Protests in Kazakhstan: another hotbed of instability may appear near the borders of Russi

MOSCOW, 07 Jan 2022, RUSSTRAT Institute.

 

The protests that broke out on the evening of January 4, 2022 in many settlements of Kazakhstan became another sign that this state, allied to Russia, could at any moment become the target of technologies to overthrow the government, the same ones that repeatedly took place in Ukraine, and also became the main event of 2020 in Belarus.

Traditionally, the purely socio-economic cause of discontent was quickly directed into a political channel, and the course of the fleeting protests quickly exposed the “weaknesses” of the state machine: certain policemen in Aktobe refused to detain protesters, in Alma-Ata departmental special police transport joined the column of dissatisfied citizens going to conflict with the National Guard.

The trigger of the riots was an increase in the prices of liquefied gas for cars – since January 1, its cost has increased to 120 tenge per litre, slightly more than 20 rubles. However, absolute figures are of secondary importance here – the price of gas has exactly doubled, which could not but cause discontent among the population.

On January 2, residents of the cities of Zhanaozen and Aktau in the western Mangystau region took to the streets en masse with an appeal to reduce fuel prices. Representatives of local authorities came out to them, and held extremely unsuccessful negotiations, emphasising the economic validity of the new tariffs and the lack of plans to change them (now the authorities have initiated criminal cases against companies that raised gas prices, but it is clear that they could only do this with the go-ahead of the authorities themselves). After that, the protests, with varying degrees of success, quickly spread throughout Kazakhstan.

On the night of January 5, the riots reached a qualitatively new level. According to the official data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, attempts were made to attack akimats (regional administrations) in Alma-Ata, Shymkent and Taraz, where windows and doors were broken and other material damage was caused. In Aktobe, the seizure of the akimat was crowned with success, and although the offenders were quickly pushed back by the National Guard forces, there is every reason to believe that attempts to seize administrations will continue.

The protesters blocked roads and traffic, and also attacked law enforcement officers. There were cases of “the use of stones, sticks, tear gas, pepper sprays and molotov cocktails by the crowd.”

By the morning of January 5, 95 employees of the internal affairs bodies were injured as a result of the clashes, 37 official vehicles were damaged or destroyed, more than 200 people were detained for violations of public order. By noon, local police authorities had already reported 137 injured police officers, and there were isolated cases of weapons being taken away from security forces.

President of the Republic Kassym-Jomart Tokayev carried out a number of operational night reforms – the government of Kazakhstan in full was dismissed, First Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov was appointed to temporarily act as head of government. The price of gas was reduced – and even below the starting level. According to the press service of the Government of Kazakhstan, fuel in one of the protest areas of the Mangystau region will fall in price to 50 tenge (about 9 rubles per litre) as part of the social responsibility of JSC NC “KazMunayGas”.

Other reforms were announced, but it was lost time, and the protests did not disappear. Despite the serious economic concessions of the authorities, the protesters are increasingly expressing political demands, and a predictable crisis has arisen in the government of Kazakhstan.

Catching up reforms

President Tokayev placed special responsibility for the outbreak of civil unrest on the Ministry of Energy and Tulepov, the head of the gas processing plant located in Zhanaozen, who was detained for “unjustified increase” in the cost of liquefied gas.

At the state level, an investigation was initiated for price collusion in the sale of liquefied gas, from January 5 to January 19, a state of emergency and curfew were imposed in the Mangystau region and Alma-Ata with a ban on entry and exit, as well as the sale of weapons and ammunition, ethyl alcohol and alcohol were prohibited.

In addition to restrictive measures, the updated government announced measures of social and economic support. Acting Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov, after the morning meeting, instructed to speed up the state examination of the feasibility study for the construction of a liquefied gas plant in the Mangystau region and postpone the introduction of electronic trading in liquefied gas for a year, as well as introduce state regulation of prices for automotive fuel, including gas, for six months.

In addition to the issues of fuel availability, the government was instructed to introduce state regulation for socially significant food products, work out the issue of subsidies for housing rental by vulnerable categories of citizens, ensure the creation of a public fund “To the People of Kazakhstan”, and urgently develop a bill “On the bankruptcy of individuals”.

In addition to all the above, the government of Kazakhstan was obliged to update the plans for the integrated development of the “protesting” Mangystau region, as well as the Atyrau, West Kazakhstan and Aktobe ones.

These measures look decisive, but may be belated. The foundations of the current confrontation were laid back in 2019, when Kazakhstan began a gradual transition to market trade in energy resources, and it became possible to predict the crisis with a high probability in the autumn of 2021.

The full transition to market pricing in the fuel sector occurred at the beginning of 2022 – just against the background of maximum world gas prices. The fact that such an event would not go unnoticed was easy enough to read: according to the official statistics of Kazakhstan, from 2019 to 2021, the number of vehicles on liquefied gas in the republic increased by more than 2.5 times, respectively, the consumption of LNG increased – which was not compensated for by an increase in the volume of its generation at all.

One of the arguments that officials used in conversations with protesters to explain the impossibility of “doing as it was” is the permanent underfunding of their own gas production, which is why the equipment of the largest enterprises, for example, the Kazakh Gas Processing Plant, in some cases is worn out by more than 90%.

