Since January 2, Kazakhstan has been rocked by a series of mass protests, some of which led to violent clashes with police. Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, denounced the protesters as “bandits” and “terrorists” and asked for help from Russia and its other allies under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
More than 3,000 people have been detained, and Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry claimed that 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated.”
On January 7, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping had sent a message of support to Tokayev. Xi implied that outside forces were responsible for the unrest.
“In a verbal message to Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Xi said China strongly rejects any attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate ‘color revolutions’ in Kazakhstan, as well as any attempt to harm the friendship between China and Kazakhstan and disrupt the two countries' cooperation,” Xinhua reported.
The baseless claim that “external forces” provoked the protests has been echoed by other authoritarian leaders, including those who have made similar claims about protests in their own countries.
For example, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said during a Christmas speech on January 7 that events in Kazakhstan were actually an attack on Russia by Western forces.
“Kazakhstan is another attempt to attack the post-Soviet states along the perimeter of Russia,” Lukashenko said. “They need to drown Russia in blood.”
Lukashenko has confronted mass protests since his disputed re-election in August 2020. Since then, he has routinely accused Western countries, especially Poland and Lithuania, of fomenting dissent in Belarus.
Claims of foreign involvement in the Kazakh protests are unsubstantiated.
The main spark for the protests was a decision by Kazakhstan’s government to lift a cap on fuel prices, which led them to nearly double. Demands for political reform quickly followed.
Since before its independence in 1991 until 2019, Kazakhstan has officially had only one president and leader – Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev resigned as president in 2019 but retained a permanent position as head of the country’s Security Council. He was head of his political party until November 2021 and holds the title of “Leader of the Nation,” which Kazakhstan’s parliament conferred on him in 2010.
Nazarbayev’s long reign has been characterized by authoritarian policies, as well as violent incidents that included the Zhanaozen massacre in 2011, when police fired on striking oil workers. More than a dozen were killed in the clash, with estimates varying, and more than 100 were wounded.
Kazakhstan has experienced waves of mass protest in recent years, albeit none as violent as the current unrest. For example, Tokayev’s victory in 2019’s snap presidential elections was followed by protests.
In addition, Western involvement in the current unrest is unlikely given that Kazakhstan has long had friendly, cooperative relations with Western countries. The American oil company Chevron operates in Kazakhstan and recently announced it had to “adjust” its operations due to the protests.
Kazakh officials with ties to the Nazarbayev family have a long history of storing their wealth in Western countries, particularly the United Kingdom.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, Nazarbayev’s daughter and grandson own property in the U.K. worth approximately 80 million GBP (approximately $109 million). In 2021, Open Democracy reported that oligarchs and officials from former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, may own as much as 2 billion GBP worth of property in the U.K.
The Kazakh regime has proved adept at lobbying in Western countries.
In 2011, the Nazarbayev regime hired former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s consulting firm to handle public relations after the Zhanaozen massacre. The Guardian reported that Blair’s firm was paid $13 million.
The newspaper noted that a former British Conservative Party cabinet minister, Johnathan Aitken, wrote a glowing book about Nazarbayev in 2009. Although Aitken denied he was paid for the book, which ignored human rights complaints about Kazakhstan, the recently released Pandora Papers revealed that he had received 166,000 GBP for the work.
Kazakhstan has helped the United States and United Kingdom in various military operations, including supporting the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2003, Kazakhstan sent combat engineers to assist U.S. coalition operations in Iraq, and continued to rotate troops to that country until 2008. Kazakhstan has hosted the annual Steppe Eagle military exercises with NATO participation, and its troops have also received training in the United States.