Kazakhstan is a big country (9th biggest in the world)-- over a million square miles, bigger in size than Alaska, Texas and California combined-- but I bet few Americans other than foreign policy doctoral students could find it on a map... or know anything at all about it. There are almost 20 million people living there, more people than your state, unless you live in California, Texas, Florida or (maybe) New York. And you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who could name the countries that Kazakhstan borders (Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). The capital is Nur-Sultan, (Akmola/Astana), renamed in 2019, after corrupt forever dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned that year in the midst of widespread anti-government demonstrations).
Historically, Kazakhstan was never an actual country, just part of other peoples' empires, the last of which was the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. It was the very last of the occupied territories to declare (nominal) independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It's been a brutal authoritarian dictatorship ever since. The Soviet era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, took over as dictator on independence day and ruled til he was forced in semi-retirement in 2019. The current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Nazarbayev puppet, assumed the presidency. Kazakh's refer to him as "Furniture."
Putin sent Russian paratroopers to Kazakhstan today to help Tokayev regain control of the country. The Kazakh army is fighting demonstrators all over the country, and hundreds of people have been killed, especially in Almaty, the country's biggest city and commercial capital. The government has shut down both the internet and cell service. Tokayev has labelled the protestors "foreign-trained terrorist gangs" and has called for troops from the military alliance Russia runs with the former Soviet captive nations it still controls, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan. Tokayev, on state TV today: "Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalised, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty… to take all possible actions to protect our state."
The Guardian interviewed one protestor who said "Nazarbayev and his family have monopolised all sectors, from banking to roads to gas. These protests are about corruption. It all started with the increase in gas prices but the real cause of the protests is poor living conditions of people, high prices, joblessness, corruption."
This morning Dan Bilefsky tried explaining the situation for NY Times readers. "The thousands of angry protesters who have taken to the streets of Kazakhstan," he wrote, "have created the biggest crisis to shake the autocratic Central Asian country since it gained independence in 1991. City Hall in Almaty, the country’s largest city, was set ablaze [as was a presidential residence]. An angry mob took over the airport. Protesters set fire to police vehicles and to the regional branch of the ruling Nur Otan party. The police, in turn, accused demonstrators of being responsible for the death of 13 officers and leaving 353 injured."
The events are a stark challenge to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev less than three years into his rule and are destabilizing an already volatile region where Russia and the United States compete for influence.
The protests also reflect widespread discontent about Kazakhstan’s suffocating authoritarian government and with endemic corruption that has resulted in wealth being concentrated within a small political and economic elite.
...The countries of the former Soviet Union are also watching the protests closely, and the events in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces elsewhere.
Kazakhstan also matters to the United States, as it has become a significant country for American energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this month.
Although it has close ties with Moscow, consecutive Kazakh governments have also maintained close links to the United States, with oil investment seen as a counterweight to Russian influence. The United States government has long been less critical of post-Soviet authoritarianism in Kazakhstan than in Russia and Belarus.
Earlier today, the government lowered the price of fuel to what it was 6 months ago; they had allowed it to double, which was the spark that set off the insurrection.