It is obvious that it is impossible to multiply LNG generation in a short time to keep the market price low. The only thing left for the Government of Kazakhstan is to subsidise prices – which it intends to do. The problem is that the protest has already gone beyond economic requirements, and protesters in various places are increasingly using the slogan “Shal, ket!” (“Old man, go away!”).

The slogan is addressed to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who, although he ended his 29-year presidential rule in 2019, remains the head of the country’s Security Council and largely determines Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy. The current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has become the de facto successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, which makes him one of the most obvious targets of protest in the very near future, if he has not started his own game against the Nazarbayev clan.

Gas Maidan?

The problem in Russia’s “underbelly” arose surprisingly at the right time – just on the eve of the most important negotiations between Moscow and Washington on strategic stability. As experts of the RUSSTRAT Institute noted yesterday:  

“Just in the afternoon, three options could be considered as equal ranking: a) local popular protests over gas; b) the war of one of the clan(s) against Tokayev (Nazarbayev); c) an attempt by the British to drive a wedge into the Russian-American negotiations, on the eve of the negotiations on the line of the Russian Federation-USA and Russia-NATO, to strike surreptitiously and create another hotspot in the EAEU in addition to Armenia and Belarus.

By the evening, the development of the situation shows that, most likely, only option B remains, since option A has already been overcome by the development of events, the protesters will not stop at the overthrowing of Tokayev (option B), and Nazarbayev will be the next. The nature of the protesters’ actions shows that the Belarusian scenario of August 2020 is largely repeated.

Accordingly, we have one remaining option – attempts to carry out a colour revolution in Kazakhstan, divert the attention of the Russian leadership from really fateful issues on the eve of the negotiations on the line of the Russian Federation-USA and the Russian Federation-NATO, and also seriously lower Moscow’s negotiating positions on the eve of the meetings.”

The events in Kazakhstan have all the signs of an artificially supported process, which observers of the events in the post-Soviet space are quite familiar with.

The protesters are moving from uncontrolled vandalism and aggression to thoughtful and organised actions, for example, they begin to destroy traffic control cameras and other means of video recording the situation. In addition to making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to understand the real situation, the destruction of cameras allows the instigators of clashes to avoid responsibility. Purposeful work is underway to take away weapons from the security forces, and Ukrainian, Western and opposition Belarusian media, including the notorious NEXTA, have already managed to be seen in the information war.

The fact that the protesters are definitely not guided by the good of the people is clearly evidenced by the massive and targeted campaign of attacks on medical institutions and ambulances.

There may be at least three foreign policy interested in the unrest parties on the territory of Kazakhstan – in addition to the United States and Turkey, which is increasingly announcing its special claims to the territory of the “Turkic World”, Britain has intensified actions in Central Asia. Britain, in addition, is one of the three largest investor countries in Kazakhstan, which is rich in minerals and lies in the centre of the continent. All of the above-mentioned foreign powers have extensive experience working with nationalist-oriented opposition to the President and government of Kazakhstan.

The only side of world processes that can most likely be excluded from the list of potential instigators of the Kazakh events is China. In the face of the American geopolitical threat, an alliance with Moscow clearly has a higher priority for Beijing than dominance in Kazakhstan.

Based on the specifics of the protests in Central Asia, a denouement should be expected in the coming days. Kazakhstan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, have a rich experience of civil unrest, including attempts to seize power and overthrow the current government.

As a rule, clashes in this region are much fiercer than in other regions, and the speed of all social processes is many times faster than any analogues. The confrontation between the authorities and the protesters, which lasted for several weeks, as it was in Belarus, can hardly take place in Kazakhstan.

In terms of the vector of protest activity, the events taking place have nothing new for Kazakhstan. Similar political slogans against the “Nazarbayev clan” were heard in 2019 – after the murder of a young man in a mass brawl in a Karaganda restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and in 2020 – after coronavirus restrictions.

The main reasons for concern remain the scale of the protests – so far, the unrest in Kazakhstan has not led to successful seizures of administrative buildings and shootings. In addition, there are concerns about the obvious attempts of the government of Kazakhstan to “catch up” with the situation that has already got out of control, neglecting measures to prevent problems. Already back in 2019, the residents of Zhanaozen, who became the detonator of the “gas” protest, demanded jobs from local authorities, including by updating the production capacities of enterprises, strategic for society and opening new ones.

Conclusions.

The protests in Kazakhstan have all the signs of an externally supported process, generally coinciding with similar events in Ukraine and Belarus.

The ground for mass riots was created by insufficiently effective actions of the authorities at the local level and curators in the state government, who ignored fairly obvious risks.

Despite significant economic bonuses, the protesters have moved to political demands and outright aggression, which pushes attempts to stabilise the situation through financial injections into the background.

Based on the specifics of regional social processes, the outcome of the crisis should be expected in the very near future.

The factor of unrest in Kazakhstan will certainly be used by a wide range of interested states at different levels – from creating an unfavourable negotiating position for Russia, as well as to promote their own interests in the Russian zone of influence.

The probability of mass protests in Kazakhstan, as in any other country, could be significantly reduced if constant and competent analytical work is carried out to assess the social consequences of economic decisions.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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