MOSCOW—The unprecedented protests sweeping Russia’s neighboring country of Kazakhstan entered their fourth day on Wednesday with a declaration of a nationwide state of emergency, the resignation of the government, and an announcement that a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet countries will be sending in “peacekeeping troops” to take control of the situation.
As the country’s rich elite took off in their private jets, the “revolution”—sparked in part by hiked up fuel prices—showed no signs of slowing down. Protesters have set administrative buildings on fire in several big cities across the country, disarmed cops, torn epaulets off of police uniforms, and demanded an end to the three-decade-long career of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the powerful head of the country’s National Security Council and a long-time Putin ally.
Meanwhile, Kremlin’s state TV channels—wary of the fact that the protests are a living nightmare for President Vladimir Putin—failed to translate the demonstrators’ chants. The Kazakh protestors may have been all too direct in their message to Nazarbayev for Russian airwaves, as they demanded that he “Shal ket!”(Get out, old man!).
Moscow descends into a panic every time such protests threaten to end old regimes, and has done so ever since Hillary Clinton called for the U.S. to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent” Putin’s efforts to re-Sovietize former USSR territories like Kazakhstan. After Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dismissed Nazarbayev from the top position at the National Security Council on Wednesday, there was no doubt left that the old regime, including Putin’s closest ally in the country, had fallen.
“This is the last day of the Soviet Union; today is the day when the USSR has finally died,” a pro-Kremlin expert on Central Asia, Yuriy Krupnov, told The Daily Beast.
A sure-fire sign of Moscow's concern about Kazakhstan emerged on Wednesday when the chairman of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO)—a military alliance led by Russia that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan—declared it would send troops at Tokayev's request to "to assist Kazakhstan in overcoming this terrorist threat."
Nazarbayev’s cult of personality seemed untouchable even last week, when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But social issues, including unemployment, poverty, and an abrupt increase in fuel prices seem to have marked a breaking point for the people of Kazakhstan, who engaged in violent clashes with police across the country this week.
By Wednesday afternoon, Kazakh protesters had taken over the country’s major airport in the capital city of Almaty after reports that the internet had been shut down, and a crowd of protesters tried to demolish a massive Nazarbayev monument. Hundreds have been wounded and eight have been killed so far, according to Interfax.
“Nobody could predict this proletarian riot of young Kazakhs even a few days ago,” an old-time Kremlinologist, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast. “Kazakhstan was not ready for bloody clashes and aggressive riots.”
In Russia, where police target even one-person protests, authorities would have definitely subdued the demonstrations with ease, Markov explained. “But there is a danger of similar riots in republics with a thick youth population with issues of unemployment, like Chechnya and Dagestan.”
To Krupnov, “Nazarbayev and Putin are very much alike.”
“Nazarbayev was a leader with a Soviet mindset. The West and Turkey have a long-time strategy of hobbling the Russian horse by surrounding us with unstable post-Soviet countries,” he said. “With Ukraine on one side, and now Kazakhstan on the other, Tokayev is using these protests to consolidate power, so he can run the country at the push of a button.”
Until recently, state power in Kazakhstan was divided between Nazarbayev and his hand-picked president, Tokayev. But as of Wednesday, a flurry of top officials have been pushed out, including Nazarbayev and his nephew Samat Abish, the first deputy head of the National Security Committee.
Krupnov insists that while Moscow was too busy dealing with Belarus and Ukraine, it underestimated the significance of Central Asia, an important region for Putin’s idea of a USSR revival.
Moscow has long viewed Kazakhstan, the largest economy in Central Asia, as an important strategic partner. Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance that originated from the Soviet Armed Forces. Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, a Muslim nation with a population of over 18 million people, is 4,450 miles long, and neither Russians nor Kazakhs need visas to visit each other’s countries. Instability in the region, or disloyalty to the Kremlin, could be a devastating strategic roadblock to Moscow.
“If major energy companies in Russia still belonged to somebody like [exiled Russian billionaire] Mikhail Khodorkovsky, we would have had the same situation as in Kazakhstan now,” Kupnov said. “It takes just a few dozen gas company workers to break a few fences, take over a few buildings, and the power is gone.”
Russian nationalists, including novelist and politician Zakhar Prilepin, have resorted to a familiar strategy of blaming the West for the situation in Kazakhstan. “Foreign agents were well prepared,” Prilepin said on Wednesday.
Markov, however, begged to differ. “This is not a Colored Revolution, Nazarbayev has shut up all the pro-Western opposition long ago and it is not an Islamic protest either. This is a chaotic uprising of the unhappy young proletarian class who work in bad conditions,” he told The Daily Beast.
Though Nazarbayev is now out, and the Kazakh acting government has announced plans to re-introduce some fuel price caps, the unrest is ongoing and crowds are furious over the brutality exhibited by state police this week.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that “the main thing was to avoid interference from outside,” insisting that Russia-friendly Kazakh authorities were capable of getting the situation under control.