From ‘demonstrators’ to ‘terrorists’ How Kazakhstani officials changed the way they talk about the unrest now sweeping the nation
Protests in western Kazakhstan against suddenly doubled fuel costs began on January 2 and quickly spiraled into wider, nationwide unrest, including violent clashes with the authorities. Dozens have reportedly been killed in clashes, and police officials say several officers have died, as well. In cities like Zhanaozen, demonstrators’ demands have become more and more political. Following these developments, the nation’s authorities have also changed the way they talk about the unrest, using increasingly extreme rhetoric.
Kazakhstan’s Energy Ministry attributes the rise in fuel prices causing protests to the international market situation and increased demand for liquefied gas. Beginning on January 1, Kazakhstan’s fuel trading was transferred completely to electronic marketplaces, which officials say was meant to “balance the price of gas on the basis of supply and demand.”
Local officials in the Mangystau Province subsequently announce that they have no role in the regulation of gas prices because the product is now traded freely in a “competitive environment.”
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev refers to the people protesting as “demonstrators” and urges them not to disturb the peace.
On orders from President Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s national government forms a commission to “review the socioeconomic situation” in the Mangystau Province and promises measures to regulate gas prices. Energy Minister Magzum Myrzagaliev speculates publicly that the protests could be the result of collusion between the owners of gas stations in western Kazakhstan. Antitrust regulators launch a separate inquiry into the skyrocketed fuel prices.
The national government later says it cannot currently fulfill protesters’ demands to restore previous gas prices. At the same time, officials in Mangystau announce that gas-station owners have agreed “within a framework of socially responsible business practices” to cut fuel prices marginally.
Members of the national government commission meet with protesters in Aktau (the capital of the Mangystau Region), where a peaceful protest occurs in the city’s main public square. Officials promise to restore gas prices to previous levels and vow not to prosecute protesters.
At demonstrations across the country, more protesters begin demanding former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s dismissal from the National Security Council and exit from national politics. Late that evening, there are the first reports of clashes in Almaty and the use of riot-control measures.
President Tokayev still refers to the protesters as “demonstrators” but also mentions certain “destructive individuals who are interested in undermining our society’s stability and unity.” In a televised address, he calls on his “compatriots” not to succumb to “the euphoria of rallies and lawlessness.” Tokayev also urges young people not to “ruin their lives” and not to “poison the lives of their loved ones.”
The national government’s cabinet resigns.
Tokayev shifts responsibility for raised fuel prices to his ousted ministers, arguing that the government failed to curb inflation. The president says the Energy Ministry and national oil and gas company are especially to blame.
Tokayev also declares a state of emergency in Almaty, Mangystau, and Nur-Sultan, explaining that the situation in these regions has “escalated.” This time, he refers to demonstrators in Almaty as “financially motivated” “bandit-like crowds” and “conspirators.” He also vows an “extreme” police response and reveals that he has removed Nursultan Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as chairman of the National Security Council. (Kazakhstan’s former longtime president and informal “Leader of the Nation,” Nazarbayev has yet to comment publicly on the nation’s unrest.)
In Almaty, violent clashes take place between protesters and police officers. A group of demonstrators occupy of the city’s airport for several hours, while others ransack the mayor’s office building and the president’s residence. In the city of Taldykorgan, protesters tear down a monument to Nazarbayev.
Tokayev subsequently asks the Collective Security Treaty Organization to send peacekeepers to Kazakhstan for assistance against “terrorist threats.” The president says “international terrorist gangs” are fighting the Kazakhstani military and trying to seize control of key national infrastructure, including the Almaty International Airport.
Before daybreak on Thursday, officials in Almaty announce an “antiterrorist operation” to quell the city’s unrest. The news media reports multiple instances of looting. By dawn, journalists confirm that a shootout took place between hundreds of soldiers and armed protesters in Republic Square, outside City Hall. Spokespeople for the city’s police department verify that dozens of people who attacked the administrative building and police headquarters we “liquidated” overnight.
Tokayev instructs the offices of the Attorney General, the Interior Ministry, and the National Security Committee to form a special group both to investigate the causes of the recent protests and riots and to identify and prosecute those deemed responsible for criminal activity. The president also orders Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces and National Guard to conduct measures to improve combat readiness and “maintain military morale.”