Why Does Western Kazakhstan, Which Attracted Energy Investments From West Worth Over $150Bln, Risk Turning Into Kazakh Donbas? – Analysis


For years, Kazakhstan’s vast oil and gas riches and relative political stability have made the country a ripe target for Western energy investments. A special place in this row has been and is occupied by American ones. As of 2022, some 600 US companies were operating in the region with an average of $45 billion in investments, the bulk of which of course went into the Kazakhstani oil and gas projects.

The US has accounted for and still accounts for Kazakhstan’s second biggest investor after the Netherlands, leaving Russia and China,  two very big and powerful countries, between which this Central Asian nation is sandwiched, way behind in terms of direct investment. Then there’s the fact that Kazakhstan’s cumulative energy investment from 2005 to 2020 was $161 billion, of which the bulk came from Western countries, and $30 billion directly from the US only.

There have been a lot of changes over the last 2 decades

But time does not stand still. Some 20-plus years ago, when the country began to receive large revenues from oil exports, the Kazakhstani population as a whole was able to have a better grip on the positive effects of foreign energy investments,  it was one thing, but now that the fat years are long over – this is a completely different thing. 

The situation has since changed in terms of the geopolitical environment, too. At the period of the Western invasion of Afghanistan, Frédéric Bobin, then Le Monde’s Beijing correspondent, wrote: “According to some Chinese analysts, the American strategy involves separating the Chinese far western provinces – Tibet and Xinjiang – from China itself to erect a barrier in the form of ‘mini-states’ that could cut it off from the hydrocarbon wealth” of the Eastern Caspian region (Le Monde, 27 September 2001).

The strength of the American influence on the Kazakh government and the Western dominance in the Kazakhstani Caspian region then were contested by neither Russia nor China. Two decades later, during the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan, both Moscow and Beijing offered strong support to the Tokayev administration while Western countries like the US remained cautious, to say the least. Thus, both Moscow and Beijing now seem to have greater leverage on the Kazakh leadership than Western capitals.

But this, so to speak, is only half the trouble: Western observers seemingly have no real ideas about the strong undercurrents of the process of formation of the sociopolitical situation in Kazakhstan itself, and particularly in its western part, then neither can they help to explain what it might play out in the next years. With the way things are, huge Western energy investments now seem to have been increasingly put at risk.

In Kazakhstan, there formally is a constitutional state and civil society with legislated equality for everyone, having been firmly established and now being solidified. Meanwhile, an inside observer can readily identify the ongoing work on forming a multilevel and hierarchical socio-political system based on historical (or perhaps even pseudo-historical) representations (heavily infused with traditional stereotypical values of the prevailing clan groups in the country). 

Politically Kazakhstan is not as it appears

This is about the kind of activity that is being tacitly and gradually implemented on the other side of the facade forming the image of a modern and fully democratic State. The path to official public disclosure and recognition of such a reality with the potential to shake society to its very foundation, and unbalance the civic relationship, having been progressively established in Kazakhstan since the 1920s and having largely substituted a previous traditional type of social ties, is closed in the country itself.

However, this may be successfully done in Russia and, from there, spread to Kazakhstan. The following statement made by Rakhat Aliyev, the first Kazakh president’s now deceased son-in-law, gives an idea about such potential danger to the well-being of the Kazakh regime in Astana: “Nazarbayev is highly dependent on Putin and the Russian media. They can, exerting a massive impact on public opinion, create in Kazakhstan even greater instability, than in Egypt [in 2011], within a month”. Relevant conclusions can be drawn based on this opinion. Though the times have changed since the 2011 Arab Spring, official Astana’s dependency on the Russian media seems to remain intact.

With regard to the prospects of Russian-Kazakh relations, Economist magazine, under a headline that read “Ukraine, Russia and the West: The long game” and published on Sep. 4, 2014, came to the following conclusion: “This week Mr Putin rattled his sabre at Kazakhstan, still ruled by the elderly Nursultan Nazarbayev: any succession squabble would be an opportunity”. It’s now 2024, but such a view of specificity of relations between Moscow and Astana has persisted even beyond almost five years after the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev from power among Western observers and commentators. Here is what Kate Mallinson says in an article titled “Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan is increasing despite the war in Ukraine”: “President Tokayev owes his position to a Russian intervention in January 2022, and economic ties have only grown since then.

