Over the last few days, a popular uprising has broken out in Kazakhstan. These almost unprecedented demonstrations have taken regional leadership by surprise, as well as attracting attention from the outside world. While movements of this scale are not unheard of in Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, for example, has seen outbreaks of popular demonstrations regularly since independence – it is the largest anti-government movement Kazakhstan has seen for a long time.
It is still too early to predict much of anything. At the time of publication, Kazakhstan has called on the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) to assist in quelling the uprising. Russian paratroopers are in Kazakhstan as part of this. Thousands have been arrested, with, at least, dozens killed in centres of the uprising, including the largest city, Almaty. The President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has granted permission for government soldiers and their allies to fire on protestors without warning.
How did this all happen?
New Leadership, Old Practices
While it is certainly possible to trace all the root causes of this movement much farther back, for the sake of brevity we will start in 2019. This was the year in which the long-serving first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down unexpectedly, giving way to his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Despite stepping away from the Presidency, Nazarbayev was handed the ability to continue to exert influence from behind the scenes. He was made the leader of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, with a lifetime appointment, and given the title “Elbasy,” or Leader of the Nation. The capital city of Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.
Nazarbayev was a master of his craft. He had a wide-reaching network in government, which blatantly rigged elections in his favour, as well as a personality cult, which pitched him as the sole person responsible for Kazakhstan’s success, and a tactic which distanced himself from bad governmental decisions. If the regime did something which drew controversy, he would blame it on the Prime Minister and the Government, dismissing them and drawing criticism away from himself.
For many years, while both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have been President, corruption has been rampant. Kazakhstan has a very strong economy, but much of the wealth from this goes to the ruling elite and members of their network. Much of the wealth comes from oil, with major oil production occurring in the city of Zhanaozen.
Smaller-scale protests have been an occurrence from around the mid-2010s as a result of the corruption – these are met with little concessions and a heavy-handed response from the government.
Petrol and Protests
At the start of the year, it was suddenly announced that petrol prices would be sharply increasing, to twice the original amount. This sparked protests in Zhanaozen, which then spread across other cities in Kazakhstan, notably to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. Government offices were stormed, with anger aimed originally at local governmental leaders – known as Akims – but then growing into a release of anger toward the government at large.
President Tokayev then tried the tactics which granted his predecessor such longevity. He declared a state of emergency in the regions where unrest was most prevalent, which was then followed by the resignation of the Government. This time, however, it did nothing. One of the main takeaways from the movement can already be seen – the people of Kazakhstan have had enough of the same old government, same old elites and same old lip-service.
Anger was also being directed at Nazarbayev, with some dramatic scenes of statues of the former President being torn down. This may have led to Tokayev’s most surprising action – dismissing Nazarbayev from the Security Council, effectively doing away with the last vestiges of the former President’s power. There are rumours that Nazarbayev is incapacitated, but these are so far unsubstantiated.
Still, this did nothing to quell the protests. Footage from some cities showed some of the police siding with the protestors. It was at this point which Tokayev committed to the heavy-handed approach. He called upon CSTO to help quell the uprising. Russian paratroopers have entered Kazakhstan to assist Kazakh troops. Protestors have been shot on sight and labelled as “bandits and terrorists”. Tokayev has also vowed to destroy the protests. Dozens have been killed in Almaty alone.
For years, the Kazakh government has been a master of publicity – it has enjoyed support from Russia, China, the US, EU and UK to name a few. Russia is actively supporting the government, with China, the US and the EU all expressing support despite saying they want the issue resolved as peacefully as possible. The image of stability is weakened – but it is not entirely unsalvageable, and that is where the worry lies.
One of the main issues in global politics is the globalisation of Authoritarianism. While few people may actively support the Kazakh government, our governments do. So much capital has flooded out of Authoritarian states – Central Asia’s regimes among them – into the UK, into the EU, into China, into the United States. Is it any wonder why the Kazakh government feels it can afford to be so heavy handed?
Alex Yeo is a PhD Student at the University of Glasgow, studying tradition and politics in the North Caucasus for his thesis. His articles concern East and Central Europe, Eurasia, Democracy and Authoritarianism. He has also worked in a research capacity for DGN.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.