February 10, 2022No Comments

Fuel Price Spike in Kazakhstan: Straw that broke the camel’s back?

By: Elena Bascone, Michele Mignogna, Miguel Jiménez and Sofia Dal Santo.

Holiday seasons often trigger unexpected crises, as the last two years proved: after the 2020 pandemic, a new global threat is on the rise - a global energy crisis. This new emergency is so severe that even Kazakhstan, the biggest central Asian country and one of the major producers of fossil fuels, was unable to escape it. At the beginning of January, the price per liter for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) more than doubled, increasing from 50 to 120 Tenges (about $0.27), and violent protests exploded in the country. LPG is mainly used for vehicles, but even for cooking and warming up during the severe Kazakh winter, making it a primary necessity. Energetic scarcity then fostered the explosion of violent protests all over Kazakhstan. Resulting in the death of 225 people, these demonstrations are unprecedented. The outbreak took place in Zhanaozen, in the southwest of the country, known as the capital of oil and gas, and spread all over the country in a few days. Peaceful demonstrations soon escalated into violent aggressions such as dangerous attacks on government buildings and clashes against police officers. However, rising energy prices are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Roots of the Protests

The country can attract millions of dollars of foreign investment due to its apparent political stability. Nevertheless, this political stability has been characterized by an authoritarian government led for three decades by Nazarbayev, eventually substituted by the current Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, by most regarded as his hand-picked successor. The relationship between them is confirmed by the fact that the latter appointed the former president as Head of the Security Council, and declared him Yelbasy, i.e., “the Father of the Nation.” This lack of democracy, combined with the over-rising income inequality due to a drop of GNI and further worsened by the pandemic, explains the protests’ origins. As of now, a quarter of the central Asian republic’s population is considered chronically poor.

This is ironic since, as a significant oil and gas producer, Kazakhstan produces much more LPG than its less than 19 million inhabitants can consume. However, existing domestic energy companies prefer to export it rather than sell it to the domestic market. Accordingly, the country’s authorities have tried to increase the supply of LPG through purchases from Russian companies, which sell it at prices 3-8 times higher than the domestic ones. Moreover, these gas supply contracts with the Russian companies are undisclosed and untransparent, thus encouraging corruption and the enrichment of the Kazakh and Russian elites.

The Government Response

All in all, given the growing anti-Nazarbayev sentiment, it is understandable why the song “Old man, go away!” soon spread among the protestors. Even the bold concessions given by Mr. Tokayev, such as the removal of his predecessor from his place as Head of the Security Council and the acceptance of the government’s resignation, substituting it with an ad-interim administration, has not proved to be sufficient to calm down the protestors. Moreover, the absence of pluralism and the intolerance of opposition in the political life of Kazakhstan prevents protestors from finding representation on an institutional level. This lack of opposition allows Mr. Tokayev to blame, although without evidence, “foreign-trained terrorist gangs” for the protests to justify a punitive response; notwithstanding, while the use of force may crush protests, it can only amplify the underlying anger.

Punitive responses immediately occurred: from the shutdown of the internet to the president’s public declaration addressing the special forces to “fire without warning”, as reported by BBC news. This declaration triggered the critics of the international community, from the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Polish lawyer Zbigniew Rau. Overwhelmed by demonstrators, President Tokayev, following the soviet style of dealing with civil unrest, made a formal request for assistance to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance headquartered in Moscow. 

The peacekeeping mission was speedily approved. Alongside Russia, even Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan sent contingents to Kazakhstan for a total of almost 3000 soldiers. The mission has been defined by Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Kremlin-linked think tank, as “less an armed intervention than a police operation.” As it is common knowledge, it is always risky to welcome home foreign troops, especially considering the assertive policy perpetrated by Russia on the European side. Nevertheless, the paratroopers made their way back as soon as the order was re-established. Still, it is essential to highlight the significance of this intervention for the future of international relations in Asia, considering the growing influence of China and its resulting possible conflict of interest with Russia.


The intervention of the CSTO led to a stabilization of the protests, at least for the moment. Moreover, according to The Guardian, Mr. Tokayev said that the ad interim government would re-introduce a price cap of 50 tenges per liter on LPG in Mangistau province, considering that it is a socially necessary consumer good. In addition, it is essential to bear in mind that it is likely that this crisis will have consequences in the context of future relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. The intervention of Russia might undermine the hard-won independence of the central Asian republic. However, we will have to wait to see the long-term effects of these events on the power dynamics of Central Asia. One thing remains certain: this region is crucial now more than ever. Indeed, as Alexander Cooley indicated, this region, which used to be disputed between Russia and the UK, is now at the center of a new great game - a power contest that sees the US, Russia, and China involved.

January 18, 2022No Comments

Kazakhstan: Putin’s New Geopolitical Victory?

