhstan, and the New Year is an even more unlikely time for demonstrations as people take advantage of public holidays to spend with their families and night-time temperatures can fall to way below zero.
This year, however, January 2 marked 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 the doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which most Kazakhs use as car fuel.
The price rise came as the country ended a gradual transition to electronic trading for LPG to halt state subsidies for fuel and let the market dictate prices.
Over the following days, demonstrations have extended to other Kazakh towns and villages – sparking the most geographically widespread protest in the country’s history – and have encompassed 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 sacked his cabinet, the protests continued.
“Tokayev and the government might discuss the social and economic situation in the country and they may decide to raise salaries and social payments in the hope that it will ease the tensions. But in the end, everyone understands that the reforms won’t be real,” said Daniyar Khassenov, a Kazakh political activist based in Kyiv.
‘Old men must go’
The chant “Shal ket!” (“Old men must go!”) has been on the lips of protesters across Kazakhstan. And it is not a secret who Kazakhs have in mind.
Nazarbayev officially stepped down as president in 2019 and was replaced by his ally Tokayev. Nazarbayev subsequently took over as the 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 just a nominee and that he doesn’t have any political power and influence within the country. The chants refer to the whole system that Nazarbayev built – his regime,” said Bota Jardemalie, a Kazakh lawyer, human rights advocate and political activist, who received political asylum in Belgium in 2013.
“It means his family members, his daughters that the country despises, 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’s the monopoly that is behind the hikes 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 flourish without its former Soviet patron.
Through 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 always controlled the oil and gas industry and other natural resources, but they soon started taking over other industries like construction, banking, telecom, retail,” Jardemalie said.
“Now, we have both: political and economic monopoly of Nazarbayev and his clan,” Jardemalie said.
Meanwhile, in recent years, the government has begun curtailing individual freedoms and civil rights.
Journalists and political opponents have been silenced or jailed, while the government conducted smear campaigns against its critics, resorting to arbitrary detention and the use of Interpol to pursue those who left the country.
While Kazakhstan saw protests in the past, most notably in 2016 and 2019, this time analysts say the apparently-leaderless demonstrators seem determined to bring down what they see as Nazarbayev’s regime.
“Fuel prices were a catalyst that triggered mass protests over long-held grievances in a country riddled by corruption, lack of political choice and civil freedoms and where ordinary people often struggle to make ends meet while the elite lead luxurious lives,” said Marius Fossum, a regional representative of Norwegian Helsinki Committee based in Almaty.
“Rights groups have warned against such developments for years – this crisis is in part due to the regime’s continued failure to adequately engage with the population and listen to and address people’s legitimate grievances.
“On the contrary, the regime has suppressed freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and has been cracking down on dissenting voices, leading to a sort of pressure-cooker situation in the country.”
‘We can change the system’
While President Tokayev announced that Nazarbayev will step down as the head of the Security Council, few believe that this is going to satisfy protesters. The official rhetoric also remains confrontational.
A state of emergency has been introduced in several places, including Almaty, and internet connection has been blocked across Kazakh cities, which makes it difficult for the world to follow the developments on the ground.
It is clear however that the police have used tear gas and stun grenades to quell protests while demonstrators have begun to take over public buildings and that at least 190 people have been injured in clashes.
Tokayev has blamed “financially-motivated conspirators” for fomenting 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 unlawful. 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 Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-backed security alliance, for help quelling the protests that he said were led by “terrorists”.
“Today I appealed to the heads of CSTO states to assist Kazakhstan in overcoming this terrorist threat,” he said on 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,” Jardemalie says.
“But they cannot solve the problem because they are at the origin of it. The problem cannot solve itself.”