How Kazakhstan protests over $0.11 per liter fuel devolved into an internet blackout and demonstrator deaths

January 6, 2022, 11:07 AM UTC

On Wednesday, the Kazakhstan government declared a nationwide state of emergency and cut internet access across the country after days of popular protests left thousands injured and dozens killed by local security forces. The same day, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev denounced the protesters as “terrorists” and asked the country’s allies to send military assistance. Russian troops arrived on the ground on Thursday.

The Kazakhstan protests began in the country’s oil-rich western city of Zhanaozen on Sunday, the day after the government lifted a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is a common automobile fuel among the country’s poorer citizens.

The government first broached removing the price cap years ago, saying that the price ceiling was financially unsustainable and impeded innovation in the fuel space. The low price cap—which kept LPG prices at around $0.11 per liter—was finally lifted on Jan. 1.

The consumer cost of LPG doubled almost instantly, sparking protests that quickly spread to other major cities, including Almaty and the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan—named after former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019 and remains a powerful figure.

By Tuesday—as tens of thousands of marchers clashed with police, who fired tear gas and stun grenades into crowds—it was obvious that protesters had complaints besides spiking fuel prices.

In the city of Aktau, marching crowds chanted, “Old man out!”—a call for the removal of Nazarbayev from his government position as chairman of the country’s security council, which governs national security. In Taldykorgan, a city close to Almaty, protesters tore a statue of Nazarbayev to the ground, while in Almaty itself, demonstrators seized and then torched the mayor’s office and the president’s official residence.

On Wednesday morning, the government declared a state of emergency in three of the cities hardest hit by protests and continued a blackout on internet coverage. But at the same time, the government acquiesced to some of the protesters’ demands. Officials reinstated the cap on LPG prices as a temporary measure, and then President Tokayev disbanded the sitting government and stepped in to replace Nazarbayev as leader of the security council.

But the protests have continued, and Tokayev has responded with more heavy-handed measures. On Wednesday the president said he “intend[s] to act as tough as possible [to] overcome this black period in the history of Kazakhstan.” Tokayev extended the state of emergency nationwide, enacting an 11 p.m. curfew and a ban on mass gatherings.

On Wednesday, Tokayev requested the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a bloc of former Soviet countries including Kazakhstan—to help quell the unrest. At the CSTO meeting, Tokayev assured his allies he would “protect vital interests” and that the bloc “will win together.”

The bloc agreed to dispatch troops to Kazakhstan, marking the first time in 30 years that the CSTO has deployed collective forces to one of its member states. The Russia-led bloc has previously declined requests for assistance from other member states, but a popular protest movement in Kazakhstan, which shares Russia’s longest land border, would be a potential threat to Russia President Vladimir Putin.

Putin is currently amassing troops at Russia’s western border with Ukraine to deter the country’s possible entry into NATO. If Kazakhstan deposes its authoritarian leadership, Putin would potentially have one fewer ally in the area. Kazakhstan officials have blamed unspecified foreign forces for the unrest in their country, and on Wednesday White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed what she said were Russian claims that the U.S. had instigated the protests.

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