Demonstrations that started over the weekend in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich western region over high energy prices spilled over elsewhere, including into the country’s largest city, Almaty. Protesters stormed government buildings and briefly took over Almaty airport. Part of their anger appeared to be aimed at Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s authoritarian former president, who continues to exert significant power behind the scenes as “father of the nation.”
Tokayev’s government quickly restored price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, which powers most vehicles in the country’s west. He also removed Nazarbayev as head of the country’s powerful National Security Council and declared a two-week state of emergency for the entire country. In a televised speech Wednesday, Tokayev accused foreign-funded “terrorist bands” of stoking unrest, but did not offer evidence or specify what countries were behind the purported plot, according to the Associated Press.
A near-complete Internet blackout that started midday Wednesday persisted into Thursday morning according to NetBlocks, the global Internet monitor. Access was partially restored during Tokayev’s televised speech, but the disruption returned shortly after.
Tass, the Russian government news agency, reported early Thursday that the stock exchange and almost all banks in the country would temporarily halt operations.
Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s wealthiest and No. 2 most populous country and the widespread unrest, along with the potential entrance of Russia-linked forces, stirred concerns in regional capitals and Washington.
About a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population are ethnic Russians, and Moscow has in the past deployed peacekeepers to countries that President Vladimir Putin fears are slipping out of his political orbit. Leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine having previously complained that such troops prop up pro-Russian separatist forces.
State Department spokesman Ned Price called on all parties to resolve the situation peacefully. “We condemn the acts of violence and destruction of property and call for restraint by both the authorities and protestors,” he said in a statement. “We ask for all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights, and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service.”
The public anger against Kazakhstan’s leaders is also likely to be a headache for China, which shares a land border with the country. Beijing has ramped up investment in the Kazakh energy sector as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, estimates that Chinese investment and construction projects in Kazakhstan between 2005 and 2021 totaled to more than $34 billion.
China and Kazakhstan celebrated 30 years of diplomatic ties Monday, with Chinese President Xi Jinping sending a congratulatory message to Nazarbayev and Tokayev. Xi called the former an “old friend,” according to Chinese state documents, and said he wanted to collaborate with the two Kazakh leaders to further strategic ties between their countries.
Hu Xijin, an influential Chinese nationalist commentator, said the unrest in Kazakhstan resembles a “color revolution,” referencing the massive protests in Ukraine and Georgia in the early 2000s that toppled pro-Russian leaders.
“The trigger [for the protests] is worsening economic and living conditions. This is where the West wants to strike to destabilize Russia and China,” Hu wrote on social media, without offering evidence. “Russia and China will not allow America and the West push Kazakhstan to the abyss of prolonged turmoil.”