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What’s Happening in Kazakhstan? How the Protests Started and Why They’re Escalating

Details on the crisis that threatens to destabilize the oil-rich former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
Ann M. Simmons
Close Ann M. Simmons
  • Biography
Updated Jan. 6, 2022 7:58 am ET

Following mass protests in Kazakhstan over an increase in fuel prices that prompted the country’s authoritarian government to resign, a Russian-led military alliance said it would dispatch troops to support the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The announcement by the Collective Security Treaty Organization—a Russian-led intergovernmental military alliance that also comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—came after Mr. Tokayev said he had sought its assistance to help overcome what he described as terrorist threat. He has also declared a two-week state-of-emergency in western Mangistau region and in Almaty, the Central Asian nation’s largest city.

The CSTO will send peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan for a limited period “to stabilize and normalize the situation,” the current chairman, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, said.

Protests first triggered by rising fuel prices in Kazakhstan have turned violent, prompting a Russian-led military coalition to send troops to the oil-rich country. Video shows government buildings and streets in several cities being stormed by demonstrators. Photo: Mariya Gordeyeva/Reuters
What is happening in Kazakhstan?

Since Jan. 2, protesters in the country—which borders Russia and China and is the largest country in Central Asia—have taken to the streets and have clashed with security forces. Footage on social media showed cars set ablaze and police deploying tear gas as crowds swarmed the city center and tried to storm some government buildings. Reports by local Kazakh media and on the Telegram messenger platform reported gunfire and the sound of stun grenades. There were local media reports of gunfire at the presidential residence and mayor’s office in Almaty.

On Wednesday, the government shut down access or disrupted connections to many websites and social-media platforms. The news agency, which bills itself as a new independent media in Kazakhstan, reported on Telegram that the airport of Almaty was shut down after being seized by protesters. Mr. Tokayev said Wednesday that the unrest, which at times had turned violent, left several people dead and injured in Almaty, including law-enforcement personnel.

Demonstrators at a rally about fuel prices in Almaty on Wednesday. Photo: Yerlan Dzhumayev/TASS/Zuma Press
What led to the protests?

The protests were triggered by the government’s decision to increase the price of fuel, specifically liquefied petroleum gas, which had been price-capped. The price increase—which came into force on Jan. 1 and led to the cost of car fuel doubling—threatens to have a significant impact on workers. Kazakhstan is an oil-rich nation and the minimum wage is less than the equivalent of around $100 a month. Mr. Tokayev has since said authorities would reduce the price.

What are protesters demanding?

Although the unrest started over the increase in fuel prices, protesters are also unhappy with Kazakhstan’s political system and socioeconomic issues. Human-rights activists accuse the government of oppression, including jailing critics, to maintain control. The authorities reject the allegations.

Mr. Tokayev has promised to listen to grievances by establishing a public forum to discuss a range of issues. But some political analysts said that while the government has had some ideas about how to transform the country, it hasn’t always fully implemented those plans and years of tough authoritarian rule have created deep mistrust and pent-up demand for change.

Security forces in Kazakhstan where dissent isn’t widely welcomed or easily tolerated. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Zuma Press
Why did the government resign and what comes next?

The Kazakhstan government resigned under pressure from the escalating demonstrations. Mr. Tokayev accepted the resignation of his cabinet and installed an interim prime minister, Alikhan Smailov, an ally who used to serve as first deputy prime minister.

Mr. Tokayev has promised political transformation and on Wednesday told the Khabar 24 state television station that he would soon reveal new proposals regarding this reform.

The Kazakh president accused the protesters of being financially motivated coup plotters and he vowed not to flee the country, “no matter what.”

Protesters gathered in Almaty on Wednesday. Photo: abduaziz madyarov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Has there been a history of upheaval in Kazakhstan?

Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan, which is an authoritarian state where dissent isn’t widely welcomed or easily tolerated.

Notable mass demonstrations erupted just before Mr. Tokayev took office in June 2019. He was handpicked to succeed longtime president and autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Local critics called Mr. Tokayev’s election undemocratic because other candidates weren’t given a fair chance to lead their country. Many Kazakhs have long felt sidelined from the political decision-making process.

Russian troops board a plane to Kazahkstan on Thursday. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
What does this mean for Russia?

Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and they share a trade union and other strategic partnerships. Mr. Tokayev and his predecessor Mr. Nazarbayev, who has continued to wield political influence behind the scenes, both have the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin warned against allowing outside interference in the unrest faced by its partner, insisting that Kazakhstan could independently solve its internal problems. Russia’s foreign ministry said that Moscow supported “a peaceful solution to all problems within the framework of the constitutional and legal field and dialogue, and not through street riots and violation of laws.”

Write to Ann M. Simmons at

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