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Kazakhstan’s Protests Aren’t a Color Revolution

The country’s widespread popular demonstrations transcended class, region, and politics—making them distinct from those in Belarus and Ukraine.

By , an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Affairs, and , an assistant professor in international relations at Near East University.
Burnt-out city administration building in Kazakhstan
The burnt-out city administration building in central Almaty, Kazakhstan, is seen following protests on Jan. 10. ALEXANDR BOGDANOV/Contributor

On Jan. 5, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a state of emergency, and two days later, he ordered police to shoot to kill “terrorists”—anyone who participated in the protests’ violent aftermath. “I didn’t think I’d see mass shootings I only knew from my babalar (“parents”),” Suinbike Suleimenova, a contemporary artist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, wrote on her Telegram channel. Her sentiment reflects both the ruling regime’s shocking turn to lethal violence after Kazakhstan’s nationwide protests last week and familiar historic grievances dating back to the 1986 uprising against Soviet rule in Almaty.

The protests started as peaceful demonstrations in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau region on Jan. 2 and quickly spread across all major cities within days. But they were soon reportedly hijacked by criminal groups who attacked law enforcement officers and set government buildings on fire. Opposition leaders and human rights activists point at possible collusion between criminal elements and members of the ruling regime, who sought chaos to justify the use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

Tokayev then called on members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to deploy peacekeeping troops to quell the violence following the domestic uprisings, citing an infiltration of foreign-trained terrorist groups. According to official reports, 164 people, including children, were killed in attacks following the unrest. (The Kazakh Information Ministry later only confirmed 44 deaths.) Nearly 10,000 people were detained.

On Jan. 5, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a state of emergency, and two days later, he ordered police to shoot to kill “terrorists”—anyone who participated in the protests’ violent aftermath. “I didn’t think I’d see mass shootings I only knew from my babalar (“parents”),” Suinbike Suleimenova, a contemporary artist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, wrote on her Telegram channel. Her sentiment reflects both the ruling regime’s shocking turn to lethal violence after Kazakhstan’s nationwide protests last week and familiar historic grievances dating back to the 1986 uprising against Soviet rule in Almaty.

The protests started as peaceful demonstrations in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau region on Jan. 2 and quickly spread across all major cities within days. But they were soon reportedly hijacked by criminal groups who attacked law enforcement officers and set government buildings on fire. Opposition leaders and human rights activists point at possible collusion between criminal elements and members of the ruling regime, who sought chaos to justify the use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

Tokayev then called on members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to deploy peacekeeping troops to quell the violence following the domestic uprisings, citing an infiltration of foreign-trained terrorist groups. According to official reports, 164 people, including children, were killed in attacks following the unrest. (The Kazakh Information Ministry later only confirmed 44 deaths.) Nearly 10,000 people were detained.

Most analyses of the protests defaulted to familiar descriptions of collective action in other countries, including comparisons to color revolutions, mobilizations in Belarus, Euromaidan in Ukraine, or even the Arab Spring against long-serving kleptocratic autocrats. These comparisons, however, simplify the reality.

Unlike protests in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Middle East, Kazakhstan showed a complex network of different forms of mobilization depending on location, the community’s history of previous protests, and the types of demands made. There is no single leader or dominant political group guiding the protests—not even an elaborate political agenda uniting the protesters.


Unlike in Belarus, Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, left no space for independent political opposition that could mobilize the masses. The protests also didn’t follow a contentious election like color revolutions in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Instead, even without unifying leaders or stolen elections, public grievances expanded in the past several years among multiple groups: disgruntled miners in oil fields, mothers demanding better public welfare and assistance payments, youth organizations expecting political changes, and underground political parties seeking national representation. For a while, these various groups seemed disconnected with conflicting demands and expectations.

The otherwise disparate grievances coalesced around residents of oil-rich Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, who could no longer afford basic commodities like liquified petroleum gas. Workers from local labor unions formed the backbone of the initial protests. Thanks to over a decade of experience in mobilizing for labor rights, on Jan. 4, they set clear demands for the election of governors and mayors (“akims”) to ensure political officials were held accountable to the local population and not to central authorities.

They also preempted any disorderly conduct among crowds by identifying any so-called hot heads and provocateurs. Finally, they installed a large tent with food supplies, portable bathrooms, and an equipped stage to voice their grievances.

Unlike protests in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Middle East, Kazakhstan showed a complex network of different forms of mobilization.

The structure of protests in Almaty and Nur-Sultan was different and more diverse. As sociologist Diana Kudaibergenova of Cambridge University explains in her ongoing research, both cities are hubs for political movements, including unregistered political parties like Kazakh opposition journalist Zhanbolat Mamay’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan; youth political movement Oyan, Qazaqstan (“Wake Up, Kazakhstan); the Republic movement; El Tirigi unregistered party; and others. The leaders of these political groups called their supporters to take to the streets in solidarity with the Zhanaozen protesters.