If not managed carefully, Kazakhstan’s proximity to Russia risks the independence of its domestic and foreign policies, particularly when Tokayev’s reforms have failed to undo the country’s centralized, autocratic governance structure”.

This is the stereotyped view of the prospects for development of the situation in Kazakhstan when seen from the outside. But they seem quite different if you look at them from within the country. Should there any destabilizing situations arise, the greatest danger to the State would probably come not so much from Russia, but from within the republic. Here is what Oraz Zhandosov, ex-deputy prime minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan and former chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, said in an interview, “Le Kazakhstan bousculé dans son modèle pétrolier”, with the French newspaper La Croix’s Benjamin Quénelle: “Thanks to oil, Kazakhstan has become rich without a real development model. Our country is following a path that ultimately could prove dangerous: if Nazarbayev’s pyramid does fall, there would be no structure as a replacement”.

Benjamin Quénelle went to Kazakhstan in May 2012, a half year after the tragic events in Zhanaozen which had occurred in December 2011, and seriously undermined the credibility of the then-Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He wrote: “Six months later, the Zhanaozen drama continues to shake up the political scene in Kazakhstan. In this giant of Central Asia, accustomed to stability and opacity, trials of a new kind are intertwining with the unprecedented violence that, last December, shattered the beautiful oil showcase of this former Soviet republic.

In  Zhanaozen, a small town in Western Kazakhstan, black gold workers had been on strike for seven months to demand wage increases.  They occupied the town’s central square. After a series of still poorly known events where the responsibilities of the police and provocateurs were mixed, this peaceful occupation turned into riots. Result: at least 16 dead”. “For twenty years, ‘black gold manna’ fueled the economic and undemocratic development of this giant of Central Asia. But riots in one town revealed the limits of the system of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president since 1991 and lifelong leader of the nation”,  Benjamin Quénelle added.

In Kazakhstan oil is produced only in the Junior zhuz traditional territories

Awareness of the possibility of the development of events in such a way seemingly is raising serious concern among some politicians. It may be due to the reality described above. However, nowadays Kazakhstan’s political elite publicly did not and does not recognize such a scenario as a serious problem potentially threatening to the State’s integrity. Had the civil society and the legal State truly been built in Kazakhstan instead of the multilevel and hierarchical socio-political system, there would then be no need to put the matter the above way.

Nursultan Nazarbayev is long retired, but his legacy in the form of his pyramid of power that Oraz Zhandosov was talking about in 2012, remains. As Sally Nikoline Cummings concluded in her study “The Political Elite in Kazakhstan Since Independence (1991-1998): Origins, Structure and Policies”, the Kazakh pyramid of power had the following form in the late twentieth century: “Approximately 40% of members of the 1995 political elite appeared to be from the Senior Horde [zhuz], 28% from the Middle and 9% from the Junior”. Such a balance of power within the Kazakh elite is generally maintained even now, after almost three decades. Moreover, the proportion of the Junior zhuz representatives among the members of the Kazakh political elite has now dropped to 3%, or even 2%. And they all occupy positions of minor significance in the formal structures of the Kazakh political environment. That is, the Junior zhuz was and remains in a losing position even though its homeland, Western Kazakhstan, is a region-donor for other regions of Kazakhstan. 

According to the first All-Russian Census in 1897, the populations of the Senior, Middle and Junior Zhuz were roughly 700,000, 1.2 million and 1.4 million (along with the Kazakh population in the Bukey Horde) people respectively. Although numerically less, the Senior Horde represented by its elites has maintained a strong grip on power in Kazakhstan since the early 1960s. Today, its traditional territory spans Zhetisu, Almaty, Jambyl and Turkestan provinces. The Middle zhuz traditional territory covers northeastern, central, and a part of southeastern Kazakhstan, i.e. it spans Kostanai, Karaganda, Ulytau, Abai, Pavlodar, Akmola, Kokshetau, North Kazakhstan, and East Kazakhstan provinces. The Junior zhuz areas coincide with Western Kazakhstan, Aktobe, Atyrau, Mangistau, and part of Kzyl-Orda provinces. 

Thus, it turns out that in Kazakhstan oil ‘thanks to which, Kazakhstan’, according to Oraz Zhandosov, ‘has become rich without a real development model’,is produced only in the Junior zhuz traditional territories, Western Kazakhstan.

To obtain a better understanding of what the situation described above might, in reality, mean for the further development of the socio-political process in Kazakhstan, one needs to take a look at how in the relatively recent epoch, different Kazakh tribal and clan groups merged into a single ethnic group. It is worth noting that this process went on well into the 20th century.

