What's behind unrest rocking Kazakhstan

Moscow: Kazakhstan is experiencing the worst street protests the country has seen since gaining independence three decades ago. Government buildings have been set ablaze and at least eight law enforcement officers have been killed.

The outburst of instability is causing significant concern in Kazakhstan's two powerful neighbours: Russia and China.

The country sells most of its oil exports to China and is a key strategic ally of Moscow.

A sudden spike in the price of car fuel at the start of the year triggered the first protests in a remote oil town in the west.

But the tens of thousands who have since surged onto the streets across more than a dozen cities and towns now have the entire authoritarian government in their sights.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has cut an increasingly desperate figure.

He first sought to mollify the crowds by dismissing the entire government early Wednesday.

But by the end of the day he had changed tack.

First, he described demonstrators as terrorists. Then he appealed to a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for help in crushing the uprising and the CSTO agreed to send an unspecified number of peacekeepers.

Why are people angry?

Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and the wealthiest. It spans a territory the size of Western Europe and sits atop colossal reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals.

But while Kazakhstan's natural riches have helped it cultivate a solid middle class, as well as a substantial cohort of ultrarich tycoons, financial hardship is widespread.

The average national monthly salary is just under 600. The banking system has fallen prey to deep crises precipitated by non-performing loans. As in much of the rest of the region, petty corruption is rampant.

The rally that set off the latest crisis took place in the dusty western oil town of Zhanaozen. Resentments have long festered in the area over a sense that the region's energy riches haven't been fairly spread among the local population.

Who is leading the protests?

The suppression of critical voices in Kazakhstan has long been the norm. Any figures aspiring to oppose the government have either been repressed, sidelined, or coopted.

So although these demonstrations have been unusually large some drawing more than 10,000 people, a large number for Kazakhstan no protest movement leaders have emerged.

How are authorities responding?

The initial reaction was in keeping with usual policy in the face of public discontent. Police and the National Guard have been deployed in large numbers. With government buildings coming under assault in several large cities, Tokayev appealed for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military alliance.

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