By Simon Basketter
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What’s behind the revolt in Kazakhstan?

Russian troops are arriving by the planeload to back up a crackdown by Kazakh security forces
Issue 2787
Protesters in Kazakhstan at night in the city of Almaty. Four people have linked arms in the foreground

Protesters on the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan (Picture: REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev)

The president of Kazakhstan has ordered troops to “shoot protesters without warning” after days of demonstrations—and added that those who failed to surrender would be “destroyed”.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is backed by Russian troops who are arriving by the planeload. It follows a week of protest and repression in the central Asian state.

Sporadic gunfire could still be heard at the presidential residence in the main city of Almaty on Friday morning, even as Tokayev claimed that order had been restored. He announced, “a counterterrorist operation will continue until the total destruction of the militants”.

Russian paratroopers flowed into the country while Kazakh security forces continued to suppress the uprising. 

Tokayev alleged that Almaty had been attacked by “20,000 bandits” and expressed “special thanks” to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Russian defence ministry said paratroopers and other servicemen were being flown into Kazakhstan “around the clock” using 75 planes.

The unrest was sparked by the sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), the preferred fuel for cars in Kazakhstan’s western regions. 

In Aktau, the capital of the Mangistau region, most cars are equipped with an extra LPG tank. LPG was much cheaper than gasoline in the area.

The price hike brought people to the squares of oil town Zhanaozen last Sunday and Monday. Nurlan Nogayev, the local governor and formerly minister of energy, addressed the protest, promising a review of the price hike. 

After years of repression of protests and unions demonstrations have been rare. 

But it was too late as the anger had spread across the town squares right across the country— and not just about the oil price but over how Kazakhstan is run.

On Tuesday people took to the streets in Almaty, the country’s largest city, in the capital Nur-Sultan, Karaganda, Taraz and other urban centres. 

Reports from the Tengiz oilfield said workers struck in solidarity with the protests.

Thousands of police and special forces were deployed as the crowds gathered. At least 50,000 people protested on Tuesday across Kazakhstan.

By Wednesday protesters had overrun the city administration, airport and presidential residence in Almaty prompting authorities to declare a national state of emergency. 

“I’m 30 years old and I don’t want to live another 30 years as a slave,” said one protester in a video circulated on social media.

In some places police stations were stormed. In Aktobe, a Kazakh city near the country’s border with Russia, an entire police department is believed to have sided with the protesters. Video showed cheering protesters welcoming officers as they emerged from a police station to join the crowd.

Protesters have been chanting, “Get out, old man”, a reference to Nursultan Nazarbayev. The 81 year old stepped down as president in 2019 after three decades in office, but retains the official title of Elbasy or leader of the nation. 

On Wednesday crowds in Taldykorgan, a town in southern Kazakhstan, pulled down a statue that had been erected in his honour in 2016.

Nazarbayev has not been seen since the start of the protests amid reports that he was preparing to fly abroad for “medical treatment”. Around a dozen private jets have already left Kazakhstan in the past few days, with most heading to Europe or Dubai.

On Thursday demonstrators clashed with security forces for a second straight day as Russian forces landed to retake the airport. Armoured personnel carriers rumbled towards the main square as Kazakh troops fired shots at crowds.

Kazakhstan’s interior ministry claimed that 26 protesters had been killed during the unrest, 18 were wounded and more than 3,000 people had been detained. Eighteen law enforcement officers were killed.

Both Russia and China want a stable neighbour and Russia is clearly keen to make sure the regime stays in place with as much force as needed. The West also wants stability for the oil profits. The British ruling class has been courting the oligarchs and dictators of the region for years.

The revolt has escalated from a fuel protest to a movement that has rocked a brutally repressive government and sparked an imperial invasion. Socialists should back the resistance and oppose the Russian invasion.

Friends of Tony Blair and Prince Andrew 

Sandwiched between China and Russia, Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth biggest country in terms of territory but has a population of just 19 million people.

Kazakhstan has the largest proven oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region, producing about 1.1 million barrels a day of crude. ExxonMobil and Chevron have pumped tens of billions of dollars into oilfields in western Kazakhstan, where the protests erupted. 

A Chevron-led consortium has spent an estimated £30 billion on a project to boost output at the Tengiz oilfield. Workers there have joined the protests.

In 2019 the National Crime Agency seized three London properties worth £80 million that belong to Nazarbayev’s daughter and grandson.

Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, bought a mansion in Ascot from Prince Andrew’s family for £15 million in 2007, £3 million over the asking price. There were no other bidders.

Tony Blair advised Nazarbayev after a crackdown on striking oil workers in 2011 that killed at least 14 of the workers. 

Blair, who has since been knighted, asked for £5 million as a fee.

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