April 21, 2024

Photo: The protests in Kazakhstan over soaring energy prices, deteriorating living standards, and the repression. Source : https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/01/repression-kazakhstan-basic-rights-spurred-protests/

 

By Mariah Abdel-Aziz

 

At the Center Stage:

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). EU Parliament urges Kazakh authorities to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and immediately release arbitrarily detained demonstrators and activists. As Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:

“The protests unfolding in Kazakhstan, which have turned violent, are a direct consequence of the authorities’ widespread repression of basic human rights. For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakhstani people in a state of agitation and despair.

 

Photo: Protests against rising fuel prices have turned into Kazakhstan’s biggest crisis in decades. Source : https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220106-security-forces-kill-dozens-in-kazakhstan-unrest

 

Decoding in detail:

Protests spread across the nation of 19 million of outrage over a New Year increase in prices for liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is widely used to fuel cars in the west of the country. Thousands took to the streets in Almaty and in the western province of Mangystau, saying the price rise was unfair given oil and gas exporter Kazakhstan’s vast energy reserves.

Protesters were reported to have stormed several government buildings on Wednesday January 2022, including the Almaty mayor’s office and the presidential residence, with both said to be on fire. As of late Wednesday, at least eight law enforcement officers had been killed and 317 wounded in the violence, according to the interior ministry quoted by local media.

The full picture of the chaos was unclear, with widespread disruptions to communications including mobile phone signals, the blocking of online messengers and hours-long Internet shutdowns.

The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Kazakhstan’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 and hand-picked Tokayev as his successor.

Tokayev tried to head off further unrest by announcing the resignation of the government headed by Prime Minister Askar Mamin early on Wednesday, but protests continued.

Tokayev also announced he was taking over from Nazarbayev as head of the powerful Security Council, a surprise move given the ex-president’s continued influence.

With protests escalating, the government late on Wednesday said a state of emergency declared in protest-hit areas would be extended nationwide and in effect until January 19.

It imposes an overnight curfew, restricts movements, and bans mass gatherings.
Much of the anger appeared directed at Nazarbayev, who is 81 and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 before handing power to Tokayev.

Many protesters shouted “Old Man Out!” in reference to Nazarbayev and images posted on social media showed a statue of the ex-president being torn down.

The EU and the UN called for “restraint” on all sides, while Washington urged authorities to allow protesters to “express themselves peacefully”. Kazakhstan’s government tolerates little real opposition and has been accused of silencing independent       voices. Spontaneous, unsanctioned protests are illegal despite a 2020 law that eased some restrictions on freedom of assembly.

 

For years, the authorities have repressed the basic rights of the Kazakhstani people by not only banning peaceful protest but also opposition political parties. Numerous peaceful protest leaders, human rights defenders, bloggers, and others have been arrested and imprisoned following unfair trials. In 2011, at least 14 protesters were killed after police cracked down on a demonstration in Zhanaozen.

 

Photo: protesters were reported to have stormed several buildings include the Almaty mayor’s office. Source: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1999116/world

 

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

It is very unusual. We have not 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, said Melinda Haring- deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Melinda added that 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 have been too slow to pacify the protesters.

The situation is critical. Protesters seize airports and important government offices. 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 said Ariel Cohen, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Condemning President Tokayev’s inflammatory rhetoric, including his general portrayal of the protesters as ‘terrorists’, Members of EU Parliament (MEPs) want the Kazakh authorities to refrain from bringing forward terrorism charges ‘on the basis of overly broad interpretations of the term’ and to distinguish between peaceful protesters and those using violence and committing crimes.

Parliament demands a proper international investigation into the crimes committed against the people of Kazakhstan. It also urges the Kazakh government to consider setting up a permanent working group under the OSCE’s auspices to assess whether the unrest was a result of foreign interference or internal power struggles and to address the root cause of the unrest.

Noting President Tokayev’s announcement of socioeconomic and political reforms, MEPs encourage the government to improve citizens’ living standards and tackle discontent. According to MEPs, Kazakhstan needs urgent reforms to fight corruption and reduce rising inequality.

 

Standpoint:

On 2 January 2022, protests erupted in the Mangystau Region in southeast Kazakhstan over gas price hikes, before spreading into several other major cities, including the biggest city, Almaty.

The protests gradually turned violent, with reports of protesters damaging police cars, among other offences, and storming the Almaty city administration’s office today. In response, police fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a televised address that he plans “to act as toughly as possible”.

The authorities introduced a state of emergency in the Mangystau Region, Almaty and some other cities on Tuesday and Wednesday. They have reportedly also restricted the internet and social media and warned all media against “violating” Kazakhstan’s unduly restrictive media law. Police said they have arrested at least 200 protesters and that dozens of officers have been injured.

As Struthers pointed out “Instead of threatening to crack down on protesters, the Kazakhstani authorities must resolve the situation peacefully by immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been arbitrarily detained and addressing past abuses committed by the state. Protesters accused of internationally recognized crimes for violent actions should be provided with fair trials in accordance with international human rights law.

 

“Kazakhstan’s commitments under international law and its own constitution enshrine the right to peaceful assembly. The authorities must honour these obligations, protect peaceful protesters and respect free speech. They must also ensure that police do not use unlawful and excessive force. Any police officer or other official responsible for inflicting human rights violations must be held to account”, she added.

 

References:

Amnesty, (January 2, 2022), ” Kazakhstan: Widespread violation of basic rights spurred unprecedented protests”. Retrieved from:https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/01/repression-kazakhstan-basic-rights-spurred-protests/

Europarl. Europa, (January 20, 2022), “Human rights breaches in Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Sudan”. Retrieved from:  https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/hr/press-room/20220114IPR21026/human-rights-breaches-in-hong-kong-kazakhstan-and-sudan