But the eventual number of people mobilized was unprecedented even for those who have protested in Almaty consistently since March 2019, when Nazarbayev voluntarily resigned from the presidency. Many ordinary people, dismayed over the quality of their living conditions, joined the demonstrators. These urban protests focused mostly on political changes and increasing welfare support from the regime.

Images of protests began to appear on social media between Jan. 2 and Jan. 5 and sparked waves of sporadic but nonviolent rallies in all major cities of the country. Initial protests were genuine, peaceful, and united by socioeconomic grievances from long-simmering economic crises among impoverished groups across the country. The protests lacked a single leader, but they shared a rough sentiment: Enough with the status quo, and demand for genuine political changes to end endemic corruption and reduce economic inequality. For a short period from Jan. 4 until mass violence broke in Almaty a day later, the country was united.


Seeing an unprecedented level of unity and collective action among Kazakh citizens, the regime responded swiftly. Tokayev formed a special committee to establish dialogue with the Mangystau protesters just a day after it started and promised to freeze the price for liquified petroleum gas—a fuel still used in older cars—for 180 days.

His economic program also included proposals for “political modernization”—a vague outline for future changes. But as soon as the governmental committee arrived in Mangystau, the protesters voiced their demands for political reforms and immediate resignation of their governor, further democratization, and a transition to a parliamentary republic. The same set of claims soon appeared in other parts of the country.

For 30 years since independence, Kazakhstan’s leadership emphasized the importance of political stability at the cost of top-down rule but accompanied it with economic growth thanks to the country’s vast energy and mineral resources. However, these resources were unequally distributed, with the regime appropriating most of the rents and sharing them with an inner circle of elites.

The inner circle controlled the most lucrative economic enterprises and used state support to expand the network of affiliated companies. In contrast, regular people survived on small salaries and used loans from banks controlled by people from the inner circle. Many engaged in providing informal taxi services as a second-income stream, and liquified petroleum gas prices were vital for making their ends meet. This two-tier structure was no longer durable; the hike in gas prices unleashed a whole range of the accompanied grievances.

Tokayev’s credibility was destroyed by his decision to appeal to a Russian-led military organization for help in quashing domestic protests over local grievances.

Over the past week, Kazakhstan demonstrated it is on its own path of political transformation from an oligarchic regime to a system where more voices will demand inclusion in public debate. Lack of an elaborate agenda or one leader in Kazakhstan’s popular uprising is a sign of both the depth of grievances with the political status quo and the protests’ wide appeal among the population. Had protests lasted longer, new leaders and a more lucid set of demands for the regime most likely would have emerged.

Tokayev’s hard-line approach will not solve the protests’ underlying causes.

On the contrary, the previously disparate circles of activists gained a new sense of unity from their connections with fellow citizens. This is an important milestone in the progression of social movements. For many in Kazakhstan, the two leaders at the top now look ever more detached from their population. By engaging with a regional military organization to suppress domestic dissent, the regime may buy time, but similar levels of mobilization are highly likely in the future. The Collective Security Treaty Organization may pacify the public for now, but Tokayev’s credibility was destroyed by his decision to appeal to a Russian-led military organization for help in quashing domestic protests over local grievances.

The popular uprising in Kazakhstan last week is also an inevitable part of breaking away from Soviet rule’s lasting legacies and an economy controlled by kleptocratic elites. Protesters demanded dismantling post-Soviet state institutions designed to serve the leaders at the top. Anti-regime collective mobilization is a sign of a more politically engaged society that expects participation in decision-making and free elections.

Unlike collective action in Belarus, a vibrant underground civil society emerged in Kazakhstan that doesn’t resemble the activists in Ukraine or Georgia in the 2000s, who relied heavily on nongovernmental organizations. Instead, Kazakhstan’s civil society is fluid and made up of various movements and individual activists like Suleimenova, who channel their political visions through art, online and offline discussions, and nonviolent protests. Unlike the Arab Spring, key political movements like “Wake Up, Kazakhstan” call for a peaceful and gradual transformation of the political system, and unlike the violent protests of 1986 that were concentrated in Almaty, a vast share of the population is ready to mobilize.

The leaderless rally paved the way for Kazakhstan’s very own political transition to a more inclusive and representative government. For now, mobilization failed to reach its goal of a new, reformed Kazakhstan. But the struggle continues in spite of Tokayev’s choice to rely on outside armed forces rather than domestic civil society.

Erica Marat is an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Affairs. The opinions presented here are her own and do not reflect the views of National Defense University, the U.S. Defense Department, or any other agency of the U.S. government. Twitter: @EricaMarat

Assel Tutumlu is an assistant professor in international relations at Near East University.

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