Speed Reads

Kazakhstan protests

3 ways of looking at Kazakhstan's remarkable, complicated upheaval

The large, oil-rich Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan began Friday — Christmas for the country's Orthodox Christians — with at least 26 protesters killed over six days of mass protests, 18 dead security force members, burned presidential residences and government buildings, and more than 2,500 Russian-led "peacekeepers" in the country, as part of the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization's (CSTO) first military deployment.

Nobody knows how the biggest public uprising in Kazakstan's recent history will end, but here are three theories on where we are now.

1. A post-presidential coup

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had to call in Russian troops to help him contain the unrest — and also dislodge the man he nominally replaced in 2019, founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, from power. "The best way to describe what we're seeing in the last four days is a coup by the current president, Tokayev, against Nazarbayev, the old president," Melinda Haring, at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, tells NPR. "Tokayev didn't have the guns. He didn't have the backing of the security services or the military." Now, thanks to Russia, he has both.

2. A win for Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin answered Tokayev's distress call, "but such assistance is seldom offered free of charge," Andrew Higgins writes in The New York Times, And "one of "Putin's most cherished long-term goals" is reasserting Russia's "influence in its former Soviet domain."

Kazakhstan has maintained friendly ties with both Moscow and Washington. But as in other former Soviet satellites, "boom, you get a crisis and they turn to Russia," Maxim Suchkov at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations tells the Times. And once Russian troops arrive, he added, they seldom ever leave. The Kremlin isn't thrilled about Kazakhstan's unrest, Haring says. "But right now, the situation is moving in a direction where Moscow will have a weak guy in charge who owes them big time."

3. A breather for Ukraine

One risk for Putin is that, as in Ukraine, a military intervention will turn the generally pro-Moscow Kazahk population against Russia. But a more immediate problem is that "Russia's actions are going to be more limited in Ukraine as a result of the unrest in Kazakhstan," Haring tells NPR. Russia has amassed 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, and even 2,500 elite Russian troops can't stop an organized uprising in a fed-up country of 19 million people. "There's a limit on how much Vladimir Putin can do," she said.