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Dozens are reported dead in Kazakhstan, where an anti-government revolt is underway

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn next to what's happening in a huge country we rarely hear from. In Kazakhstan, a revolt against the government is underway. So is the crackdown on that revolt. Dozens of protesters are reported killed as are multiple members of security forces. Troops from a Russian-led alliance are arriving. The president's entire cabinet has resigned. Internet was shut down across the country, so it's a little tough to gauge where exactly things stand at this hour.

I want to bring in the expertise of Melinda Haring from the Atlantic Council.

Welcome.

MELINDA HARING: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the latest, as far as we can tell, protesters have now set fire to the presidential palace. They have set fire to city hall in Almaty. What sparked these protests?

HARING: Mary Louise, the cause that we see is a spike in the price of gas. There were artificial price caps, and those caps were lifted on January 1. On January 2, protests began in western Kazakhstan. But this story is not about the price of gas. This story is about power. It's about inequality, and it's about a lack of political choice.

So when I say it's about power, the name that you need to know is Nazarbayev. He left power in 2019, and he left with one condition. He wanted to protect his stolen assets, and he wanted his family to be protected as well. But there was a problem. The elites in Kazakhstan didn't figure out a good way to divvy up power among themselves, which left Nazarbayev's hand-picked president, Tokayev, in a really weak position.

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. Tokayev didn't have the guns. He didn't have the backing of the security services or the military. So the situation's quickly spiraled out of control.

KELLY: OK. So the names we need to keep track of as we're trying to monitor what's happening there - Tokayev, the current president...

HARING: Right.

KELLY: ...Nazarbayev, who ruled for forever, for three decades, and has continued to exercise a lot of power from behind the scenes. Is it clear to you which way this power struggle might tip? Is it clear to you who's in power now?

HARING: So it's not obvious who's in charge. There's a lot of really disturbing sort of thuggish images, a lot of violence as well. But right now, it - Tokayev had to call in help. He called Moscow, and he begged for help. He called the Russian-led Collective Security and (ph) Treaty Organization. And there's about 3,000 troops on the ground in Kazakhstan now.

And what that means is that Kazakhstan's security services have to get behind Tokayev. And it also means that Moscow was able to prop up a leader who's domestically unpopular. And it's pretty cheap for them. But it also sends a menacing point to the rest of the region that if you step out of line, you may be next.

KELLY: This is not the only thing going on in this part of the world by a long shot. Is it a coincidence that all this broke out just as Russia seemed poised to invade Ukraine?

HARING: So the Russians are not happy about the timing. If you look at Russian newspapers, they're already looking for someone to blame. The Russians are saying that they set up a color (ph) revolution in Kazakhstan to distract from the security talks between Washington and Moscow next week. That's obviously false. So Russia's actions are going to be more limited in Ukraine as a result of the unrest in Kazakhstan. I think that's the interesting point.

KELLY: Why? Because Vladimir Putin is now having to keep his eye on two burgeoning crises in his neck of the woods?

HARING: That's right. There's a limit on how much Vladimir Putin can do. One theory is that he may want to try to retake the northern part of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population and huge energy reserves. But he would be overextended, right? He's put so many people on the ground outside of Ukraine.

KELLY: If I'm hearing you right, you're describing what is an increasingly unusual situation where a development is happening in a part of the world and for perhaps different reasons, but both Russia and the U.S. have reason to believe these are unwelcome developments. They would see eye to eye on at least that much?

HARING: So yes, I think that these are unwelcome developments both from Moscow and Washington. But right now, the situation is moving in a direction where Moscow will have a weak guy in charge who owes them big time. The Chinese aren't saying anything other than it's an internal matter, and Washington is issuing mealy mouthed statements. The West really isn't a player right now in Kazakhstan.

KELLY: Melinda Haring, deputy director at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, giving us some context for events unfolding in Kazakhstan.

Thank you.

HARING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGAINST ME! SONG, "HOLY S***!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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