Massive protests, the resignation of the government, widespread violence, and Russian-led security forces. What is happening in Kazakhstan? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!!

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Vocabulary List

Take to the streets (phrase) – when people take to the streets, they express their opposition to something in public and often violently

Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against food shortages

Steppe (n) – a large area of land with grass but no trees, especially in eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia

The people have lived for centuries on the Central Asian steppes 

Landlocked (adj) – Completely surrounded by other countries, with no ocean borders

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country  

Swathe (n) – a large areas especially of land

Huge swathes of rainforest are being cleared for farming and mining 

To emerge (v) – the become known or develop as a result of something

New business opportunities will emerge with advances in technology

Consolidate (adj) – made stronger and more certain

He was re-elected for another four years and his power was consolidated 

To rock (v) – If an even rocks a group of people or society it causes feelings of shock

The managing director’s resignation rocked the whole company

Blackout (n) – an action taken to make certain that information about something is nto reported to the public

There was a news blackout after the revolution 

Peacekeeping (n) – the activity of preventing war and violence, especially using armed forces not involved in a disagreement to prevent fighting

The UN sent a peacekeeping force to Rwanda

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Violent protests in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan have seen thousands of citizens take to the streets opposing an increase in fuel prices. In response, the government has resigned, security forces have killed dozens of rioters, and a Russian-led military force has been sent to the country. Why are people protesting? What has happened so far? And what is Kazakhstan’s future? 

Where is Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan is a gigantic country, larger than Western Europe, and has an incredible amount of natural resources. It borders countries including Uzbekistan, China, and Russia, and stretches from mountains in the East to the lowlands in West, with large and empty steppes in the centre.

Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, with areas of immense industrialisation, areas of energy rich resources, areas of fertile farmland, and large swathes of sparsely populated land. Around two-thirds of the country’s population is ethnically Kazakh, with Russians making up a quarter, and other minorities living in parts of the central Asian state. 

The territory of modern day Kazakhstan was historically home to nomadic tribes, great empires, and a variety of different peoples. In the late 16th century, the Kazakhs emerged as a distinct ethnic group and conquered much of the land that is now Kazakhstan. From the 18th century onwards, Russia began to gradually establish control over the region and eventually Kazakhstan became one of the republics of the Soviet Union in 1936. What followed was years of mass migration and industrialisation as Soviet leaders tried to develop land, build new cities, grow more crops, and take the region’s resources. 

Kazakhstan Since the Fall of the USSR

After the collapse of the USSR, Nursultan Nazarbayev won an uncontested election and declared Kazakhstan an independent country. The country has become the dominant Central Asian country both economically and politically. With a massive oil and gas industry, as well as vast mineral resources, Kazakhstan has quickly developed and now makes up 60% of the entire region’s GDP.

Nursulatan Nazarbayev, the country’s founder, remained an authoritarian leader until 2019 and faced little opposition or challenge throughout his reign. Although the country claims it is a democracy, Freedom house rated Kazakhstan as a “consolidated authoritarian regime” where freedom of speech is not respected and “Kazakhstan’s electoral laws do not provide for free and fair elections.” The human rights situation in the country is also often seen as poor – according to Human Rights Watch, “Kazakhstan heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech, and religion.”

In 2019, President Nazarbayev stepped down from his role, but made sure to create a new role for himself as “founder of the nation” and lifetime chairman of the influential Security Council. In the West, Nazarbayev was known for giving up the nuclear weapons left in the country by the former Soviet Union, and for relocating the capital city to the city of Astana – which he then named Nur-Sultan after himself.

However, his time in charge was also known for harsh crackdowns on any opposition, the appointment of his own family and friends to key political roles. In fact, his family is still suspected to own or control much of the country’s economy. Nazarbayev selected his colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as the new leader, with Tokayev indicating he would still rely on Nazarbayev’s advice and keep the same style of policies. 

Why Are People Protesting in Kazakhstan?

In the last few days, Kazakhstan has been rocked by massive protests across the country. Originally, the protests started over a sharp increase in fuel prices. Last weekend, the government lifted price limits of liquified petroleum gas, also known as LPG, which is used as fuel by up to 90% of all vehicles in the country. Almost immediately after lifting the price caps, the price of fuel doubled.

Protests first began in the oil-rich western region, before spreading throughout the entire nation by Tuesday. Moreover, the protests have been used to express anger at many other problems – unemployment, corruption, and living standards. Protesters have stormed buildings, set fire to government buildings, and demanded that Nursultan Nazarbayev completely leave all power in the country. Much of the current anger, in fact, is directed at Mr Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan’s current President Tokayev has tried to calm the situation down. He issued a national state of emergency, with curfews, restricted movements and internet blackouts. Furthermore, he ordered that the price of LPG was to be reduced “to ensure stability in the country,” as well as other policies to help people. The Prime Minister and the entire Kazakh government resigned, and the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev was removed from the country’s Security Council.

Despite all of these measures, the citizens are still protesting. Yesterday, security forces in the country killed numerous anti-government protesters in the largest city of Almaty. However, due to the internet blackout and the dangerous situation, it is difficult to really know what is going on in the country. There are even reports that security forces may have been helping protesters in some areas. 

Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev, however, has asked for help. Help from who? The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (or CSTO). Within hours of receiving the call from Tokayev, Russian and Belarussian special forces and soldiers were on planes, ready to stop the protesters across the country. You’ve probably never heard of this organisation before. I only briefly read about them during classes I took during my master’s degree.

The CSTO is a military alliance between former Soviet republic and allies, with a peacekeeping force and a rapid reaction force. Currently, the CSTO has six members – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. For many years, the organisation did very little apart from let Russia build military bases in neighbouring countries. However, 20 years after it was founded, the organisation’s mutual defence clause was activated by a member for the first time this week. 

Final Thought 

On this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to briefly explain what is happening in the central Asian country of Kazakhstan. Protests have erupted across the massive country, resulting in violence, the resignation of government, and Russian military support. From fuel prices to the influence of authoritarian leaders, the people are protesting over a wide range of issues. 

What is next for Kazakhstan? It is too early to say for sure. However, President Tokayev has taken steps to distance himself from former president Nazarbayev, and perhaps may begin to introduce some socio-economic reforms. On the other hand, I’m sure Kazakhstan must also be nervous over the involvement of Russian forces. Although Vladimir Putin has long supported Kazakhstan’s leaders, he has also long claimed that Kazakhstan is not a real country, but instead part of a greater Russia. Russia is also not shy about taking over or controlling parts of neighbouring countries – just ask Georgia and Ukraine which lost territory to the Russian military. Kazakhstan’s status as an oil and gas powerhouse makes the state particularly valuable!

What do you think? What do you think is the future of Kazakhstan? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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