The World Today for January 17, 2022

NEED TO KNOW

Fed Up, Pushed Down

KAZAKHSTAN

Officials in Kazakhstan recently announced that, with the help of Russian troops, stability had returned to the Central Asian country.

Their definition of stability raised eyebrows around the world. More than 200 people died and more than 5,000 people were detained as Russian and local forces violently quashed protests against “corruption, living standards, poverty and unemployment” in the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic, CNN reported.

The protests were a test of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s autocratic regime. They were also a test of the worldview of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has exercised muscular Russian power around the world in recent years, including most spectacularly in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic that Russian troops are poised to invade on word from the Kremlin.

As the Associated Press explained, a spike in fuel prices lit the match that started the street protests in Kazakhstan. As the civil unrest spread, Tokayev dismissed his government. That didn’t quell the demonstrations. He then called the protesters “terrorists” and asked for Russian military help – not unlike Syrian President Bashar Assad did in 2015 when he faced a rebellion that he couldn’t stop.

Kazakhs are fed up with their economy and political system, wrote Peter Leonard, a journalist who covers the region, in a Guardian op-ed. While luxury homes and hotels are common in the financial capital of Almaty, the average monthly salary in the country is less than $600. Professionals, especially government employees, must solicit bribes to make ends meet.

Internal politics were at play, too. Tokayev was the protégé of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019. As the protests escalated, Tokayev removed 81-year-old Nazarbayev from the country’s powerful Security Council in a bid to show that he, not his former mentor, was the boss. Tokayev’s intelligence chief, Karim Masimov, was also arrested for treason. The chaos, in other words, could have been part of a power struggle rather than a pure grassroots uprising, noted the New York Times.

Putin, meanwhile, appears to have used Tokayev’s request for outside troops as a chance to reverse the “disintegration of historical Russia” that he claims has been occurring since the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, wrote the Washington Post. Russian soldiers stopped an attempt by “terrorists, criminals, looters” to control Kazakhstan, said Putin, according to Reuters. He also might have been sending Western diplomats a message about Ukraine shortly before a meeting to discuss the future of that European country, argued Radio Free Europe.

If Tokayev thinks he’s in charge now, he might want to think again.

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