By: Carlotta Rinaudo

Image Source: Flickr

A few months after Russia’s occupation of Crimea in early 2014, President Vladimir Putin sent another shockwave through another former Soviet state. Kazakhstan, according to a comment made by President Putin, was an artificial nation that “never had any statehood” - a vast land that historically belonged to the Russian empire. These remarks alarmingly recalled a similar statement made by Putin in 2008 when he claimed that Ukraine was “not even a state.” The questioning of Kazakhstan’s legitimacy promptly triggered an angry reaction in the arid steppes of Central Asia, where the Kazakh population called for the need to “send a history textbook to Putin”. 

Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has actively sought to protect its hard-won autonomy from the looming threat of Russia’s expansionism. Yet, the prompt arrival of over 2000 Russia-led troops on Kazakhstan’s soil in early January 2022 may well pose a threat to such autonomy. As Russian military forces helped President Tokayev restore order, amidst domestic turmoil, Moscow gained a new opportunity to exert influence in its own backyard. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s political fate could now be tightly and irreversibly intertwined with the aspirations of President Putin. 

Kazakhstan’s desire to preserve its autonomy from Moscow is no secret. Over the past three decades, the oil-rich country has embraced a so-called “multivector” foreign policy, weaving a web of positive political and economic relationships, not only with Russia, but also with the other Great Powers engaged in the region – mainly, China and the United States (US). In the early 2000s, Kazakhstan quickly capitalized on China’s thirst for energy resources, and the first Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline was inaugurated in 2005 to transport oil from the Caspian Sea to the Xinjiang region. It was also in Kazakhstan in 2013, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced his ambitious megaproject, widely known as the Belt and Road Initiative. The country also attracted billions of dollars of investment from a wide array of American energy companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron. Maintaining positive economic and political relationships with both China and the US has played an essential role in counterbalancing Russian influence and preserving Kazakhstan’s autonomy over time. 

To strengthen its national identity and further distance itself from Moscow, Kazakhstan sought to depict Russian and Kazakh civilizations as two separate cultural universes. In 2014, the government opened a new National Museum that emphasizes Kazakhstan’s century-long history as the cradle of the great steppe civilization, and in 2017 it shifted the national alphabet from Cyrillic to the Latin script. 

Despite these significant efforts, the unprecedented levels of violence raging across Kazakhstan largely proved that a hardly-won autonomy can be easily dismantled by structural corruption and internal power struggles between the kleptocratic élite. Kazakhstan sits atop massive reserves of oil, minerals, natural gas and uranium, yet these resources have always served the interests of the very few, rather than the needs of the Kazakh wider population. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many businessmen effectively took ownership over the country’s energy resources, accumulating massive wealth. Today, only 162 individuals account for 55% of Kazakhstan’s total wealth - with many of them living in lavish apartments in London - while some Kazakh citizens sole earnings are one hundred US dollars per month. It is in this context of stark income inequality that an increase in fuel prices triggered a series of anti-government peaceful demonstrations on January 1st. From January 4th to January 7th, these peaceful protests in several large cities were allegedly hijacked by violent criminal gangs. Human-rights activist Galym Ageleulov recalls that “an unruly mob of thugs” started to storm public buildings - a group of criminals that “did not look like students, bookish dissidents and middle-class malcontents who usually turn out for protests.” After January 4th, Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty was transformed into “something from an apocalypse film,” with violence raging across the streets, burned buildings, incinerated cars, food shortages, massive internet outages and ultimately, the President ordering security forces to “fire without warning.” 

Image Source: Flickr

According to Russian expert Danil Kislov, this chaos was not the result of popular discontent, but the product of a “desperate struggle for power” between two political clans – those loyal to President Tokayev on one side, and those loyal to his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on the other. As the former dismissed the latter from his position as head of Kazakhstan’s security council, members of Nazarbayev’s political clan may have exploited the anti-government demonstrations in an attempt to remove Tokayev from power and restore Nazarbayev as President. Other reports reveal that between January 4 and January 6, the paramilitary groups encountered no resistance from security forces. Police seemed unable or unwilling to stop the ongoing violence, leading to President Tokayev requesting the support of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Clearly, the intervention of Russia came as a double-edged sword. Although it helped President Tokayev restore order and secure his grip on power, it also compromised Kazakhstan’s hard-won autonomy. Although the Russian military forces began withdrawing from Kazakhstan on January 13, it is clear that President Putin secured an important geopolitical victory in Russia’s near abroad, linking Kazakhstan’s political fate to Russian interests. As political expert Dimash Alzhanov said, the intervention of these troops “has its own price and will not be forgotten.” Their counterparts, Kazakhstan’s political élites, may have learned a valuable lesson. Three decades of foreign investments and multivector foreign policy won’t protect Kazakhstan from Russia’s long tentacles – not so long as the country is weakened by structural corruption and internal Cold War-style power struggles between kleptocratic élites.