What Kazakh Unrest Means for Russia

Revolts in the Asian country of Kazakhstan began the week of Jan. 3 as gas prices swelled.

     The country, which gained independence in 1991, exports a large amount of oil every year to neighboring countries and Western Europe.

     Despite this, it is still considered a poor country—the average Kazakh person makes less than $2,000 a year.

     The protests began in Zhanaozen, a town near the west border.

     Zhanaozen served as the namesake for the Zhanaozen massacre, a protest in 2011 that killed at least 14 people.

     Similar to the 2011 protests, the most recent ones began when the government lifted its price cap on liquefied petroleum gas.

     This type of gas (LPG) grew popular in Kazakhstan after Kazakhs began converting their cars to LPG-grade to save money.

     Russian president Vladimir Putin sent 2,500 Russian troops to the former lands of the Soviet Union amid the protests.

     This is the fourth time in just two years that Russia has encroached on countries that were once Soviet, with Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine also experiencing military activity.

     Most recently, Russia stationed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, pressing Kiev to consider leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

     Kazakh authorities say that alongside dozens of protesters killed in the unrest, 18 officers have been killed.

     This could mean bad things for Russia, who values the relationship with the previously Soviet country.

     Upon Kazakhstan’s bolt from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country held huge deposits of oil, as well as having the world’s fourth-biggest stock of nuclear weapons.

     For Russia, whose efforts to contain the people of Ukraine backfired into widespread anti-Russian sentiment, their military activity could cause more harm than good.

     However, the revolts could also serve as opportunity for Russia to secure influence over Kazakh behavior.

     Kazakhstan has been careful to stay neutral, leaning neither towards the United States or Russia.

     But in a message to their leader last September, President Joe Biden told Kazakhstan that “the United States is proud to call your country a friend.”

     Despite these previous connections to the United States, some Kazakhs think that the Kazakh government’s appeal to Moscow for help during the protests could be a big win for Russia over the West.

     Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former Kazakh oil tycoon, told The New York Times that the result of the appeal could be Russian control over Kazakhstan.

     By “putting the international community to sleep” with promises of big contracts, Ablyazov says the result is Kazakhstan “now under the boot of Putin, who takes advantage of this to extend his power.”

     By news standards, Kazakhstan has truly stayed under the world’s radar until now; since 2011, it has stayed fairly stable in terms of violence and protests.

     Surrounding countries such as Afghanistan and Syria were the world’s main focus in previous months.

     The violence in the country has eased since the recent protests.

     Kazakh authorities say order has been largely restored in the nation of 19 million and that almost 10,000 people have been detained over the unrest, with a hunt for others ongoing.

     Putin has claimed victory in quelling the unrest, defending Kazakhstan from what he called a “foreign-backed terrorist uprising.”

     While the unrest is no longer violent, Kazakhs say they still feel an air of uncertainty.

     Botagoz Issayeva, a Kazakh civil rights activist living in Sweden, agrees.

     “Right now, in the country there is a quiet terror. Everyone is frightened,” she told Reuters’s Tamara Vaal. “We don’t even know where [the arrested] have been taken and what state they’re in.”

     The Organization of Turkic States and Hungary condemned “violence and vandalism” in Kazakhstan, voicing support for Kazakh government operations against “terrorist, radicals, extremists and criminals.” Russia remains in Ukraine as the world shifts its focus to the growing tension regarding NATO.

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