Analysis

Kazakhstan’s Instability Has Been Building for Years

As violence subsides, the country’s future remains uncertain.

By , a Kazakhstan-born researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Washington University, and , a Kazakhstan-born independent researcher who focuses on politics and security in Central Asia.
A destroyed bank in Kazakhstan
A destroyed bank is seen in central Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 8, after violence erupted following protests over hikes in fuel prices. Alexandr Bogdanov/AFP via Getty Images

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In the first days of 2022, Kazakhstan was seized by the most intense and violent protests in its 30-year history of independence. Although they started as small-scale protests in West Kazakhstan amid New Year’s celebrations, the events grew into large-scale looting and violence in the country’s largest city, Almaty, within a matter of days. Spurred initially by rising gas prices, problems that have been brewing for decades exploded, producing brutal retaliatory violence from the state, with evidence also suggesting internal struggles among its elites.

This isn’t Kazakhstan’s first round of repression, though the scale is much greater than in the past. Mass protests first started in Zhanaozen, a town in the western region of Mangystau, where, in December 2011, protests over labor conditions at oil fields, a primary source of wealth in the country, were brutally shut down by then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government, leaving at least 16 protesters dead.

Ten years later, on Jan. 2, hundreds of protesters, outraged by the sudden price hike of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from 60 tenge per liter ($0.14) to 120 tenge ($0.28), took to the streets. The prosperity of Mangystau, replete with natural resources, had not been equally shared. Although the oil-rich region provides the majority of wealth in the nation, for locals, it remains economically stagnant as rising inequality and widespread corruption are at the forefront of daily life. The sudden price hike on gas in the region, which most cars rely on, was seen as another government failure to ensure the economic security of its people. The Kazakhstan Ministry of Energy justified the increase with the transition to electronic trading for LPG, which entailed a gradual end of subsidies for domestic consumers and a shift to market prices through online platforms.

In the first days of 2022, Kazakhstan was seized by the most intense and violent protests in its 30-year history of independence. Although they started as small-scale protests in West Kazakhstan amid New Year’s celebrations, the events grew into large-scale looting and violence in the country’s largest city, Almaty, within a matter of days. Spurred initially by rising gas prices, problems that have been brewing for decades exploded, producing brutal retaliatory violence from the state, with evidence also suggesting internal struggles among its elites.

This isn’t Kazakhstan’s first round of repression, though the scale is much greater than in the past. Mass protests first started in Zhanaozen, a town in the western region of Mangystau, where, in December 2011, protests over labor conditions at oil fields, a primary source of wealth in the country, were brutally shut down by then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government, leaving at least 16 protesters dead.

Ten years later, on Jan. 2, hundreds of protesters, outraged by the sudden price hike of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from 60 tenge per liter ($0.14) to 120 tenge ($0.28), took to the streets. The prosperity of Mangystau, replete with natural resources, had not been equally shared. Although the oil-rich region provides the majority of wealth in the nation, for locals, it remains economically stagnant as rising inequality and widespread corruption are at the forefront of daily life. The sudden price hike on gas in the region, which most cars rely on, was seen as another government failure to ensure the economic security of its people. The Kazakhstan Ministry of Energy justified the increase with the transition to electronic trading for LPG, which entailed a gradual end of subsidies for domestic consumers and a shift to market prices through online platforms.

This initial dissatisfaction broadened to encompass other socioeconomic and political demands as protests across the entire country drew thousands of people. Nationwide dissent peaked on Jan. 5, when protesters in Almaty clashed with security forces. The former capital has been ravaged by fighting between riot police and protesters as well as looting and vandalism that led to the destruction of both private and public property.

Kazakhstan was once seen as an example of authoritarian stability despite a weak civil society. However, the prerequisites for political instability emerged long before 2022 as unaddressed grievances led to increasing public dissatisfaction. The crash of the tenge, Kazakhstan’s currency, in 2015 amid low oil prices; public disapproval of selling land to China in 2016; lavish spending on EXPO 2017; the resignation of long-term autocrat Nazarbayev from the presidency (only to take up another position of power) and subsequent renaming of the capital after him in 2019; and the devastating effects of COVID-19 are just a few instances of public frustration with the regime.