How was the Kazakh nation-state we know today formed?

Recently, Mukhtar Magauin, a well-known Kazakh writer and scientist and one of the prominent representatives of the Kerey tribe of the Middle Zhuz, said in an interview with a journalist that  Turar Ryskulov, who is said to have belonged to the Dulat tribe of the Senior zhuz and was the one from among the Kazakhs who held the highest Moscovite posts in the Soviet hierarchies of public administration during the Soviet period, “had betrayed his people, Kazakhs, and created the 1932 famine, and that he had also been hindering the creation of the Kazakh republic”

Turar Ryskulov, along with a group of like-minded people, put forward a plan for the creation of a “Turkic Soviet Republic”.  It was established on April 30, 1918, and Southern Kazakhstan, the Senior zhuz traditional territory,  was included in that republic. 

The Kazakhs of the northern region headed by Alikhan Bukeikhanov, were against the unification of Turkestan, as they spoke in favor of the creation of a “Kazakh republic”.  

The Kazakhs of the western region, led by Zhakhansha Dosmukhamedov, a graduate of the Law School of Moscow University, were the first to create what modern historians call an ‘analog of statehood’ – the Uil velayat. It covered the Junior zhuz areas and consisted of the volosts of the Lbishchensky, Ural, Guryev, Aktobe, and Irghiz uyezds, inhabited by Kazakhs, and also included the Mangystau, Uil, and Bukey uyezds. This fact suggests that initially the leaders of the Junior zhuz, whose territory was located closer to the Russian imperial and Soviet state center than the lands of the Middle and Senior zhuz, clearly were not claiming an exclusive leading role in building the Kazakh statehood, the creation of which was at that time expected, and then began. They, as contemporary researchers believe, thought that ‘the region should be governed by its laws, that is, it’s about the federal governance structure of the nation’. In other words, in their political constructions, the leaders of the Junior zhuz tended ‘to see the future state being founded on some kind of federal basis’.

Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin reviewed a proposal by Turar Ryskulov and like-minded people for unifying the Central Asian ethnic populations into a single republic, voted for the rejection of that proposal, and spoke for the creation of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Thus, the Kazakh nation-state we know today was formed.

What was the Kazakh President worried about?

Over the Soviet period, much was done to further strengthen the sense of ethnic oneness among Kazakhs. Still, there remained enough problems. Let me mention just a few.

First example: In 1977, a treatise on population genetics of the Kazakh people by Kazakhstan’s scientist Orazak Ismagulov, originally published as “Ethnic genetic geography of Kazakhstan: (serological research)” in the same year, fell under the ban, according to the decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The book was withdrawn from sale, and thus collected number of its copies were cut into small pieces in the basement of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR and then burned. That decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan had long since been forgotten by everyone. And yet, the book is still no longer being published. What is the reason? The author was at the time ‘accused of one-sided treatment of the tribal and clan factors in connection with modern times’. It is reported that those ‘allegations have since been withdrawn’. But that treatise mainly remains out of reach in Kazakhstan. And as far as is known, it only can now be borrowed from the Russian State Library.

Second example: In a book, originally published as “The Formation of Kazakh Identity; From Tribe to Nation-State” by Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1995, Shirin Akiner, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), has made the following conclusion: “Such historical figures as Abylay Khan are rather dubious heroes; furthermore, causing considerable controversy, since they can be regarded as representing the interests of only one horde, and not the whole nation. The focus of the national consciousness of some other nations is written and oral literary heritage. For the Kyrgyz, let us say, hallmark of group identity, regardless of regional and tribal difference, is the epic poem Manas. There is nothing of the kind among Kazakhs…”

Third example: At the beginning of 2013, Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev made a routine government reshuffling in Astana. As a result of these changes, Marat Tazhin, for example, was appointed Secretary of State, and Mukhtar Kulmuhammed was appointed Minister of culture and information. The then-Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, instructed them to organize an in-depth study of national history. They took up the matter. In late 2013, this task was actually cancelled. At that time, during one of the Kazakhstani top-level meetings, shown on television, Nursultan Nazarbayev said something like this: I had instructed Marat Mambetkaziyevich (Tazhin) to organize a study of national history, but he had somewhat deviated from the task. In February 2014, both Mr. Tazhin and Mr. Kulmuhammed were suddenly dismissed from their above-mentioned positions. Why did the task of organizing an in-depth study of national history take such a turn? One can assume that the task that the first Kazakh president gave to those two high-ranking officials was to prepare an in-depth study of national history that would serve as a fundamental scientific basis for the sense of ethnic oneness among Kazakhs.

