"OLD man out!” echoes the protesters' rallying cry. But this weekend, as the vast Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan reels from political unrest and Russian paratroopers deploy as part of a contingent to quell street demonstrations, the “old man”, 81-year-old former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, is nowhere to be seen.

As ruler for nearly three decades, ­Nazarbayev quit the presidency back in 2019 bequeathing power to his hand-picked successor President Kassym- Jomart Tokayev, but most Kazakhs have never doubted who remained the real force in their land. Now the time has come it appears for them to try and strip Nazarbayev once and for all of his ­de-facto lifetime status as “Leader of the Nation.”

For this was a position which not only afforded Nazarbayev broad powers and privileges, including immunity from ­prosecution, but up until a few days ago also saw him as head of Kazakhstan’s powerful security council. Only Tokayev’s decision to remove Nazarbayev from the post, most likely to draw heat out of the protests, saw the former president side-lined for the first time.

But while former steel worker ­Nazarbayev has been the focus of the protester’s ire, on Kazakhstan’s streets the chant of “old man out” has taken on a broader meaning, too, with the entire political establishment now in the cross hairs of a people fed up with authoritarian diktats.

President Tokayev himself appears to have recognised the clear and ­present danger from the fiercest protests of ­Kazakhstan’s post-communist era. These past days he has taken the dramatic step “in overcoming this terrorist threat” of requesting assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of six post-Soviet states formed in 1994 which replaced the ­Warsaw Pact for Russia and some Central Asian states.

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It’s an unprecedented response, the first deployment in the 28 years since the CSTO’s creation, with Russia taking the lead in a combined military operation alongside the alliance’s other five member states Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in coming to the “aid” of fellow member Kazakhstan.

So just how did the situation in ­Kazakhstan get to this crisis point? What too does it mean for the country’s future and how will this latest flash point involving Russian military intervention play out alongside other crises in which Moscow is currently embroiled such as Ukraine, that already has Europe, the US and Nato ­allies nervous?

Before addressing these questions it’s probably worth providing some context for readers who might be unfamiliar with Kazakhstan, a country resource rich and larger than Western Europe.

To being with it’s important to ­recognise that Kazakhstan has up until now not been quite the political cauldron events of the last week suggest. If anything, it’s long been viewed as a bastion of stability in otherwise volatile Central Asia.

Located between Russia and China and sharing borders with three other ex-Soviet republics, it is the largest economy in the region and rich in hydrocarbon and metal deposits.

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Ever since becoming independent in 1991 it has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment being the world’s ninth biggest oil exporter and the top global producer of uranium which prompted an 8% jump in the price of the metal that fuels nuclear power plants as last week’s crisis took hold.

These resources alone make Kazakhstan of huge economic regional significance leading to it describing itself as the “buckle” in China’s huge “Belt and Road” trade project. It has also for ­almost two decades until now led to what some ­observers have described as an ­“unspoken social contract” in Kazakhstan, whereby the populace made compromises over its civil liberties in exchange for Nazarbayev and more recently Tokayev ensuring ­economic prosperity and growth.

Let’s put up with autocratic rule ­provided such things thrive went the ­prevailing thinking as many Kazakhs looked around at their unstable and often chaotic Central Asian neighbours.

So, what then brought about their ­sudden change in attitude toward the ­ruling regime in the country’s ­capital ­Nur-Sultan, named tellingly after ­Nazarbayev himself?

The short answer is the Kazakh ­government’s decision to remove the cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas or LPG. For years it had controlled the ­prices of this commodity but at the start of January lifted the fuel caps, arguing they were unsustainable. Literally ­overnight the price of LPG doubled, bad news for the less well off in a country where the ­average salary is less than £7000 a year.

The move sparked public meetings ­notably in western Kazakhstan the home of the country’s natural resources ­sector where roughly 80% of vehicles are ­powered with LPG.

This public disquiet flowed over on to the streets and protests almost immediately broke out in the run-down but oil rich town of Zhanaozen, in the west of the country. These protests quickly spread even though to snuff them out ­Tokayev ­responded by promising to reverse the LPG price hike while dismissing his ­cabinet and Nazarbayev from his Security Council role.

Suddenly, the public mood was vastly different from barely three years ago when the government first resolved to end subsidies on LPG in a decision that attracted very little public attention at the time.

As far as many Kazakhs were ­concerned the ruling elite had now ­broken its ­“contract” with the people over ­economic prosperity in return for ­toeing the ­political line. The upshot is that ­Kazakhstan now finds itself in a state of emergency with the very existence of the regime under threat, all of which points to other underlying political grievances as well as the specific one of fuel prices.

In the space of a few days, protesters have stormed buildings in Almaty, the country’s largest city and briefly took over the airport, with reports that dozens of people, including citizens and security personnel have been killed, many more wounded and thousands reportedly arrested.

With a government crackdown ­underway on local and foreign media and a wide-scale internet blackout, detailed and accurate eyewitness reports from the ground have been difficult to come by and verify, but some have made it out.

In a dispatch for the Latvia-based Russian and English language online newspaper Meduza, local journalist Aysulu Toyshibekova interviewed protesters, who described scenes on the streets of Almaty.

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One woman called “Nazgul” (whose name had been changed at her request) told how she saw protesters seize the city administration building and a few people in military uniforms were taken out of the building before her eyes.

