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Unprecedented Protests Rock Kazakhstan as Government Clings to Familiar Script

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Unprecedented Protests Rock Kazakhstan as Government Clings to Familiar Script

In a January 5 televised address, Kazakhstan’s president followed a familiar script: blame the unrest on a conspiracy.

Unprecedented Protests Rock Kazakhstan as Government Clings to Familiar Script

Smoke rises from the city hall building during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Yan Blagov

On January 5, three days after protests began in western Kazakhstan and quickly spread, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted the resignation of the government. A cabinet shuffle is a common response to political turbulence in Kazakhstan, and it was not enough: Protesters in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, later stormed the city administration building; fires burned from the windows. The presidential resistance in Almaty was also reported to be on fire. Disruption to mobile internet services evolved into a complete internet shutdown.

In a televised address on the evening of January 5, Tokayev said he would “uphold the security and tranquility of our citizens and defend the integrity of Kazakhstan.” In the same short address, he announced that he would be taking over the National Security Council, a body that has been headed by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev since his 2019 resignation from the presidency.

Protesters had taken up the chant of “shal ket!” (“old man go!”), a reference to Nazarbayev, as the unrest spiraled outward from the initial trigger.

The current unraveling in Kazakhstan has deep roots, though the proximate trigger was a hike in gas prices on January 2. Protests first began in the town of Zhanaozen, the site of an oil worker strike in 2011 that erupted into violence. Protests spread in other oil towns — Aktau, Aktobe, and Atyrau — and then in larger centers of population and activism, like the capital, Nur-Sultan, and Almaty.

Tokayev’s January 5 address followed a familiar script: blaming the unrest on a conspiracy.

“The measures I have taken are aimed at the well-being of a multi-ethnic Kazakhstan,” Tokayev said. “But these measures have not been sufficient. Our attention is drawn to the high level of organization shown by a hooligan element. This is evidence of an elaborate action plan perpetrated by financially motivated conspirators.” 

To be clear: From the available reporting —  by RFE/RL, Eurasianet, and a great number of Kazakh and Kazakhstan-focused journalists, academics, and analysts on Twitter — there isn’t evidence of a conspiracy, but plenty of accumulated frustration among Kazakh citizens whose leaders buy mansions in Geneva while the wages of average people stagnate. 

The present unrest in Kazakhstan is unprecedented but it is not shocking. The land-code protests in 2016 and the protests after Nazarbayev’s resignation and the managed transfer of power to Tokayev in 2019 were arguably precursors to the 2022 protests. The state responses to those earlier protests included blaming provocateurs, cabinet shuffles, and the formation of Potemkin committees or new ministries to consider the issues, followed by the arrests of activists and the smothering of nascent attempts to form serious political opposition or protest.

Those responses represent missed off-ramps.

Among Tokayev’s remarks were a pledge to stay: “Whatever happens, I will remain in the capital.” No word from Nazarbayev yet about his plans. Images from the city of Taldykorgan outside Almaty showed protesters pulling down a statue of Nazarbayev on January 5.