One may understand the concerns of the first President of Kazakhstan in this regard. He was born and formed as a person in a Kazakh-speaking cultural environment and since his young years, he has been well aware of the realities of what Shirin Akiner described as the absence of historical characters who would have been recognized as nationwide heroes by all groups of ethnic Kazakhs. In the Soviet period,   attempts were made, and not without success, to create nationwide heroes based on biographies of such men as Abai, Amageldy, and Turar Ryskulov. 

It was also then that there was an informal rules-based system where everyone had to obey its requirements. The order, on the basis of which the civil accord between the various Kazakh traditional groups, each with their interests, insights about others, and their historical heroes, has been formed, has its peculiarities rather arcane to anyone outside of Kazakhstan. 

In such a context, the main task of the central authorities, be it a khan, a first secretary of the Republican Communist Party, an almighty president, or a leader of a leading political party, was and is to ensure consensus among them all. The Soviet government was attempting to reach that goal by creating narratives and images of heroes shared by all. And it must be admitted that it had a noticeable success in this field. Kazakhstan’s first President Nursultan Nazarbayev was trying to carry on this tradition where possible.

Yet the inertia of positive changes accumulated due to it in previous years seemed to become exhausted by the mid-2010’s. Nursultan Nazarbayev then made several attempts (one of them is his above-mentioned instruction to organize an in-depth study of national history given to Mr.Tazhin and Mr.Kul-Mukhamed) at developing new approaches to this task, though without much success. Perhaps, he just did not have enough time to achieve something meaningful. Such an important task was, after his resignation, left without continuation.

In the Nazarbayev era, just as in Soviet times, Kazakh authorities were quick to react in a conciliatory spirit to cases where problems arose on the matter of intra-Kazakh relations. This was helped along by the fact that the first Kazakh President himself speaks the Kazakh language perfectly well and, due to his lived experience, accurately understands the intricacies of the traditional relationship between the Kazakh groups and unerringly grasps all these subtleties of relationships between regions and the center.

At the top level of the pyramidal hierarchy of power in Kazakhstan are the representatives of the Senior zhuz elite, while their counterparts from the Junior zhuz, i.e. Western Kazakhstan, on which the Central Asian country’s economic welfare generally is based, are at its lowest level. The representatives of the Middle zhuz elite are in the middle between those two groups. Such a power distribution tradition dates back to Soviet times when Moscow brought Dinmukhamed Kunaev, who is said to have belonged to the Ysty tribe of the Senior zhuz, to power in Kazakhstan. Here is what the Kazakh ex-deputy-prime minister, Galym Abilsiitov, said on what Dinmukhamed Kunaev, in turn, had done: “He began to support Nazarbayev because apparently he needed… a successor from the Senior zhuz”. Nursultan Nazarbayev, in all likelihood, followed suit in 2019. Mr.Tokayev has been and still is thought of as being Nazarbayev’s appointee, who had allegedly been hand-picked as such because, apart from other reasons, of his coming from the Jalaiyr tribe, which is considered to have the status of a senior member in the Senior zhuz tribal union. 

Where does the great problem Kazakhstan now faces lie?

Yet Nursultan Nazarbayev, when he was president, was not only trying but also able to talk to the Kazakhs in their own native language in case of any disputes. When there was growing discontent with any of his decisions among the local Kazakh population in some or other parts of the country, the first Kazakh President found a way to make himself understood to them. Thus, in the 1990s, Nazarbayev, speaking on television, explained to the residents of the Semei province why he had to attach their province to the East-Kazakhstan province. The first Kazakh president then gave a very emotional speech on the line “We are all Kazakh, if not you, then who will understand me?”.

In October 2006, he spoke in the same manner during a meeting with the officials of the Atyrau province, while referring to the earlier question among the local people about why he had been abstaining from nominating someone from among the local natives to head this province. There, Nazarbayev said he had taken into account the people’s view and had taken the appropriate decision.

