Following weeks of brutal crackdowns against protesters, the Central Asian nation is slowly letting the smoke clear
On Jan. 2, thousands of citizens in at least 19 cities across Kazakhstan began mass protests against the nation’s government. Authorities stated that 225 protesters were killed and 12 thousand have been arrested, but international experts are calling those numbers suspiciously low.
The movement began when Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev lifted all price caps for gasoline nationwide. This resulted in a massive spike in prices, infuriating millions of citizens, especially those in the working-class oil-producing regions.
What followed was a strong national dissent against Tokayev and his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government’s egregious human rights violations, crackdowns on freedoms, economic inequality, and corruption.
In Almaty, the country’s largest city, government buildings have been stormed and set ablaze. Tokayev urged his armed forces to shoot and kill without warning on Jan. 7, labeling the protesters as “bandits and terrorists.”
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, issued a statement condemning the violence and calling for peace.
“We emphasize the importance of upholding democratic values, respecting human rights, and refraining from violence and destruction,” said Joly. “Canada calls for restraint and de-escalation. We urge that the situation in Kazakhstan be resolved quickly and through peaceful dialogue.”
Kazakhstan is home to some of the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, natural gas, agricultural goods, and other precious resources vital to international trade. The nation is Canada’s largest trading partner in Central Asia, but diplomacy with the country since its independence in 1991 has always been somewhat tricky, due to the immediate dictatorship that took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
After the USSR’s collapse, the republic of Kazakhstan was established, and Nursultan Nazarbayev became the head of state. An already prominent Kazakh figure during the tail-end of the Soviet regime, Nazarbayev’s rule lasted for nearly 30 years. Under his regime, the private sector was developed, corruption skyrocketed, an oligarchy formed, and mass inequality became a cornerstone of the nation.
After another movement of mass protests in 2019, Nazarbayev stepped down as president, but hand-picked his predecessor, Tokayev. The former president was still sitting as chairman of the country’s national security council until January 2022 as protests prompted him to leave his position.
A key player in the anti-government movement gripping Kazakhstan has been Vladimir Putin. The Russian government announced on Jan. 7 that it would be sending thousands of infantry and special operatives to Kazakhstan in order to place pressure on Tokayev. Russia has many important trade and security ties to the Kazakh government, including its Baikonur Cosmodrome, one of the primary sites for launching Russian spacecraft and missiles.
It was announced by the Kremlin that Russian troops would be leaving Kazakhstan relatively soon, seeing as the situation has begun calming down. After the arrival of troops, Tokayev announced that the caps on fuel prices would be reinstated for six months, giving time for the government to come up with better, less flame-fanning policies.
In a fight against social repression, economic disparity, and political brutality, thousands of Kazakh protesters remain imprisoned. Having burned and destroyed government buildings, including parts of the president’s home, the government has been clear that the punishment for the protesters will not be light.
Hundreds have passed away as a result of the fighting, but the situation slowly becomes more stable as the government reasserts its control and attempts to quell the desperate cries for change.
Graphics by James Fay