What’s happening in Kazakhstan?

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Kazakhstan may be unfamiliar to many Americans, but it is the ninth-largest country in the world, a key producer of oil, and strategically positioned bordering Russia and China, which sets up any unrest to be an international conflict.

What caused the protests?

A sharp rise in gas prices that saw costs double triggered the once peaceful protests, however, it is clear there was more under the surface. Diana Kudaibergenova, lecturer in political sociology at the University of Cambridge who specializes in Kazakhstan studies, explained,

“These are NOT just ‘gas protests.’ Seeing it like that simplifies it and steals the voice of the protestors who are also demanding significant political reforms like electing local governors and moving to a parliamentary republic.”

According to the Central Asia Protest Tracker, this is no isolated incident. Out of 981 recorded incidents in the region from January 2018 to August 2020, 520 took place in Kazakhstan.

Nursultan Nazarbayev was the nation’s president for its entire history after gaining its independence from the Soviet Union, yet when he stepped down in 2019, he became the head of the nation’s security council whose decisions, “are mandatory and are subject to strict execution by state bodies, organizations and officials.” His successor President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev even renamed the nation’s capital after Nazarbayev.

What made this an international incident?

While the protests were originally peaceful, they escalated into violence when, as Tokayev claims, terrorist bands infiltrated the protests. He authorized lethal force saying, “Those who don’t surrender will be eliminated.” Nearly 10,000 people were arrested and at least 164 were killed.

Tokayev requested that fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) nation Russia send military assistance to help quell the rioting, raising concerns from Western leaders. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave,” likely referring to the 2016 presidential election.

Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington cautioned, “CSTO contingents won’t solve any of the domestic issues [or] alleviate economic and political grievances. They will deepen authoritarianism in Kazakhstan and may cause an even larger escalation of protests.”

Are the Russians staying in the area?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured that Russian troops would only stay as long as they were asked. “This is entirely the prerogative of that country, which turned to the CSTO with this request,” he said.

Tokayev claims that mission is now complete and Russian troops are set to leave in 2 days. Around 2,000 Russian troops were used to guard facilities such as the airport in the city of Almaty which was overrun with protestors.