It started with protests against gas prices but escalated quickly.
Government buildings have been stormed and set on fire and tens of thousands have taken to the streets in cities across Kazakhstan as the country’s autocratic rulers face the greatest challenge to their authority in decades.
A sudden surge in the price of liquefied petroleum gas, which many people use to power their vehicles – a decision that was quickly reversed – sparked protests on Sunday.
They quickly spread, leading to greater dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership – the Nur Otan party ruled for over two decades – and in opposition to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for nearly three decades.
The 81-year-old Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard since the protests began, but was widely regarded as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital that bears his name. His family is believed to control much of the economy, the largest in Central Asia.
Amid internet and phone outages, there have been reports of rising casualties from both protesters and security forces. NBC News was unable to verify these reports.
After the unrest had barely abated, international forces led by Russia moved into the country after Nazarbayev’s successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, asked for help.
What could the protests mean for the people of Kazakhstan and what are the further effects for its neighbors?
Why are the protests so important?
Kazakhstan, which covers an area the size of Western Europe, borders Russia to the north and China to the east. According to James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London think tank, it rests on vast reserves of oil, natural gas and precious metals, which makes it both strategically and economically important.
“We are looking at one of the largest countries in the world,” he said, adding that it is “incredibly rich in hydrocarbons.”
The country has been a largely stable autocracy since its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and there have been no protests of this magnitude since the 1980s, said Emma Ashford, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. wrote Wednesday.
“This political stability has made it possible to become a major exporter of oil, natural gas and coal,” she said.
If the unrest grows so large that it disrupts energy production or transportation, the economic impact could be disproportionate to Kazakhstan’s political importance, she added.
Western investors are “seriously concerned because they need a certain level of stability, regardless of whether it is democratic stability, in order to continue to function,” said Nixey.
“They need relationships with government officials who are in danger of losing their jobs and livelihoods,” he added.
Why are Russia and China worried?
Kazakhstan is a key oil supplier to China and a key strategic ally for Moscow, according to Nixey and Ashford.
Russia also has strong interests in Kazakhstan, Ashford said. This includes the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the launch site for its space missions, which Moscow rents from its southern neighbor. It also often relies on Kazakh gas to back up insufficient Russian production, she said.
Moscow also fears the unrest could cause Kazakhstan to fall out of its sphere of influence, Nixey said. “Russia is always concerned that the former Soviet republics will be abandoned, and Kazakhstan is a particularly important republic,” he added.
But while the Kremlin said the protests were an “internal problem” for Kazakhstan, it quickly dispatched a contingent of its armed forces as part of a mutual defense pact between the former Soviet states after Tokayev asked for help on Wednesday. The contract is only intended to be invoked in the event of external military threats.
Download the. down NBC news app for breaking news and politics
China is also closely monitoring the events.
“The Chinese will wait eagerly, more from an economic point of view, where their main interests are currently,” said Nixey.
According to Ashford, Kazakhstan supplies at least five percent of China’s natural gas imports.
Chinese officials said the riot was part of Kazakhstan’s “internal affairs” and rejected the possibility of their country’s involvement, state media agency Xinhua said. With Reported Thursday.
Ultimately, it is in the interests of both Moscow and Beijing that the anti-government protests in Kazakhstan are put down and the old regime prevails, said Nixey.
“They are not interested in a revolution followed by a democratic government,” he added.
What could happen next
There have already been mass demonstrations in the country. Most recently, people took to the streets after the controversial election in 2019, which secured Tokayev’s retention of power.
But violence on this scale is unprecedented.
The protests seem to have no identifiable leader or demands, and there is no obvious alternative to the current government, but to calm things down, the president pledged to press ahead with reforms, sacking his cabinet, hinting that political transformation might be possible.
But his suggestion on Wednesday that protesters should include “terror gangs” trained by foreign forces, followed by a promise to “act as tough as you can,” could mean tougher action in the coming days, Nixey said.
“Coercion is a good part of their toolkit,” he said, adding that negotiations with protesters are unlikely after the escalating violence in the streets, as this could be perceived as a sign of the government’s weakness.
“I think they won’t show any weakness,” he said. “You will show determination.”