Kazakhstan’s “Bloody January” and its Aftermath

Government Gets Russian Help to Restore Security, Protesters Subdued for Now

A handout photo made available by the Russian Defence Ministry press service shows Russian peacekeepers attending a welcome ceremony upon returning from a mission in Kazakhstan on the military base in Ivanovo, Russia, 15 January 2022. RUSSIAN FEDERATION (EPA Photos)
A handout photo made available by the Russian Defence Ministry press service shows Russian peacekeepers attending a welcome ceremony upon returning from a mission in Kazakhstan on the military base in Ivanovo, Russia, 15 January 2022. RUSSIAN FEDERATION (EPA Photos)

Kazakhstan’s “Bloody January” and its Aftermath

Kazakhstan has just weathered a major crisis sparked by skyrocketing fuel prices. Dissent is rare in Kazakhstan as a result of the fact that it is one of the least free countries in Central Asia run by a regime dominated by a kleptocratic elite. But with 9% inflation and over a million people living below the poverty line, an overnight increase in the road fuel prices brought the public sentiments to a simmering point.

Butane and propane fuel the overwhelming majority of Kazakhstan’s vehicles as they are much cheaper than gasoline and diesel. But the country has often faced liquefied petroleum gas shortages as energy companies choose to over-export, leading the government to introduce an energy sector reform. The reform removed the previous state-imposed domestic price caps for butane and propane, hoping that supplies to the domestic market would increase and end the constant shortages. However, the price liberalization quite tragically backfired as the prices of butane and propane, the “road fuels for the poor,” doubled overnight. This led to the outbreak of anti-government mass protests on January 5th.

The protest movement quickly expanded. People started rioting, with much of the anger directed towards the country’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for three decades and retained the title of “Elbasy” or “leader of the nation” after his resignation in 2019. Much of Kazakhstan’s wealth is concentrated in the Nazarbayev family’s hands. The former president himself still maintained a lot of power as the head of the country’s Security Council.

"Khazakhstan protests in Almaty"
People attend a rally to protest against LPG cost rise following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev/File Photo)

On January 6th the government turned off the internet and introduced strict curfews hoping to end the protests. The current president, Kasym Zhomart Tokayev, quickly introduced new fuel price caps and even announced a government reshuffle. In an unexpected decision, he removed Nazarbayev from the Security Council and removed three other Nazarbayev family members from prominent posts. Tokayev’s cabinet also resigned. But this did not do the trick – the protests continued, and the demonstrators even took over the airport. In his next televised speech Tokayev announced that the country had been taken over by 20,000 terrorists who were “foreign-trained.” He put the country on red alert and called on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to send in troops to help the Kazakh forces fight off the “terrorists.” Tokayev ordered his security forces to “shoot to kill without a warning.” This led to  bloodshed and mass-arrests, marking the event as “bloody January” for Kazakhstan.

Although the exact death toll is not clear, sources say that 227 people died during the unrest, including 149 civilians and 11 members of law enforcement bodies just in Almaty. More than 10,000 were detained during the unrest and many remain in custody. Moreover, 2,500 CSTO troops, mostly from Russia, were deployed to Kazakhstan. They remained until January 13th, guarding important government buildings and strategic facilities, including the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which Russia uses for space launches.

Although Kazakhstan is a member of CSTO along with Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the organization has not deployed troops in 30 years. Just recently, in November 2021, the president of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, asked Moscow to deploy a CSTO mission to assist Armenia in its clashes with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. His request was turned down. The fact that Tokayev requested Russian troops in his country is already troublesome, but the fact that CSTO chose to respond to the request by deploying forces to Almaty for the first time in this century sets a worrying precedent. This event also continues the narrative Moscow has been crafting over the recent couple of decades, presenting Russia as a “security guarantor” in the region.

Although no CSTO troops were deployed to assist Armenia, Moscow did broker the ceasefire agreement when the dormant Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first re-ignited in the fall of 2020. Since then, Russia has deployed its permanent peacekeeping military forces to the region, acting as the main peace broker between Armenia and Azerbaijan. To date, Russia calls its military occupation of Georgia’s breakaway territories in Azerbaijan and South Ossetia, as “peacekeeping missions.” Russia has also portrayed its role in Donbas, Ukraine, and Transnistria, Moldova, as one of “peacekeeper” striving to achieve conflict resolution.

Another important outcome of January’s events in Kazakhstan is the fact that for the first time since its post-Soviet independence, the country seems to be free of the Nazarbayev family’s control. Soon after he was removed from the Security Council, the 81 year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev issued a video statement absolving himself from any role in the controversial events, saying he is merely a pensioner now. Moreover, President Tokayev announced that he has created a special fund to which the Nazarbayev family and others who benefitted from corruption in Kazakhstan can contribute funds, as a way to return the money they stole. However, it does not seem like Tokayev has any other plans to punish the Nazarbayevs.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes part in a parliamentary session via videoconference during which lawmakers have installed a new prime minister after days of riots. (Photo: Kazakh Presidency /dpa)

As Bruce Pannier explained it in his recent RFE/RL article, “Although members of Nazarbayev's family seem to be taking a financial hit in the wake of Tokayev's victory in the intra-elite fighting, there is no indication they will be investigated or held responsible for their years of avarice. In fact, constitutional amendments from some 20 years ago prohibit the investigation of Nazarbayev or his immediate family members. … While the turn of events is undoubtedly a huge blow to Nazarbayev's ego, there is no hint that ‘Elbasy’ will be facing any punishment for the money he is alleged to have moved into foreign bank accounts and holdings, or more serious crimes in which he is alleged to have been involved.”

Now that the dust has settled, it may look to some observers that Kazakhstan is ushering in a new era. Although Tokayev came into power in 2019, it seems that the dismissal of Nazarbayev marked his true arrival in power – no longer under the shadow of Nazarbayev, and with Moscow’s full endorsement. But what’s most important is to see whether he will be able to regain respect and credibility at home – he is, after all, responsible for the tragic bloodshed. He may have silenced the dissent with violence, barely hiding under the translucent cloak of “anti-terrorism” efforts, showing he’s not afraid to take extreme measures to hold on to power, but his efforts may not be enough to keep 19 million people from demanding freedom and progress. 

Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.

font change

Related Articles