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A pedestrian walks past a burnt-out fire engine in central Almaty A pedestrian walks past a burnt-out fire engine in central Almaty  (AFP or licensors)

Kazakhstan protests ‘could spark anti-Western flareup’

As Kazakh police arrest the former intelligence chief and anti-government protests continue, a former missionary priest warns that the crisis is political and could turn into a nationalist and anti-Western campaign.

By Devin Watkins

Violent protests engulfing Kazakhstan represent a “real political crisis” and are no simple revolt against a hike in fuel prices.

Father Edoardo Canetta offered that assessment of the volatile situation in the Central Asian nation in remarks to the Vatican’s Fides news agency.

The Italian Catholic priest spent 20 years in Kazakhstan as a missionary, five of them as Vicar General of Central Asia, and now works as a professor at the Ambrosian Academy in Milan.

Fuel sparked a conflagration

Demonstrations erupted on 2 January in the town of Zhanaozen after the government scrapped a price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), leading to a doubling in prices.

The government then rowed back the price cap removal for 6 months, but by then protests had engulfed the nation, especially the financial center, Almaty.

Speaking to Fides, Fr. Canetta pointed out that Kazakhs most affected by the fuel price rise are of the new upper middle class, since many poorer citizens who make up half the population do not own cars.

“Until last year,” he said, “fuel in Kazakhstan cost 40 cents a liter, an unthinkable price in Italy. Today those prices have been doubled, and at the same time inflation has reached very high peaks.”

These factors roiled car-owning Kazakhs, who he said do not understand “why a country that ‘floats’ on gas and oil must pay so much for oil and gas.”

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Threats on the horizon

Kazakhstan has vast oil and gas reserves, but around three-quarters of production is exported.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was in dire poverty and signed long-term contracts with oil and gas companies at the expense of future profits.

Those contracts are still valid today, and see the foreign companies pay only a small percentage of extraction profits to the country.

“Large foreign companies have enriched themselves from this activity carried out on Kazakh territory which, on the other hand, have supported investments and brought technology, research, and human resources,” said Fr. Canetta. “The Kazakh people, however, do not understand the reason for these agreements and continue to claim ownership of the deposits.”

For these reasons, the anti-government sentiment could boil over into anger against the West and the oil and gas supermajors operating alongside Kazakh oil companies, according to Fr. Canetta.

Volatile situation

As protesters turned violent, torching cars and state buildings, the government launched a brutal crackdown, with the president ordering troops to fire on demonstrators without warning.

Dozens have been killed, and thousands detained. The internet was quickly shut off, and telephone connections are unreliable.

The Director of Caritas Kazakhstan, Fr. Guido Trezzani, told Fides that his staff have been unable to reach their office in Almaty.

“We are about a kilometer and a half from the government building, and we hear gunshots,” said Fr. Trezzani.

He added that Caritas staff is currently safe but that the best thing right now is to stay at home.

08 January 2022, 14:26