By Ayjaz Wani
Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan, a Central Asian Republic, witnessed its biggest public protest on 2 January 2022. The people of the western town of Zhanaozen stormed the streets, protesting against the halt of state subsidies on Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), one of the primary vehicle fuels. The surge in fuel prices was a catalyst that bonded the people of Kazakhstan—from villages, towns, and cities—to also demand resolution of their other long-pending grievances. These include unfulfilled promises by the authoritarian rule on combating corruption, uplifting restrictions on civil rights and individual freedoms, and no detention of political opponents, journalists, and rights groups. The lack of democracy and inequality that has been exacerbated during the ongoing pandemic have only increased the dissent amongst the ordinary Kazaks.
Within four days, thousands of anti-government protesters stormed airports, TV stations, government buildings, and business centres with the binding slogan of “Shal Ket!” (Old men must go). Thousands were injured, dozens killed, and more than 3,000 people arrested by the authorities to quell the growing violence that spread across the country. Following the death of 18 security forces and more than 784 injured, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was forced to impose a nationwide state of emergency and a ban on mass gatherings. The President also accused foreign-trained “terrorist gangs” of being behind the violence, and sought help from CSTO—the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He also dismissed the Prime Minister and his cabinet and rolled-back the policy of halting the subsidies on LPG.
Responding to the “Old men must go” slogan that had acted as a glue for the protests, the President also removed his powerful predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev from the National Security Council to satisfy the protesters. Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew, was similarly ousted from the position of first deputy head of the National Security Council. Subsequently, internet was shut down to stop the unrest and connectivity levels plunged to zero across the country, which dealt a severe blow to the global bitcoin operations.
Dissent and protests in Kazakhstan
In the last 30 years, Kazakhstan had witnessed substantial economic growth driven by exports of fossil fuels, oil and gas, uranium and coal. The country has 3 percent of global oil resources and important gas, uranium, and coal reserves. However, despite its economy hitting a rosy patch, the government adopted zero-tolerance towards any protests and dissent as thousands were detained including those who just walked past the peaceful demonstrations. Even small protests were a rarity and those who tried to show dissent against the government were jailed for months, even years. The country ranks 158th out of 180 in press freedom. Many journalists have been put behind bars and the offices of independent press shut down.
Despite the government’s heavy handedness, Kazakhstan has seen sporadic protests from time to time. In 2011, labour unrest erupted in Zhanaozen town, when workers from Ozenmunaigas oil field protested against their poor wages and working conditions. The resultant government action led to the killing of at least 14 protestors. Similarly, the resentment towards China’s growing influence has seen an upswing since 2016, when people protested in huge numbers against the country’s Land Code that enabled government to sell or lease out agricultural land to foreigners/Chinese for a period of 25 years.
The protests stemmed from the increasing public perception that Chinese investors will use land ownership in Kazakhstan to gradually exercise their influence and dominance on internal matters. In the government crackdown, hundreds of protestors including environmental activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayanov, were arrested.
In 2019, the tragic death of five girls at Astana also sparked protests for better social welfare, healthcare, and improved housing. The Chinese issue became an important dimension of the protests in subsequent years. China’s economic invasion of Kazakhstan and its human rights abuses towards ethnic Kazaks and Uyghurs living in Xinjiang have continued to trigger protests across the country. On 21 September 2019, the authorities detained 57 anti-China protestors in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. The plan to receive Chinese assistance for the construction of 55 new industrial facilities has also seen fierce resistance.
From Nazarbayev to Tokayev nothing changed
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first and only president, resigned on 19 March 2019 and was replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who previously served as the Prime Minister also in charge of the foreign ministry. The elections for the new president took place in July 2019 in the absence of any opposition. The election day saw countrywide demonstrations and around 500 opposition protestors, including journalists, were detained. These demonstrators urged the boycott of the elections claiming that the transition of power to Nazarbayev’s trusted ally was “planned” and the elections were merely a farce.
Acute corruption, no freedom of speech, and restrictions on peaceful assembly continued under Tokayev. Corruption is found within the Kazak judicial system, which is influenced by the ruling elite. The rule of law, therefore, serves the elites and their businesses, not the general masses. The Kazak government passed several laws to control civil society, and made it easier for the government to monitor opponents. Tokayev also failed to introduce a transparent and inclusive government that increased the disconnect between the people and government.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed Kazakhstan to new vulnerabilities and impacted the country both politically and economically. The economy was pushed into recession for the first time since 1998, forcing many Kazaks to take personal loans despite wage stagnation. The amount of personal loans jumped to US $ 1.7 billion in 2020. On the other hand, wealthy elites parked their wealth offshore increasing the resentment amongst the masses. The pandemic also led to price rise as inflation spiralled to 9 percent, the highest in the last five years, forcing the central bank to increase the interest rates to 9.7 percent. Politically, the pandemic exposed Kazakhstan’s underfunded, corrupt, and ineffective health system. Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov resigned from his post in June and was subsequently arrested for corruption charges in a health digitalisation project called “Damumed”.
Implications of the protests
After assuming office, Tokayev promised reforms and went on a “listening tour” around the nation. This was a gimmick, as he continued with zero-tolerance towards dissent. Widespread protests have forced his government to take back several ill-advised decisions and compelled Tokayev to take charge of the National Security Council post from his predecessor and also dismiss Nazarbayev’s nephew from the position of first deputy head of the National Security Council.
However, the recent round of violent protests has created new problems for Tokayev, many of his own doing. The first problem the President created for himself is by asking for help from the CSTO, allowing Russian and other neighbouring nations to send troops to Kazakhstan on 6 January. Though CSTO has remained away from the internal conflicts of member countries, according to Article 4 of its Charter, the arrival of foreign troops on Kazak soil will surely make Tokayev more unpopular amongst the masses. People have seen this move as a blow to the country’s sovereignty and questioned the legitimacy of this decision. The move to approach the CSTO was criticised by Former US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, William Courtney. Secondly, the growing unrest will make foreign investors wary of investing in Kazakhstan, which has been the basis for the nation’s steady economic growth. This move is likely to push Kazakhstan further into the hands of the belligerent Chinese, notwithstanding the anti-China sentiment of the people.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).