“It was unbelievably scary, because the aggression was strong, but it was ­manageable and humane somehow. It was clear that people were angry at the regime, but nice to each other,” explained Nazgul.

“Some started getting beaten. People held them back from each other and said: ‘Don’t beat them, they’re just like us, they just followed orders’. The wounded, ­including soldiers, were taken to ­hospitals by the protesters in their own cars,” she continued.

Another demonstrator, called “Aynur”, told Meduza how she too joined the ­protests last week.

“Today I woke up and realised that it was no longer possible to sit around, that all of Kazakhstan had gone out … and I’ve become convinced that these are people who are demanding not survival, but a normal life. History is happening right now. No matter how it ends, this is a ­turning point.”

Whether it is indeed a turning point for the country remains to be seen, not least given that at Tokayev’s request a Russian led CSTO, military deployment is now ­underway to tackle what the ­Kazakh ­president describes without giving ­evidence as foreign trained “terrorists.”

“We had to deal with armed and well-prepared bandits, local as well as foreign. More precisely, with terrorists,” said 68-year-old Tokayev who on Friday ­authorised security forces to “fire without warning”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russian ­officials take a similar view of the protests with diplomats in Moscow insisting that it was an “externally incited” attempt to undermine the security and integrity of the state.

Last Thursday, Russian paratroopers from the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (KSOR) of the CSTO began arriving in Kazakhstan raising questions over the ­legality of the operation.

According to Article Four of the CSTO charter, collective force in the absence of external aggression against a member state is not codified, though neither is it strictly prohibited.

Time and again from 2005 through to 2020 in other member states from ­Kyrgyzstan to Nagorno-Karabakh and Tajikistan where unrest or conflict has erupted the CSTO has not intervened. But as some observers have also noted, none of these countries involved share a 7000-kilometre border with Russia, as ­Kazakhstan does.

Analysts say that given the CSTO’s past reluctance to treat domestic turmoil as a collective security threat, helps explain why both the Kazakh and Russian governments are keen to carefully craft phrasing for the current crisis in Kazakhstan to ­include the role of international “terrorist bands.”

Also, in terms of its own mandate the KSOR permits actions against not just ­external aggression but also “counterterrorism”, as well as “other tasks ­determined by the Collective Security Council”. This in effect, as Meduza ­pointed out in its ­edition last Thursday, means the KSOR can be used for almost any purpose.

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Which brings us to the question of just how significant Russian deployment is in this latest crisis running alongside that in Ukraine, where the threat of a possible full-scale intervention from Moscow has given Washington and its Nato allies the jitters.

For some time now Russian ­nationalists have had an eye on northern ­Kazakhstan in much the same way they have on ­eastern Ukraine. Ethnic Russians ­comprise 18% of the Kazakhstan’s ­population, and they, along with more than 60% of the ­country’s hydrocarbon resources are ­concentrated in the north, not far from the Russian border.

But some observers insist that there are substantial differences between the ­situations in eastern Ukraine and ­northern Kazakhstan, saying that ­despite the Kazakh government’s willingness to seek Moscow’s assistance in the ­current crisis it has in the past been more ­outward looking even toward the United States and China which have been investing in Kazakhstan’s energy sector.

More likely by far, say regional ­watchers, is that Tokayev with his back to the wall has almost no choice but to seek ­Kremlin assistance, which in turn is what one ­analyst – Erica Marat Associate ­Professor at the national Defence University in the US – described as “an easy win” for ­Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Aiding the Kazakh regime in this ­relatively low-cost way Marat told ­Politico magazine, will make it “more submissible” to the Kremlin.

Seen from Washington’s perspective meanwhile, experts agree there is little the US can do in a country where it has limited leverage, other than “express concern” and pushing the regime to use restraint, respect human rights and back good-governance reforms. But for now, as Kazakhstan wrestles with its future there remains is precious little sign of that happening.

Fuel prices might have acted as a ­trigger to the current unrest, but much more deep-rooted grievances remain in a country where about a million people out of a total population of 19 million are ­estimated to live below the poverty line.

The regime’s inability to fix systemic issues like economic mobility and widespread corruption will doubtless mean that oligarchs will continue to line their pockets at the expense of the many.

It doesn’t help of course as a ­recent headline in an online article by ­independent media platform ­openDemocracy pointed out that as “Kazakhstan burns over ­inequality, the elite’s wealth is safe and sound in London”.

Citing a recent report by Chatham House it’s estimated that Kazakhstan’s elite owns at least £530.4m of luxury property in London and the southeast, with some £330m of that owned by the extended Nazarbayev family itself.

Only last year Nazarbayev family property attracted the attention of the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) which brought an Unexplained Wealth Order case against three properties. Meanwhile as The Guardian newspaper reported only a few days ago, newly knighted Sir Tony Blair is one of several well-paid ­western advisers who in the past have helped polish the image of Nazarbayev and his regime.

Back in 2011 following an uprising demanding higher wages in Zhanaozen, the same town that acted as the flashpoint for the current protests, Nazarbayev invited Blair to give him strategic advice after Kazakh security forces shot dead 14 people.

The West then has often ­accommodated Kazakhstan’s autocratic regime, which will make it even more difficult to take the moral high ground in support of those Kazakhs facing the current crackdown and who quite simply have probably had enough of their “elites”.