Mary Louise Kelly of NPR speaks with Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, about the situation in Kazakhstan and its implications for the rest of the world.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now let’s move on to what’s going on in a huge country that we rarely hear about. In Kazakhstan, a revolt against the government is underway. The same is true of the repression of this revolt. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed, along with several members of the security forces. Troops from a Russian-led alliance arrive. The president’s entire cabinet resigned. The internet has been shut down across the country, so it’s a little difficult to gauge where exactly things are at at this time.
I want to call on the expertise of Melinda Haring from the Atlantic Council.
MELINDA HARING: Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So as far as we can tell, the last protesters have now set the presidential palace on fire. They set fire to the town hall of Almaty. What sparked these protests?
HARING: Mary Louise, the cause we’re seeing is a surge in the price of gasoline. There were artificial price caps, and those caps were lifted on January 1. On January 2, protests began in western Kazakhstan. But this story is not about the price of gas. This story is about power. It is about inequality and a lack of political choice.
So when I say it’s about power, the name you need to know is Nazarbayev. He left office in 2019, and he left with one condition. He wanted to protect his stolen property, and he wanted his family to be protected as well. But there was a problem. Kazakhstan’s elites have not found a good way to share power, which has left the president handpicked by Nazarbayev, Tokayev, in a very weak position.
The best way to describe what we are seeing over the past four days is a coup by the current president, Tokayev, against Nazarbayev, the former president. Tokayev did not have the weapons. He did not have the support of the security services or the army. So the situation quickly got out of hand.
KELLY: Okay. So the names that we need to keep track of as we try to monitor what’s going on there – Tokayev, the current president …
KELLY: … Nazarbayev, who ruled forever, for three decades, and continued to wield a lot of power behind the scenes. Do you know clearly in which direction this power struggle could tip? Is it clear to you who is in power now?
HARING: So it’s not clear who is responsible. There are a lot of really disturbing thug images, a lot of violence too. But at this moment he – Tokayev had to call for help. He called Moscow and asked for help. He called the Russian-led Collective Security and Treaty Organization (ph). And there are currently around 3,000 troops on the ground in Kazakhstan.
And that means Kazakhstan’s security services must support Tokayev. And it also means that Moscow was able to support an unpopular leader at the national level. And it’s pretty cheap for them. But it also sends a threatening point to the rest of the region that if you get out of line you could be next.
KELLY: It’s not the only thing happening in this part of the world from afar. Is it a coincidence that all of this erupted just as Russia looked like it was about to invade Ukraine?
HARING: So the Russians are not happy with the timing. If you look at Russian newspapers, they are already looking for someone to blame. The Russians say they have set up a Color Revolution (PH) in Kazakhstan to distract from the security talks between Washington and Moscow next week. This is obviously wrong. Russian actions will therefore be more limited in Ukraine due to the unrest in Kazakhstan. I think that’s the interesting point.
KELLY: Why? Because Vladimir Putin must now watch two emerging crises in his part of the country?
HARING: That’s right. There is a limit to what Vladimir Putin can do. One theory is that he might want to try to take back the northern part of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population and huge reserves of energy. But it would be overloaded, wouldn’t it? He has put so many people on the ground outside of Ukraine.
KELLY: If I understand you correctly, you are describing an increasingly unusual situation where a development is happening in one part of the world and for maybe different reasons, but Russia and the United States have reason to believe that they are not welcome. developments. Would they agree at least as much?
HARING: So yeah, I think these are unwanted developments from both Moscow and Washington. But right now the situation is moving in a direction where Moscow will have a weak guy in charge who owes them a lot. The Chinese aren’t saying anything other than it’s an internal affair, and Washington is making outlandish statements. The West is really not a player in Kazakhstan at the moment.
KELLY: Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, giving us some background for the events taking place in Kazakhstan.
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