Civil unrest in Kazakhstan, touched off by demonstrations against a surge in the price of a fuel, is escalating into a national uprising that threatens the government’s hold on power and the stability of the Central Asian power. It is not fair to say that the high gas prices alone are responsible for the outbreak of civil unrest and violence. The price increase acted as a spark or catalyst for a long list of grievances that have accrued since 1991, mostly of the political type.
From Sunday through earlier today, the demonstrations increased in size and scope, eventually transforming into riots. Clashes between police and demonstrators became more frequent and violent. Now four days later, the situation can safely be labeled an uprising by anti-government protesters. Government buildings, TV studios and even the largest city Almaty’s international airport having been stormed by hundreds or thousands of protesters. Announcements that the entire Kazakh government was being fired and new parliamentary elections to be held in the spring did little to mollify the mood of the protesters. The government has also clamped down on the internet, closing access to many websites and social media platforms.
Moscow is watching the situation in Kazakhstan closely, and likely with growing concern. The Kazakh government is authoritarian and a close ally of Russia. The fact that the regime in Nur-Sultan is trying to appease the opposition cannot be sitting well with Vladimir Putin. After Euro Maidan in 2014 and the Belarussian pro-democracy rallies in 2020, seeing similar events now playing out in Central Asia will set off alarm bells in the Kremlin. The timing of the Kazakh uprising couldn’t be much worse either. With next week bringing meetings between Russian and Western delegations over security concerns, Putin will be very limited with what types and amount of assistance he can provide to his allies in the Kazakh government. He’s quite aware that the world is watching him carefully right now and he needs to remain on his best behavior.