The current russophonic Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced Nursultan Nazarbayev as Kazakhstan’s leader in March 2019, seems to not be ready and willing yet to continue doing the same, and so herein lies the great problem Kazakhstan now faces. It may be supposed that for him, the need to deliver a speech in Kazakh is a kind of stepping outside of his comfort zone. At the same time, there is a feeling that the needs and aspirations of ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute 70 percent of the Kazakhstani population, and their native language, were being, just as in the Soviet era, relegated to the background. This may seem to be a bit of an exaggeration, but you can judge it for yourself.

Kazakh President Tokayev spoke only Russian during his first televised interview following the January 2022 crisis. Yet that’s not all that should here be said. It must also be noted that he gave this 50-minute television exclusive interview to Vera Zakharchuk, an ethnic Russian journalist. Even more strange seems the first televised interview given in Russian by the Kazakh president to an ethnic Russian journalist following the January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan, if one considers the fact that those mass protest rallies involved only ethnic Kazakh people, in particular the Kazakh-speaking youth who had come to the cities from rural areas in search of work and earnings. Here is the comment of Catherine, an ethnic Russian woman, who lives near the central square of Almaty (that is, just off the city hall), where the worst of the unrest took place, on the situation in those days: “As for the very protests, only Kazakhs participate in them. There are no Russians among them”. Before these people, Kazakh President Tokayev spoke in Russian and through the mediation of an ethnic Russian journalist in the wake of the January 2022 unrest.

That trend persisted in 2023. A book by Muscovite journalist Leonid Mlechin titled ‘Tragic January: President Tokayev and Lessons Learned’ went on sale in Kazakhstan at the beginning of last year. Its [official] presentation had taken place on December 20, 2022, at the Kazakh Embassy in Russia. According to political analyst Dosym Satpayev, ‘a new political mythology is now being created’. “But the snag is that representatives of another state have begun create such a new political mythology. Work on the topic had been handed to a person belonging to the Kremlin pool [of journalists] and who, in principle, has always moved in the wake of Russia’s foreign policy. A topic, that is very important for Kazakhs, had been entrusted to a person who merely carried out the order. This topic should have been to be fully disclosed here, in Kazakhstan, but that did not happen”, he added.

Those cases seem to be symptomatic of the neglect of the interests of the ethnic Kazakh population, particularly the Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs. But the reason for such a line of conduct may be that Mr.Tokayev is likely to have great difficulty in leading a spontaneous and fluent conversation with a native Kazakh speaker, if at all capable of such a thing. Anyway, there is the fact that the second Kazakh President, who lived the most active period of his life, from 17 to almost 40 years, among ethnic Russians and other Europeans, far away from his homeland, prefers – when there’s choice involved – to communicate with the ethnic Russian (European) journalists (Vera Zakharchuk, Leonid Mlechin) rather than with the ethnic Kazakh reporters.

Nursultan Nazarbayev,  in his own words said in March 2019, was always thinking about the future and trying to train and prepare a new generation of politicians to replace him. “And here is the conclusion I came to. And [I am sure that] this conclusion is right. So let’s elect Tokayev as the [next] president, and we will be supporting him [for the good of Kazakhstan]”, he then said. Judging by what foreign media wrote (Putin “supported Tokayev’s rise to power”), Nazarbayev’s decision about nominating and electing Tokayev as the [next] president seems to have been previously negotiated and agreed with the leadership of Russia. One can suggest that in this case, platforms for the agreement were that each side could get what they most value: for the Kremlin, it was the rise of the most russophile Kazakh politician as the [next] president in Kazakhstan; for Nursultan Nazarbayev, preserving the Senior zhuz elite’s monopoly on power in his country.

Then it was probably supposed that the Kremlin, taking advantage of the Russian TV’s and the internet resources’ unchallenged dominance in the Kazakhstani information field, would help create Tokayev the image of a kazakhophile leader in the eyes of his ethnic Kazakh co-citizens. The Russian political strategists and media, as far as can be judged, still are trying to do this. But that activity by them appears to be efficient only concerning foreign observers and authors and seemingly has little or no impact on the opinion of the ethnic Kazakh public. And here are the prooves.

Eurasianet’s Justin Burke, in an article entitled “Kazakh president uses language to deliver a surprising message to Russia: Russian officials unprepared to hear Kazakh”, said: “At the customary, post-meeting press conference [along with Putin], Tokayev said little that was new, yet his delivery marked a notable departure from the past. He opened his remarks in Kazakh, not Russian”. And the VOANews’s Navbahor Imamova, in a report entitled “Newly Assertive Central Asia Rejects ‘Russia’s Backyard’ Label”, said: “Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev bewildered Vladimir Putin and his entourage when, during a November 9 briefing in the Kazakh capital, he addressed the visiting Russian president in his native tongue”.

