Kazakhstan is in chaos. Here’s why the West should be watching.

This post was updated on January 6, 2021.

Widespread unrest has gripped Kazakhstan, where protests against fuel-price hikes in recent days have escalated into anti-government demonstrations that have prompted a violent response from police (and an apparent internet blackout).

In Almaty, the country’s largest city, protesters reportedly set the presidential palace ablaze on Wednesday as they clashed with police. Kazakh ​​President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev—who dismissed his government and declared a state of emergency in response to the protests—said he intended to “act as tough as possible.”

On Thursday, officials said dozens of protesters and police officers were killed in clashes, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance, began sending troops to Kazakhstan on Tokayev’s invitation.

With the former Soviet republic headed for instability, we reached out to our experts and associates to understand what this moment means for the energy-rich Central Asian nation—and why the world should be paying attention.

Kazakhstan rarely makes international headlines. How unusual are these protests, and why should the West be watching? 

Very unusual. We haven’t seen major protests in Kazakhstan since the unrest in Zhanaozen ten years ago. The scale of these protests is unprecedented. A spike in fuel prices catalyzed the protests, but the causes are far deeper and the protests are globally significant. The unrest could draw in the Russians. China is undoubtedly watching with interest. 

Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center

Kazakhstan has been a largely stable autocracy since the collapse of the Soviet Union; protests of this scale haven’t been seen since the 1980s. Kazakhstan is, however, surprisingly important to the economies of states in Europe and—to a lesser extent—Asia, as that political stability has enabled it to become a major exporter of oil, natural gas, and coal. Kazakhstan is also an important energy transit country for its neighboring resource-rich Central Asian states. The protests have already reached workers at the Tengiz oil field, though production has not yet been affected. If these protests become significant enough to disrupt energy production or transit, they could have knock-on economic effects disproportionate to Kazakhstan’s political importance. 

Emma Ashford, resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

Kazakhstan has a tradition of important political demonstrations and protests. Remember that signature events that triggered the Soviet perestroika were the demonstrations in Almaty against the nomination of an ethnic Russian, Gennady Kolbin, as the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Kazakhstan. Mikhaïl Gorbachev didn’t read the ethnic map very well. Those protests led to the rise of national awareness in the republic, the launch of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s political career, and eventually independence.  

Ariel Cohen, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center

What does the official response to the protests tell us about the Kazakh government/leadership?

The Kazakh leadership is out of touch with its people. The Kazakh government tried to dispel the protests by reducing fuel prices and offering this and that, but they’ve been too slow to pacify the protesters. 

— Melinda Haring

The situation is critical. Airports and important government offices are seized by protesters. There is a report that the military is not sure about the loyalty of the forces to the government. President Tokayev has called in security forces from the CSTO—which means Russia and Belarus. 

— Ariel Cohen

How dangerous is this sort of instability for Central Asia more broadly if it spreads beyond Kazakhstan? Is that a distinct possibility?

The instability is unlikely to spread beyond Kazakhstan. The real question is how Moscow and Beijing respond. Moscow could use this as a pretext to take back northern Kazakhstan, home to most of the country’s hydrocarbons and a large ethnic Russian population.

— Melinda Haring

We saw three revolutions/revolts/coups in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The key question is: To what extent did the victory of Islamists in the fall of Afghanistan energize Islamist forces throughout Central Asia? We might not be aware that we are in a new stage of political reality there. Older, Soviet-era leaders may be rejected by the new generation that grew up under independence and in a much more Islam-infused environment. I did notice the video clips of demonstrators conducting mass prayers in the open air. That’s something I never saw before in Kazakhstan.

— Ariel Cohen

How are Kazakhstan’s major neighbors, Russia and China, interpreting these events?

Tokayev has appealed to the members of the CSTO—the security organization that ultimately replaced the Warsaw Pact for some countries of the former Soviet Union—for help. In practice this means an appeal to Russia, the most militarily capable of these states. A Russian military intervention is unlikely, particularly given the current Russian military buildup around Ukraine, which has diverted many of the Russian forces normally stationed near the Kazakh border. However, Russia has strong interests in Kazakhstan, ranging from its Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport to the fact that Russia often relies on Kazakh gas as a backstop for insufficient Russian production. China has a lesser but still important interest in Kazakh stability; the country supplies at least 5 percent of Chinese natural gas imports. We should expect both the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—of which all three countries are members—to play a role in this crisis going forward. 

— Emma Ashford

It’s a tense moment in the former Soviet Union, with Russian troops and tanks surrounding Ukraine on three sides. The last thing Moscow wants or needs is legitimate protests in a country it considers to be in its sphere of interest. One Russian newspaper claimed that “they”—meaning the West—launched a color revolution as a distraction on the eve of major Russia-US security talks. Moscow is looking for a hidden hand. The Kremlin doesn’t accept the protests in Kazakhstan as genuine.

— Melinda Haring  

The tragedy is that this uprising is happening while Russia is in full-swing empire-building mode, to the west and the east. The CSTO operation is developing, and I will not exclude the north of Kazakhstan all of a sudden asking “Mother Russia” for protection against “foreign-trained terrorists.” That may lead to a breakup of Kazakhstan. China so far has not reacted, but it’s watching its oil in mining interests in Kazakhstan like a hawk.

— Ariel Cohen

Is there any way the US government can, or should, engage in the situation?

Yes, Washington needs to tell the Kazakh authorities to stop throttling the internet and to avoid violence. In the long-term, the United States must press the Kazakhs to hold legitimately free and fair elections or else they will see more and more protest activity.  

— Melinda Haring

The US government has a limited ability to intervene in this crisis; the United States has little influence in Kazakhstan, and it does not even have an ambassador there at the moment. In addition, many of the tools that the United States would normally use in this kind of situation (i.e., sanctions) are poorly suited for the Kazakh case; major American energy companies are deeply integrated into the Kazakh economy, and sanctions on these industries would risk production shortfalls that could impact America’s European allies. In addition, given the Russian sensitivity to the perception that the United States supports so-called color revolutions in the region, support for the Kazakh protestors is liable to increase tensions with Moscow, an unhelpful step in the current environment. The best approach for the US government here is likely to be a hands-off one, at least until more is known about the developing situation. 

— Emma Ashford

We should be concerned about chaos not destroying the significant achievements of the people of Kazakhstan. It is a large country—three time zones—with considerable resources of oil, gas, uranium, wheat, and many other important commodities. It has an educated and tolerant people that suffered a lot in the Soviet era. The United States should definitely collect and analyze information, talk to everybody, protect considerable American investments there, and support sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the secular nature of Kazakhstan—which has excellent relations with the United States.

— Ariel Cohen

Dan Peleschuk is New Atlanticist editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Melinda Haring, Emma Ashford, and Ariel Cohen

Image: Kazakh law enforcement officers detain a man during a protest against LPG cost rise following authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on January 5, 2022. (Photo by Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters.)