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SITUATION UPDATE 11 January, 2022 Back

Situation Update - Kazakhstan unrest

Emelie Andrusyszyn

Summary

  • The Kazakh government removed fuel price caps on 1 January, resulting in violent and widespread demonstrations against the move, which expanded into looting, arson and vandalism.
  • Protesters were met with crowd dispersal tactics by security forces, including live ammunition. The clashes resulted in the death of at least 164 people and the arrest of 10,000.
  • A nationwide state of emergency and curfew orders have been imposed in an effort to mitigate further unrest. President Tokayev also requested assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which began a peacekeeping mission, under the organisation’s first deployment.
  • Kazakh President Tokayev denounced the unrest as an attempted coup d’etat orchestrated by “foreign-backed” groups. The government has since resigned and a new Cabinet was presented on 11 January.
  • Concerns have risen which view the unrest as a potentially destabilising factor for Kazakhstan’s resource production and exports, as it is a top natural gas, coal, and uranium producer.

Situation

On 1 January 2022, the Kazakhstan government took steps to lift a cap on fuel costs, which resulted in an immediate increase of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) prices amid a time of high demand for fuel. The western city of Zhanaozen, for instance, saw fuel prices double from approximately 50 tenge (0.11 USD) to 120 tenge (0.28 USD) per litre. The government move is said to have been an attempt to end subsidised fuel and allow the market to adjust prices. However, the reforms resulted in demonstrations nationwide, with initial protest action being recorded in Zhanaozen and Aktau on 2 January.

Protests quickly spread to various cities including Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and Almaty. Protesters claimed that the rising fuel costs would raise prices for several everyday commodities such as food. It wasn’t long before the motivation for the protests expanded beyond fuel prices into a general anti-government movement over its alleged failure to implement previously promised political freedoms and reforms.

In response to the escalating protests, the government announced on 4 January that it would re-introduce some price caps on LPG and a moratorium on utility rate increases, which was followed a day later by the cabinet’s resignation, as well as the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov as interim prime minster and the replacement of the powerful former President Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council. Moreover, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev outlined that he was taking over as the Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan and will plan a set of political reforms and proposals.

Despite Tokayev’s actions, anti-government protests continued to escalate. Over the course of the week, security forces were deployed and were observed utilising various robust crowd control tactics, such as stun grenades and live ammunition, as the protests expanded into violence, shootings, casualties, looting, fires, and structural damages. In response to the unrest, Tokayev declared a two-week state of emergency until at least 19 January, which allows the Kazakh authorities to impose overnight curfews and ban mass gatherings. While this declaration was originally imposed for Almaty and Mangystau Province, it has since been expanded to all areas of the country. A nationwide 23:00 to 07:00 curfew is in effect. Adjustments to the curfew may be made in some cities with little notice depending on the local situation.

The same day, Tokayev issued a rare request for the assistance of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), an alliance between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, which began a peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan on 6 January. Roughly 2,500 soldiers, mostly Russian, were deployed under the provisions of Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty, which stipulates that all members shall provide aid, including military forces, to another member if they are subject to aggression by another state and request help.

President Tokayev claimed that the protests are an attack on the country by “foreign-trained terrorist gangs” – statements which were echoed by Russian President Valdimir Putin. The deployment to Kazakhstan is notably the first deployment of CSTO troops since the organisation’s founding.

By 7 January, Tokayev announced that constitutional order had been largely restored in Kazakhstan. The announcement came just hours after security forces were issued with a “shoot-to-kill” order if required to prevent further unrest. The president warned that “those who don’t surrender will be eliminated.” The National Security Committee (KNB) reiterated the president’s initial message on 10 January by announcing that the situation had “stabilised and is under control.” However, Tokayev stated that “hotbeds of terrorist attacks persist” and sporadic instances of gunfire have been heard. The following day, the government announced that the former KNB chief, Karim Masimov, and other individuals were arrested on allegations of treason and attempting to overthrow the government.

The Kazakh Ministry of Health has since released information on casualties and arrests made during the civil unrest, noting that at least 164 people were killed due to the violence, including police officers, with the majority recorded in Almaty. Approximately 10,000 people were arrested, which include hundreds of individuals alleged to have attempted to bring additional weapons and money into the country.

On 11 January, President Tokayev presented parliament with a new cabinet, which will be tasked with addressing the notable social and economic issues highlighted during the civil unrest. The Kazakh anti-monopoly agency has also announced intentions to open an investigation into 180 LPG retailers of suspected price-fixing. However, it is unclear if the results of such investigations will be publicised amid the government’s claim of an attempted coup.

Analysis

Kazakhstan has been largely stable since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the unprecedented unrest being described as the worst violence Kazakhstan has witnessed since gaining independence. While the instability is unlikely to spread beyond Kazakhstan, neighbouring Russia and China are likely monitoring the situation owing to their vested interests in Kazakhstan and extensive borders they share with the country.

As a major exporter of oil, natural gas and coal, as well as the world’s top uranium producer, further unrest could have a destabilising effect on Kazakhstan and, therefore, a significant impact on energy supplies in the region, particularly for China and Russia.

Additionally, concerns have been raised over the negative impact social and political unrest would have on investment into the country, which has seen billions of foreign direct investment (FDI) into its energy sector by international firms such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Eni, and TotalEnergies. While the Kazakh state-controlled uranium producer, Kazatomprom, stated that the unrest has so far not led to major disruption in production or exports, uranium prices did record a spike in the past week. Furthermore, significant disruptions to production at Kazakhstan’s three largest oil fields – Tengiz, Kashagan, and Karachaganak – have not occurred. However, production levels were temporarily interrupted and are said to have since “returned to normal.” The unrest is taking place during a time when Kazakhstan-included OPEC+ countries are challenged in meeting quotas.

Amid high tensions, the security situation in the country remains unpredictable. Checkpoints can be expected at transportation hubs and public centres in a bid to limit and monitor movement throughout the country. Almaty International Airport is currently closed, which has since been placed under the control of the military after protesters overran the terminal on 5 January, but the city’s main railway station is open.

Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport is understood to be operating, although the country has recorded numerous flight delays and cancellations over the past week for both domestic and international connections.

During the unrest, the country's telecommunications authority had allegedly shut off internet access, social media, and some mobile phone communications. The blackout also resulted in difficulties for people to withdraw currency. However, limited internet services are understood to have resumed on 10 January. Additionally, queues formed at petrol stations and businesses in multiple areas, but reports suggest that several services began gradually reopening on 8 January. Further delays and service interruptions cannot be discounted.

On 11 January, President Tokayev announced during a press conference that the CSTO peacekeeping forces had “successfully” completed their mission and intend to withdraw from 13 January. The withdrawal is said to be incremental over the course of 10 days. Kazakh authorities are expected to continue an operation to locate and apprehend people who have participated in the unrest and penalties have been increased for “knowingly spreading false information.” While the security situation is currently believed to be stabilising, security measures remain tight and additional unrest or violence could reoccur.

Advice

  • Closely monitor national and international news reports for situational updates regarding any renewed protest action, security forces deployments, movement controls, and rising tensions.
  • Be aware of security checkpoints limiting movement in some areas, as well as the state of emergency associated restrictions.
  • Exercise heightened caution if near large groups and immediately move away from scenes of violence or unrest. Tensions can rise with little to no warning during demonstrations.