The situation appears quite different if you look at it from a Kazakh perspective. According to some experts in Kazakhstan, ‘in our country a huge number of officials are still in the grip of colonial thinking and watch Russia, the Russian ideology and media with an open mouth’, and even ‘President Tokayev sees the situation in his country through the eyes of Russian propaganda media’. Therefore, it is not surprising that the above case when viewed from Kazakhstan, might look like a ‘performance’ staged by the Kazakh authorities – on the advice of the political strategists and in agreement with their Russian counterparts – ‘to prove’ the Kazakh leader’s kazakhophileness. It brought a lot of comments from the Russian media and Russian political experts giving the impression of Tokayev as a kazakhophile leader.

What is the difference between Nazarbayev and Tokayev?

Meanwhile, this event did not attract much attention in the Kazakhstani media. This suggests that the Russian media’s influence on the shaping of public opinion in Kazakhstan, at least, among ethnic Kazakhs has been drastically curtailed. Some of them keep believing that “the situation in Kazakhstan regarding the Kazakh language now is much worse than it was in the Soviet era”. But how things were with this matter in those days? Well, let’s get an outside opinion. 

Business-gazeta.ru, in an article by Azat Akhunov, an Uzbek author, entitled ‘Didn’t you think about learning?’: Uzbekistan uses the experience of Ukraine and the Baltic states in the ‘language issue’, said: “The Uzbeks never forgot their native language and culture, yet the process for assimilating [national and ethnic minorities] went on and on one way or another, and the role of the Russian language had been progressively growing. Of course, the situation was completely different than, say, that of Kazakhstan, which became almost completely Russified – the Russian language is still in first place up there”

Yes, in Soviet times, the share of ethnic Kazakhs in the Kazakhstani population fell to 29 percent, and in fact, Russian was the official language in Kazakhstan. Since then the ethnic balance has notably shifted, with Kazakhs now making up 70.7 percent of the republic’s population of 20 million, while ethnic Russians account for less than a sixth (14,9 percent). Even so, “the situation in Kazakhstan regarding the Kazakh language now is much worse than it was in the Soviet era”. Today, with the way things are, according to one view, “It is not clear what one should be expecting from the [Kazakh] ruling power who prays to the Kremlin just like Muslims pray, facing the Qibla”.

The difference between the Nazarbayev administration and the Tokayev administration, when it comes to working with public opinion and media resources, is that the former was always trying to keep the Kazakh public thought under the ideological control of the State with the help of the concepts and ideologemes, based on the unifying ideas, while the latter has given that up, entirely relying in this regard, in all likelihood, on what the influential Russian internet edition Lenta.ru described as follows: “Kazakhstan absolutely does not control more than half of the television network and almost the entire book market, not to mention the Internet. The information environment [in the Central Asian country] now is quite friendly to the authorities of Kazakhstan solely thanks to the support of Moscow, which protects the republican elites”. But now since the Kazakh public thought’s representatives have gone, so to speak, into free swimming, it is them who are becoming the leaders of thought in the Kazakh, or the Kazakh-speaking public space. In this situation, the Russian media may be affecting the information environment in Kazakhstan with benefits for official Astana only at the minimum level. 

They still, as once Rakhat Aliyev said, can cause considerable instability in Kazakhstan, exerting a destructive impact on public opinion. However, their capacity to keep the information environment in Kazakhstan quite friendly, as once Lenta.ru noted, to the Kazakh authorities, even if that were the case, is anyway no longer a reality. Of all the forms of media, the video channels on YouTube and other social media platforms, that broadcast in Kazakh, now are indisputably the most popular in Kazakh society, particularly of course in the Kazakh-speaking community. It is them who are now opinion leaders in Kazakhstan.

On YouTube and other social media platforms, there aren’t any topics on Kazakhstani life on which it would be impossible to hold conversations or discussions. The Nazarbayev administration at one time seriously feared the influence of social networks on Kazakh social thought. It now appears it wasn’t for nothing.

So, the Internet, along with social media, and blogs, has become Kazakhstan’s not just only territory of unlimited free speech, but also a field, upon which favorable conditions have been formed for the return of ethnic Kazakh society, which, according to Seytkasym Auelbek, a Kazakh sociologist, in its fundamental characteristics, remains patriarchal and tribal, back to its roots.

