From Fuel Prices to Democratic Reform: starting the new year in protest in Kazakhstan5 min read

 In Central Asia, Editorial, Politics
Since 2 January, the world has watched as a relatively small protest in western Kazakhstan turned into country-wide unrest. While it may shock some to see protests over an increase in fuel prices turn into days of rioting and calls for democratic reform, these events have been a long time coming. In order to comprehend how events escalated so quickly, it is vital to examine the background of this dissent and the aims of those at the forefront of the protests. By doing so, recent events can soon be interpreted as an expression of the long-building dissatisfaction among the populace.

Over the last two decades, acts of protest have become increasingly commonplace in Kazakhstan. The city of Zhanaozen — where the protests began — had previously been in the news after a strike in 2011. The strike came about when oil workers held a demonstration in protest of their poor working conditions and pay. The strikes lasted for six months until they ended with a brutal confrontation with the police that led to the death of 16 protesters and injury of dozens more. A decade later, the city has seen protests reignite over a steep increase in fuel prices. However, what was also not mentioned as widely as the original demands included the resignation of the local government. This detail is crucial to consider when examining how the protest eventually escalated, as well as the reason for these demands. 

In the days leading to the mass protests, prices on liquified natural gas had jumped from about 120 tenge (28 US cents) to 50-60 tenge (12-14 cents) with virtually no warning. As liquified natural gas is used by most cars in the west of the country, this became a major burden for those struggling to cover the cost. Notably, the price hike partly resulted from the decision to have the price of natural gas determined by the market, instead of being subsidized by the state. While government officials tried to defer blame to gas stations for taking advantage of the system and artificially raising prices, the reality is they both share responsibility for these events. 

In response to the price hike, dozens of people in the area made a video to government officials, urging them to lower the prices. However, their appeal was met with silence; and so, they escalated. Protests were first seen in Zhanaozen, with over a thousand gathering in the city center, and later formed in Aktau and other smaller cities. After a few days of demonstrations, the government conceded to the demands for lower fuel prices and, in some regions, the prices were even lower than they had been before the strikes; Tokayev also had the government in the area step down from their posts. However, despite these capitulations, a seed of defiance had been planted and the protests continued to escalate.

The government must have had some indication that the protests were going to continue to escalate because they started making arrests before people could even take the streets. Several reports suggest that the majority of those detained by police were well-known activists in the country. Among them was Nishanali Agadilov, who stated that they were taken into custody in Shymkent after expressing their support for the protestors on social media. Another was Zhanmurat Ashtayev, who had been previously detained for participating in protests against Chinese investments. Despite the attempt to stifle the protests by holding key figures in the activist community in custody, many were still able to participate and broadcast their demands.

On 4 January, the protest reached a fever pitch when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Almaty. Many prominent activists could be found in the crowd that day representing different political and activist organizations. Despite the differences among these groups, the consensus seemed to be that there needs to be less corruption and more opportunity to participate in the democratic process. 

Among the crowd were Darhan Sharipov and Asya Tulesova, members of Oyan, Qazaqstan [Wake Up, Kazakhstan]; a civil rights movement advocating for progressive political reform. Both Sharipov and Tulesova were violently arrested, then released shortly later. Yet, this did not prevent the organization from pushing its demands to public officials on social media. The demands were sweeping and included fair and free elections of public officials and reforms of the judicial system. 

The group only employed non-violent methods during the protests and openly condemned the use of violence; this was echoed by a large portion of the protestors, who were met with flash grenades, rubber and real bullets from police. However, this was not the case for all those involved, as the endless pictures of burning cars on social media can confirm. The motivations of those rioting in Almaty have been under much scrutiny as they have not been communicated publicly, unlike groups such as Wake Up, Kazakhstan. This was compounded by the fact that the government had to shut off access to the Internet, which made communication virtually impossible during most of the protests. Yet, these groups also seem to be well organized, especially after they were able to seize buildings like the Almaty Airport. This has led to wild speculation, including from President Qasym-Zhomart Tokayev

During a television broadcast on 6 January, Tokayev claimed that the protestors are “international terrorist bands who had undergone special training abroad.” There is no evidence to support these claims, but that has not stopped the President from continuing to use this rhetoric in a tweet stating, “no talks with the terrorists, we must kill them.” While the violence has become untenable, the protestors are far from terrorists. These claims by government officials are, if anything, an attempt to justify the death of dozens of civilians.

After the government began calling in  Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) troops and giving them carte blanche to shoot at will, the protests began to lose their momentum. As the dust settled, many tried to make sense of everything that happened, especially those that could not access the internet for several days. Unfortunately, what has become abundantly clear is that government officials have no intention of conceding to the requests made during the protests. Tokayev may have removed Nazarbayev from his position on the Security Council and charged several officials with treason, but this is far from the sweeping democratic reforms demanded by many protestors. Despite this unsatisfying conclusion, the protests have shown that Kazakh citizens will not be complacent regarding matters of government corruption. As small acts of protest continue to appear, it is clear that despite promises for reform, the resentment against the government remains unresolved.

Featured image: Pavel Mikheyev, Reuters
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