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Russia provides relief in Kazakhstan as government fires on the population

In view of the fragile situation in Tokayev, the CSTO has sent more than 3,000 military personnel to "stabilise the situation"
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Web oficial del Presidente de Kazajistán via REUTERS  -   Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during a televised address to the nation following protests sparked by fuel price hikes in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, 7 January 2022.

Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, finds himself in the international community's crosshairs. In his latest move and in the face of escalating violence and protests in the country, Tokayev has ordered to fire "without warning" on the population.

In this scenario and in the face of growing popular discontent, Kazakhstan has asked Russia to intervene in order to maintain "order" in the country, something that Moscow has been quick to respond to after approving the deployment of 3,811 military personnel from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Kazakhstan is arming itself as the population continues to confront its government, writing a crucial stage in the history of the former Soviet republic.  

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PHOTO/ RU-RTR Russian Television via AP - More than 70 cargo aircraft are being deployed to Russia's peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakhs have brought about the fall of the Kazakh government in an unprecedented episode in the country's history. The reason for the overthrow was triggered by a popular mobilisation that sought to address the situation in its energy sector.  Since last Sunday, the former Soviet republic has been staging a wave of protests in response to a long-standing problem: limited domestic gas production, rising demand and rising prices. 

Kazakhstan, a country with significant liquefied gas resources, is undergoing privatisation by foreign companies. In the Tengiz and Korolev oil fields, two US companies (Chevron and ExxonMobil) control 50% and 25% of the shares. Russia, in turn, shares in their shareholding, leaving the Kazakh state company with control of only 20% of the resources, which has led to the country's significant dependence on the export market. 

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AFP/ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV - Protesters take part in a rally against rising energy prices in Almaty on 5 January 2022.

Faced with this situation, the Kazakh government has had to deal with both domestic market prices and export prices, an event that has skyrocketed since 2 January after the price doubled from 60 tengue per litre to 120 tengue per litre (0.14-0.28 dollars). This has been compounded by popular discontent, which has been exacerbated by the latest layoffs in the sector. 

The western region of Mangystau has been the match and the gas problem the fuse that has ignited a wave of protests that have spread throughout the country. What started out as a peaceful demonstration for economic and social reasons soon turned political. The reasons are many: Kazakhs have been dealing with years of weariness with an obsolete elite that does not care about popular problems, coupled with a lack of opposition due to the country's lack of democracy and an almost total absence of multiparty politics.

"Shoot to kill

In response, the protests have quickly become radicalised and have taken on an extremely violent character against the security forces. This violence has been further fuelled by police brutality, which is said to have left hundreds dead.

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REUTERS/MARIYA GORDEYEVA - Soldiers at the main square where hundreds of people protested against the government, after the authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, in Almaty, Kazakhstan 6 January 2022

These pitched street battles have left an iconic image: the toppling of the statue of the country's former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who managed to lead the country from Kazakhstan's independence until 2019. The monument to the former president was not the only figure to be toppled, as the protests led to Tokayev's dismissal of the prime minister and his cabinet and his taking over the Security Council, which until now had been headed by Nazarbayev. 

In the cities of Alma Ata, Aktobe, Aktau and Atyrau, protesters have tried to storm government headquarters, all of which were recaptured after security forces took action and left behind a list of dead.

The escalation of violence led to the proclamation of a state of emergency throughout the republic as Kazakhstan is armouring itself with both military and police. This situation has led to the intervention of the forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a post-Soviet military-political organisation comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan under Russian leadership.

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AFP/ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV - Administrative building burnt down in central Almaty after violence erupted following protests over fuel price hikes

Nur Sultan, the former Astana, has called on Russia to intervene in the situation, calling the protesters "terrorists". Moscow was quick to respond, approving the deployment of more than 3,800 CSTO military personnel to "stabilise the situation". The intervention by CSTO forces has already become historic, marking the first time since its creation that it has intervened in the defence of one of the CSTO's members.

Tokayev has already thanked Putin for this gesture, praising "their comradeship". Subsequently, the Kazakh president ordered "unannounced firing" at the demonstrators while calling the civilians themselves "criminals and murderers". According to the latest death toll, 26 activists have been "liquidated" while 3,811 others have been detained throughout the country. It also notes that "18 police officers have been killed".

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FOTO/ ARCHIVO - Russian President Vladimir Putin

The CSTO's intervention supports Tokayev and helps him to stay in power and respond to any threats. While the country is armouring itself militarily, Putin is trying to maintain Russia's influence in the former Soviet territories. Russia continues to play the role of "guardian" of its former territories by maintaining authoritarian figures who in turn respond favourably to Moscow and guarantee their loyalty. 

International reactions

What is already a civil conflict between the government and protesters has soon taken on an international character. Days before the shooting of protesters, both the European Union and the United States congratulated Tokayev on the 30th anniversary of the country's independence.

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Servicio de Prensa del Ministerio de Defensa ruso vía AP - Russian peacekeepers board a Russian military plane at an airfield outside Moscow, Russia to fly to Kazakhstan on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.

"Our continued close cooperation will enable us to address global challenges for the benefit of our peoples. The United States appreciates Kazakhstan's tremendous efforts on behalf of regional connectivity, economic prosperity and growth throughout South and Central Asia," Biden said. 

Now events are very different, and from the White House the US press secretary, Jen Psaki, has pointed out that the country "is unsure of the legality of the deployment of troops in Kazakhstan" and warns that "the world is watching". China, for its part, has congratulated Tokayev for "taking strong action at a critical time to calm the situation quickly".

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AFP/AFP - General view of the violent riots in Kazakhstan, triggered by a New Year's Day price hike for liquefied petroleum gas.

In addition to the US, Afghanistan has already said it is "closely monitoring" the situation in Kazakhstan. The statement was issued by the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Fazilrabi Zahin, who said that it is "closely monitoring the situation in Kazakhstan" because, as a close neighbour and economic partner state, "Afghanistan is concerned about the recent unrest".

Spokesman Abdul Qahar Balki shared this statement on Twitter and added that "the Islamic Emirate believes that security and political stability in the region are essential for economic growth, trade and prosperity of the people". 

These statements by the Taliban come a month after receiving a delegation from Nur Sultan led by Kazakh Trade Minister Bakhyt Sultanov. In this regard, relations with the country are said to have remained smooth, as Sultanov himself declared that the economic rehabilitation of Afghanistan was important to them" as they were not only looking to export their products to Afghanistan but also "their exports to reach the markets of other countries through Afghanistan". Thus, the Taliban government has urged the parties to achieve "a peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue".

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PHOTO/AFP  -   Afghan Taliban militants

Afghanistan's stance comes at a time when violence and repression continue to plague the country. In this context and according to what has been known in the last few hours, the mujahideen who commit suicide attacks will have a "Martyrdom Brigade Office" according to the Taliban spokesman Mujahid, who has declared that "our mujahideen, who are martyrdom brigades, will be part of the army, but they will be special forces". With this approval, Afghanistan shows that, far from trying to flee violence, it continues to support it, which does not help the international position.

Protests in Kazakhstan have destabilised order in the region. Putin is trying to maintain security by sending in troops in order to ensure that nothing changes. Direct attacks on civilians seem, for the moment, to have no overt response from the UN or the international community. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is experiencing one of its most tense stages in a scenario in which a peaceful solution seems to be moving further and further away.