In the year of Tokayev’s accession to power, that same scholar wrote: “I think that in fact, today’s Kazakh society cultivates and reproduces the values of the archaic patriarchal past, namely particular, private-tribal values and norms that are radically opposed to the universal principles of morality, ethics and norms of behavior. In my opinion, these values were mothballed during the years of Soviet power. But then, over the past thirty years, they have been revived and reintegrated into modern Kazakh society – through the efforts of both the authorities and the entire Kazakh people”.

In 2019, Mr.Tokayev who had been most of his adult life away from all of these, outside his country of origin and then in the foreign service and had almost always used Russian as his working language,  took charge of that country and Kazakh society. Now, five years later, the processes that Seytkasym Auelbek had then mentioned, have already gone too far, not least because of the passivity of the ruling regime concerning them.  According to that same scholar, the Kazakh authorities’ ‘credit’ here is that “they have revived and exploited the patriarchal values of the people to exploit the very same people”. Below are examples of what this can lead to.

It now is unsurprising that now and then there are headlines in the media like “The Senior zhuz has nothing to do with Kazakh statehood” and “Alshyns [natives of the western part of Kazakhstan] are not Kazakhs”.

For information: the Senior zhuz is represented by the first and the second Presidents of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev, and Tokayev, who one after another took over the Kazakh leadership; Alshyns are indigenous to Western Kazakhstan, the region with nearly all the Kazakhstani oil and gas fields. Kazakhstan produces around 2% of the oil that the world consumes daily and makes up almost 10% of Europe’s oil import supplies. The largest volumes of oil have been and are being produced in the Atyrau and Mangystau provinces.  It may sound strange, but the latter was and continues to be the most socially problematic province of the Central Asian country.  Why is this so? The following passage in last year’s article entitled ‘Laid-off Oil Workers Detained After Overnight Protest in Astana’ by Catherine Putz, managing editor of the Diplomat magazine, sheds light on this question: “The Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, is “one of the poorest in the country,” Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova told The Diplomat. “In 2015 the poverty rate there was 22 times higher than the country average”. And this is despite the fact that the Mangystau province has been and still is one of the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan, with the second being the Atyrau province. That is this is all rooted in problems of poverty, inequality and injustice, which have been mounting for decades.

Now let’s see how President Tokayev has been behaving while being addressed by his ordinary fellow citizens in the country’s oil and gas-producing western part voicing their dissatisfaction with their situation. A year ago, there was a wave of strikes in that region. And now the same situation is present in Western Kazakhstan, on the background of the oil workers’ strikes in Zhetybai (located in the Mangystau province) that have been continuous over the last few months. It seems that strikes go on all the time in the Mangystau province. The strikers have continuously appealed to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But, as they say in the media, ‘the Listening State [the concept adopted in Kazakhstan under Tokayev] isn’t listening to the striking oil workers in Zhetybai’.

Does anyone know what can end all of this?

From year to year, this situation is repeated. But despite what happened in December 2011 and January 2022, nothing seems to change. The question is where all this is leading. At the beginning of last year, Amanzhol Kalysh, a Kazakhstani scholar, doctor of historical sciences, said: “Let’s take, for example, Adai people [members of the Adai tribe of the Junior zhuz; today they constitute the main population of the Mangystau province] who are famous for their bravery. Look, there are once and again strikes and demonstrations [in Mangystau]. They did not [let] anyone [bring them into total obedience]. There were rebellions both in Czarist and Soviet times. In the period of the state independence of Kazakhstan, they were being shot. [The authorities] were not able to calm down them.  And this does not stop until now [in there]. Why? Because [subsoil wealth] is all that there is.  Those in power seized it all. Thus, so long as there is no normal distribution [of wealth and income], they won’t stop”.

Does anyone know what can end all of this? Here is what Zhandarbek Кakishev, a member of the Republic of Kazakhstan Parliament Senate in 2002–2008, said about this issue a little over a year ago: “If this continues, then a bleak prospect awaits us. In the future, it is quite possible that young people who are unemployed or underpaid, even when they have a job, may tomorrow rise up and try to seize the property of the capital’s oligarchs by force. And the day after tomorrow they can go against foreign companies”. He thus warned of the danger of a social explosion in Kazakhstan’s oil-producing region.

It seems Western Kazakhstan, which attracted West’s cumulative energy investments worth over $150 bln., risks turning into Kazakh Donbas.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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