Trying to avoid repercussions for his long autocratic rule, in 2019, Nazarbayev attempted a long-planned symbolic transfer of power while remaining in charge of high-stake decisions behind the scenes. Although he was no longer president, Nazarbayev still led Kazakhstan’s Security Council, a powerful body, the decisions of which are “are mandatory and are subject to strict execution by state bodies, organisations and officials” in the country. Some, especially in Russia, praised this model and deemed it an example for other autocrats of the post-Soviet space, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although initial protests started over the spike in gas prices, it only served as a trigger. As Diana Kudaibergenova, a lecturer in political sociology at the University of Cambridge who specializes on Kazakhstan, tweeted the world needs to contextualize the current unrest and see beyond the parochial focus on gas price: “These are NOT just ‘gas protests.’ Seeing it like that simplifies it and steals the voice of the protestors who are also demanding significant political reforms like electing local governors and moving to a parliamentary republic.”

Indeed, the Central Asia Protest Tracker, a dataset compiled by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, suggests out of 981 recorded incidents in five Central Asian countries from January 2018 to August 2020, 520 protest events took place in Kazakhstan. The 2022 protests are not an isolated spate of anger but rather a culmination of the trend toward political mobilization. In the two and half years Oxus tracked, half of the recorded instances in Kazakhstan were connected to calls for political reform or softening repression. At the same time, the country saw the emergence of new social movements demanding political reforms, such as Oyan, Qazaqstan (“Wake Up, Kazakhstan!”) and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan.

The protests have been heterogeneous: They unraveled disparately in different cities and included a diverse array of actors on the ground. This heterogeneity is partially responsible for the protests’ rapid spread from a small town in western Kazakhstan to all the regions and major cities of the country, with protesters having no unified agenda nor leadership. While in the western part of the country, the events remain relatively calm, in Almaty, the initially peaceful gathering turned into violent public unrest.

Eyewitnesses explained mass looting by claiming Almaty was taken over by young men, many of them armed, who raged through the streets and broke into banks, businesses, and state property. There’s certainly plenty of anger brewing in Almaty. According to the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakh unemployment increased by 12 percent in 2021. It disproportionately affected internal migrants, such as young men with low-income backgrounds who came to cities from rural areas in search of job opportunities. The lockdowns and decreasing revenue from oil ended opportunities and created anger. Kazakhstan is a young country—the median age in Kazakhstan is just 30.7 years—and the protesters have been overwhelmingly young men. Although these men have taken to the streets after the initial protests, the world does not know exactly who turned the peaceful protests into looting. There are now questions regarding police and armed forces’ low participation in protecting administrative buildings and streets from looting in Almaty.

Lukpan Akhmedyarov, editor in chief of independent media outlet Uralskaya Nedelya, suggested another theory. The overly destructive nature of the dissent in Almaty reflects the ongoing power struggle among the elites: Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s faction and Nazarbayev’s extended family are both struggling to control the wealthiest city. Allegedly, Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew and deputy chairman of the National Security Committee, has informal control over local security forces, leaving Tokayev unable to command military and security elites. “The president is compelled to reach out to Collective Security Treaty Organization … because he can see that he cannot cope alone as the military is not obeying him,” Akhmedyarov said.

The firing and subsequent arrest of former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov—former head of the National Security Committee and one of Nazarbayev’s closest loyalists—for high treason fall in line with this theory. The looters somehow got a hold of the National Security Committee’s highly protected weapons arsenal and went on to devastate the city. Yet, it is difficult to make conclusive explanations of what has happened and what to expect, given that communication channels in the country have functioned sparsely and social media is replete with mis- and disinformation.

What remains clear is Kazakhstan is in the most vulnerable position it has ever been in during its modern history. First, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s military might manage to quell the protests, the long-term costs to the country are painful and serious. It is still unclear how long the foreign troops will stay, with some Russian politicians suggesting they should stay permanently. This possibility is fraught with the danger of increased hostilities between the Kazakh- and Russian-speaking populations of the country, with the Russian-speaking population concentrated in the northern territories bordering Russia. As Putin pledged to protect ethnic Russians living abroad, this linguistic fractionalization has potential to become a subject of interethnic clashes or separatist movements.

If Nazarbayev has fallen for good, it is not clear how the state will choose to frame the official narrative of Nazarbayev’s legacy and how it will deal with his political clan. The complete disappearance of Nazarbayev and his family from the public view since the start of the protests only amplifies this uncertainty. Ultimately, Kazakhstan’s unfolding events are also humanitarian issues. The country will have to build back its infrastructure, assist those in need, and ensure the supply of necessities. Kazakhstan will also need to work on more intangible assets, including its institutions and international image of stability and prosperity, which the regime has carefully crafted for the last 30 years. With 164 people dead and thousands of people detained as of now, the government and people of Kazakhstan will need to find a way to overcome the trauma of its independent history’s deadliest protests.

Raushan Zhandayeva is a Kazakhstan-born researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Washington University.

Alimana Zhanmukanova is a Kazakhstan-born independent researcher who focuses on politics and security in Central Asia.

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