The Guardian view on Kazakhstan’s unrest: danger ahead | Editorial

As grim as the crisis in Kazakhstan already appears, it could soon look much worse. Authorities reported on Thursday that dozens of protesters and at least 12 members of the police and security forces were dead. With the internet largely blocked and other communications severely hampered, and with reports of gunfire in Almaty, the country’s largest city, the true toll may be much higher. At least 2,000 protesters have been arrested. After days of largely peaceful demonstrations across the vast country, government buildings have been stormed or set on fire in two cities and witnesses in Almaty have reported looting. “Peacekeeping troops” from a Russian-led military alliance have arrived.

The unrest was sparked when the cost of liquefied petroleum gas almost doubled after the authorities lifted price caps – and soon spiralled. Modest concessions did not address the deeper grievances: corruption in a nation rich in oil, where many still struggle to get by while the elite cream off the cash, and the authoritarianism of a post-Soviet state that has never held a free and fair election.

The protesters’ numbers and cries of “Old man, out!” have seen off Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led from independence until 2019 and then remained a powerful force behind his chosen successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Mr Tokayev has now removed his predecessor as head of the country’s security council and replaced his government with an interim administration, but shows no sign of addressing more fundamental demands for political reform. The lack of protest leaders with whom he might negotiate is the inevitable outcome of the regime’s intolerance of opposition. Mr Tokayev, without offering evidence, blames “foreign-trained terrorist gangs” for the unrest, seeking to justify a punitive response. But while force may crush protests, it can only magnify the underlying anger.

Calling on the Collective Security Treaty Organization is a particularly risky move – possibly suggesting that Mr Tokayev is shaken by reports of security personnel going over to the side of the protesters, or that he is worried about other parts of the elite. As well as tacitly conceding his weakness, calling in Moscow’s help is likely to alienate many in a country that prided itself on its “multi-vector” foreign policy. The alliance of post-Soviet states has not intervened in a crisis before, but Russia (like Kazakhstan’s other powerful neighbour China) wants stability on its borders and does not want street protests to overthrow another government in the region.

The west has limited influence, but is not without leverage. Large sums of Kazakh money are sequestered in London (where “British professional service providers enable post-Soviet elites to launder their money and reputations”, a stinging Chatham House report noted last month). Anti-corruption campaigners have rightly urged that as the rich and well-connected flee, law enforcement agencies, financial institutions and service providers should be watching carefully and reporting, freezing and seizing assets as appropriate. The US, EU and UK should also do their utmost to urge the leadership to respect protesters’ rights.


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