A popular revolt exploded in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, with protesters storming and setting fire to the presidential residence in the often unnoticed but strategically vital Central Asian nation that shares lengthy borders with Russia and China and operates as a key hub for U.S. oil companies in the region.
Although the demonstrations were ignited by soaring fuel prices brought on by the Kazakh government, accusations of foreign meddling quickly swirled.
The unrest coincided with heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over other former Soviet republics, including Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine. Kazakhstan also considered itself an oasis of relative stability and political moderation in Central Europe.
The unrest could prove a diplomatic and security windfall for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated regional alliance, said it was deploying peacekeeping forces at the request of embattled Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, The Associated Press reported.
“We are closely following the events in the fraternal neighboring state,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said before the deployment was announced. “We are calling for a peaceful solution to all problems in the framework of the Constitution and the law, and dialogue, and not through street riots and the violation of laws.”
Geopolitical friction across Central Asia has become more prominent since the messy U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Mr. Putin has used his influence in the region to dissuade countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from hosting any more American bases.
The Biden administration called for calm before swiftly accusing Moscow of promoting a false narrative that American officials are to blame for the unrest, which has been building for days. “There are some crazy Russian claims about the U.S. being behind this,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
“That is absolutely false and clearly a part of the standard Russian disinformation playbook,” she said. She told reporters that the administration “support[s] calls for calm, for protesters to express themselves peacefully and for authorities to exercise restraint.”
Reports said Kazakh protesters were chanting slogans against Nursultan Nazarbayev. The country’s 81-year-old former ruler stepped down in 2019 but retained behind-the-scenes government authority.
Some analysts said the slogans set nerves on edge in Moscow, where Mr. Putin reportedly fears an uprising against his government.
In an apparent attempt to address the worst public uprising in Kazakhstan in more than a decade, Mr. Tokayev, Mr. Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, announced that he was taking over as head of the country’s powerful Security Council. The post that had been retained by Mr. Nazarbayev.
Kazakh police reportedly fired on some protesters at the presidential residence in Almaty. During days of mounting provincial demonstrations, police deployed water cannons in the freezing weather and fired tear gas and concussion grenades.
Kazakh news sites became inaccessible late Wednesday, and the global watchdog organization NetBlocks said the country was experiencing a pervasive internet blackout. The Russian news agency Tass reported that internet access was restored in Almaty by early Thursday.
Mr. Tokayev said on state television shortly before midnight that the unrest was led by “terrorist bands” that received help from unspecified other countries. Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, borders Russia to the north and China to the east and has extensive oil reserves that make it strategically important to the global economy.
Retired diplomat Richard E. Hoagland, who served as U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan from 2008 to 2011, said in an interview that the country represents a “strategic crossroads between Asia and Europe.”
“It has been for several decades now the place where Russia, China, the EU and the United States go head-to-head, although not necessarily in the most obvious ways,” said Mr. Hoagland, a board member of the Caspian Policy Center in Washington.
As a result, he said, the Kazakh government has engaged in a “multivector foreign policy” aimed at keeping “even relations with those four outside powers rather than allowing one to gain more influence than any of the others.”
Former Ambassador George A. Krol, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2018, told The Washington Times that none of the relevant outside powers has an interest in destabilizing the Central Asian country.
Although the U.S. government has long encouraged Kazakhstan to embrace a “more democratic and pluralistic system,” he said, Washington’s overarching goal is to promote stability in the country.
Mr. Krol, now an adjunct professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an associate of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, emphasized the presence of major U.S. oil companies in Kazakhstan.
Houston-based Chevron boasts on its website that it is “Kazakhstan’s largest private oil producer.” Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips are also reported to be heavily invested in the country.
“The huge North Caspian field of oil is one of the largest deposits remaining in the world,” said Mr. Krol.
A 1994 deal between the Kazakh government and a consortium led by Chevron “has been a big moneymaker not only for Chevron, but also for Kazakhstan,” he said.
All of that oil gets to market through one major pipeline that runs through Russia, Mr. Krol said, and Russia earns income from that pipeline.
Despite the oil wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country of roughly 20 million people. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of Mr. Nazarbayev’s longtime ruling party, which holds more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Frustration over reported corruption at the top and the government’s failure to spread oil wealth more broadly are seen to be driving forces behind the unrest.
Public anger spiked at the start of the year when prices for liquefied petroleum gas, widely used as vehicle fuel in Kazakhstan, doubled overnight. The government said it was moving away from price controls as part of an effort to establish a more market-oriented economy.
The frustration is deepest in Kazakhstan’s west, the epicenter of oil operations. The Associated Press reported that the demonstrations began Sunday in Zhanaozen, a western city where police shot at least 15 protesters during a 2011 strike by oil workers.
Reports Wednesday said the entire government might be resigning, although Mr. Tokayev sought to project an image of control from the capital of Nur-Sultan. The Kazakh president vowed to take harsh measures to quell the unrest and declared a two-week state of emergency for the whole country.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Wednesday evening that “the United States is closely following the situation in Kazakhstan, a valued partner.”
“We condemn the acts of violence and destruction of property and call for restraint by both the authorities and protesters,” said Mr. Price. “We ask for all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service. We urge all parties to find a peaceful resolution of the state of emergency.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.