Damage from tropical cyclone Cody in Fiji leads to a government warning on diseases. Drone strikes targeting Tigray hit a camp for displaced Ethiopians. Ugandan students are back at school after two-year closure. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kazakhstan quells protests over rising fuel prices

A burnt-out vehicle remains in the middle of a Kazakhstan street after the eruption of protests sparked by rising fuel prices.
A burnt-out vehicle remains in the middle of a Kazakhstan street after the eruption of protests sparked by rising fuel prices.
Credit: Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Sipa USA

Great power rivalry

Kazakhstan: On January 1, the government in Kazakhstan ended its subsidies for liquefied petroleum gas – which is used in more than 70 per cent of the country’s cars – causing prices at gas stations to double. On January 2, hundreds of people staged a protest in the western town of Zhanaozen. Within days, the protests had spread across the country and began to encompass broader demands for an end to corruption and for democratic reforms. As the demonstrations continued, violence broke out, reportedly due to the involvement of criminal gangs and regime loyalists.

In response, Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, last week claimed he was the victim of an attempted coup and ordered a crackdown in which security forces were authorised to shoot to kill. He also invited the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – an alliance of six former Soviet states – to send troops. The intervention of CSTO was seen as a show of support by Moscow for Tokayev, who has reportedly been engaged in a power struggle with his predecessor.

By Monday, 44 people had been killed in the crackdown, including 16 members of the security forces, according to the government. Almost 8000 people had been detained. Tokayev said that the CSTO’s mission had been “successfully completed” and that its forces would withdraw from Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the CSTO’s 2500 troops had been crucial to quelling the uprising, blaming the violence on “meddling” by foreign-backed militants. He did not name countries but has long accused the West of backing revolts in former Soviet states.

Moscow’s intervention in Kazakhstan followed the recent mobilisation of about 100,000 Russian troops to the border with Ukraine, raising fears of an invasion. Russian officials held talks with the United States and NATO this week to discuss the crisis. Russia demanded Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and the US remove troops and equipment from eastern European countries that are now NATO members – demands the US rejected.     

Following the initial talks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “So far, let’s say we see no significant reason for optimism.”

The neighbourhood

Fiji: A cyclone caused heavy flooding in Fiji this week, forcing more than 4000 people to evacuate their homes and raising concerns about the spread of typhoid and other diseases.

The flash flooding across the country caused power blackouts, blocked roads and left some villages stranded. Authorities said 4069 people had been evacuated to 156 shelters. One person died while trying to cross a flooded river.

As residents prepared to return to their homes, the health ministry urged people to wear boots and gloves to avoid water-borne and communicable diseases. Following cyclones in 2020 and 2021, authorities in Fiji recorded more than 5400 cases of leptospirosis, typhoid, dengue and diarrhoea, which led to at least six deaths.

Disaster management officials also warned of the risk of Covid-19 spreading in evacuation centres. On Wednesday, Fiji recorded 204 new Covid-19 cases from 576 tests, as well as seven deaths.

Democracy in retreat

Ethiopia: The government in Ethiopia has been blamed for a series of devastating drone strikes, including an attack in which bombs were dropped at midnight on a camp for people displaced during the country’s 14-month-old civil war.

The attack on the camp, in the town of Dedebit, killed 59 people and injured more than 100. An aid worker who visited survivors in hospital told Reuters: “They told me the bombs came at midnight. It was completely dark and they couldn’t escape.”

On Monday, a further attack killed 17 people at a flour mill. On Tuesday, an attack killed two people.

Before the latest attacks, at least 146 people had been killed in air strikes in the northern region of Tigray since mid-October. Obtaining accurate information from the region is difficult due to a communications blackout. Tigrayan forces accused the government of orchestrating the drone attacks. Government and military officials refused to comment. The government has repeatedly denied targeting civilians with air strikes.

Fighting erupted in November 2020 following growing tensions between Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF, a political party, had been sidelined by Abiy after previously being part of the country’s ruling coalition.

The war has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and has left about 400,000 people in Tigray facing famine.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden spoke to Abiy and raised concerns about the recent air attacks and political detentions. The leaders agreed to work towards a ceasefire. Abiy said on Twitter the conversation had been “candid”.

Spotlight: World’s longest shutdown

Schools in Uganda reopened this week after a closure that lasted almost two years and affected more than 10 million students, including a large number who have started jobs and may never complete their education.

The shutdown – which began in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic – has set back efforts to promote education in Uganda, where about 23 per cent of adults are illiterate. Thousands of schools are expected to remain closed due to financial problems, while many teachers found new sources of income and do not plan to return to teaching. The government believes up to a third of students are unlikely to resume their schooling after finding work, marrying or becoming pregnant.

According to the United Nations, Uganda’s schools were closed for 83 weeks, longer than in any other country. The government tried to encourage remote learning and to spread educational materials via the internet, radio, television and newspapers, but fewer than half of students participated. Many could not access the materials or needed to work to support their families, and many parents were unable to help their children due to work commitments or their own limited schooling.

In a tweet about the lengthy closure, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said: “We can’t let this happen again. We must keep schools open for every child, everywhere.”

Authorities want returning students to move to the grade above the one they were in before the pandemic, despite objections from some parents.

Vanetta Bangi, a parent who lives in Kampala, told BBC News this week: “Before the first lockdown our children had only been in school for two weeks. So it is a bit concerning that they are now promoting them to the next class.”

The government has been heavily criticised for the long closure but is now facing questions about the decision to reopen. Uganda, which has 45 million residents, is in the grip of an Omicron outbreak, yet only about 3 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "Russia backs Kazakhstan's president amid protests, killings".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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