Kazakhstan: Why are there riots and why are Russian troops there?

Security forces in Kazakhstan say they have killed dozens of protesters in the main city, Almaty, to quell massive riots.

Troops from countries including Russia have been sent to help stabilise the country.

Where is Kazakhstan and what kind of country is it?

Kazakhstan is a huge country, the size of Western Europe, situated in Central Asia and bordering Russia and China.

Made up mostly of mountains and arid steppe land, it has a population of only 19 million people.

It gained independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Map of Kazakhstan and neighbours

The country has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. It produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day and has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment.

However, the wealth has not trickled down to the population, who have an average income of less than £2,500 a year.

For 29 years, Kazakhstan was ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – a former Communist Party politburo member with strong links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Statues of Mr Nazarbayev were erected and he built a new capital, Astana, which was later renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.

He stood down in 2019, making way for current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Public protests in Kazakhstan are illegal without a government permit, and previous strikes and demonstrations have been dealt with very harshly.

What has happened in Kazakhstan?

Demonstrations started on 2 January in the town of Zhanaozen, an oil hub and the site of deadly clashes between protesters and police just over 10 years ago.

Protests then spread across the rest of the country.

The security forces say they killed rioters in Almaty while trying to restore order. Police say protesters tried to take control of police stations in the city.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said “20,000 bandits” had attacked Almaty and that he had told security forces to “fire without warning”.

Nationwide, about 1,000 people have reportedly been injured, with 400 being treated in hospital.

More than 3,000 people have been arrested, according to the interior ministry. Curfews have been declared and mass gatherings banned.

Why did the riots start?

The protests began when the government lifted its price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

Many Kazakhs converted their cars to use LPG because it was cheaper than other fuel.

However, the government said the price cap was leading to LPG shortages and it could no longer afford to boost supplies. Its decision to remove the cap virtually doubled the price.

Statue of Nursultan NazarbayevIMAGE SOURCE,TASS VIA GETTY
Image caption,

A statue of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev

The rioters also appear to have other grievances. Some chanted the name of Mr Nazarbayev and tried to tear down a bronze statue of him.

After stepping down as president, Mr Nazarbayev continued to hold a strong position in government as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. He also appeared to be grooming his daughter Dariga as a future leader, according to observers.

To placate the protesters, Mr Nazarbayev has been removed from his post.

How is Russia getting involved?

Russian paratroopers have been sent to Kazakhstan at the request of the Kazakh president to help “stabilise” the country.

They were sent under the authority of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

This is a group of countries comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, which was set up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The CSTO, which is currently chaired by Armenia, has blamed the trouble in Almaty on “an invasion of bandit formations trained from abroad”.

It’s thought 2,500 soldiers have been sent to Kazakhstan, from other CSTO states but mostly from Russia.

The CSTO says the troops are a peacekeeping force which will protect state and military installations such as gas pipelines, Russian military bases and the Russian space station at Baikonur.

A rocket launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in KazakhstanIMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
Image caption,

Russia is keen to protect its assets in Kazakhstan such as the Baikonur Cosmodrome

What happens next?

Kazakhstan’s government is making concessions.

It has put off removing its price cap on LPG – ordering the prices of all vehicle fuel to be regulated for six months.

Ministers have also been sacked. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the government had failed to carry out “one of its main tasks – keeping inflation in check”.

However, even if security forces crush protests in Almaty, they may continue for longer in Zhanaozen, says Ben Godwin, head of analysis at Prism Political Risk Management. The city has a history of anti-government strikes and demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the US has questioned whether CSTO troops were legitimately invited into the country.

The White House said it would be watching for any violations of human rights and any actions that could lead to “the seizure of Kazakh institutions”.


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