Behind the Unrest in Kazakhstan
Behind the Unrest in Kazakhstan
Protesters hold a long banner which reads: “We are the ordinary people, not terrorists”, at the Republic Square in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty on Friday 7 Jan 2022 as unprecedented protests over a hike in energy prices spun out of control. EyePress News via AFP
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 19 minutes

Behind the Unrest in Kazakhstan

Leaderless, spontaneous protests spread rapidly across Kazakhstan in early January. In this Q&A, Crisis Group explains that demonstrators’ varied demands reflected discontent with worsening inequalities and calcified leadership and discusses the implications of the ensuing government reshuffle and mass arrests.

What prompted the protest wave that swept through Kazakhstan over the past two weeks?

On 2 January, protesters came out into the streets of the petroleum-producing city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. They were angry because the government had removed a price cap, leading to doubled fuel prices. While the government’s stated reason for the move was “marketisation”, semi-nationalised monopolies in fact control both supplies and prices. The protests spread rapidly across the country, first to other oil- and mineral-producing regions and then to most districts of Kazakhstan, whose population of some nineteen million is dispersed across a territory the size of Western Europe.

Protesters, united by no opposition leader or political party, reflected a wide range of constituencies, and their demands and grievances varied widely. They included relatively well-organised (but not unionised, since formal unions are essentially banned) oil workers in Zhanaozen, Aktau, Aktobe and Atyrau, coal miners in Karaganda and copper smelters in Zhezkazgan as well as liberal activists in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and commercial hub. Young people throughout the country joined in. Some of the protesters were there to decry inflation. Others chafed at shortages of jobs. Still others were frustrated by a wide array of related challenges: inequality of opportunity, corruption, injustice, lack of benefits, fuel prices, low wages and lack of labour bargaining power. Their one unifying message was “Shal, ket!” – “Old man, get out!” This slogan referred specifically to former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled from 1986 to 2019 and remains highly influential as chair of the National Security Council, but it also reflected anger at the political system Nazarbaev and his allies created, which is still in place.

By 5 January, protests had swelled, with thousands on the streets in Almaty. The city hall and other government buildings were set on fire, and protesters occupied the international airport. Dozens of protesters and several law enforcement officers were killed in clashes. According to Ministry of Health data that authorities made public but later retracted, protesters also died in remote locations in the south like Qyzl Orda and Taraz. That night, government troops and police reportedly withdrew from Almaty streets, and looters targeted shops and markets.

President Qaysm Joomart Tokaev responded by branding the protesters as “terrorists” under the influence of “external terrorist groups”, threatening more force and shutting down communications. He declared a state of emergency nationwide on 6 January and, on the same day, personally issued an order to law enforcement to “shoot to kill without warning”. He also threatened “maximum force” and “liquidation” of protesters. In a move unprecedented in the region, his government enacted a complete internet blackout for five days. It restored communications starting on 10 January, but only for a few hours daily at first, meaning that banking and digital payments remained crippled and citizens cut off from the outside world.

Tokaev also requested foreign support. On 5 January, he asked for help from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Kazakhstan is a member. The CSTO deployed just under 4,000 troops, the vast majority of them from Russia, beginning the next day – the first such action in the alliance’s nearly 30-year history.

The full extent of the government’s harsh crackdown in response to the protests is not yet clear. As of 13 January, authorities had arrested some 12,000 citizens, among them union organisers and other civic activists, according to civil society organisations, which struggled to share information over land lines or to post it during short online communication windows. Police and national security forces arrested a number of journalists covering the events across the country, shot at others in Almaty, and barricaded another in his home in the capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), with no access to electricity. Independent journalists from the Russian television channel Dozhd who attempted to ask questions at the morgue in Almaty were blocked by security officers who fired on them, actions the journalists captured on film. Journalist Mahambet Ahmadjon in Nur-Sultan posted continuing updates on Telegram as police banged on his door and shut off his electricity on 5 January. After he published his address and asked readers to come to his apartment to bear witness, his account went silent and he disappeared. His whereabouts were still unknown on 13 January, and he has been added to a list of missing citizens collected by civic activists.

Over the course of the crisis, Tokaev walked back some of his initial claims about the cause of the unrest – such as his reference to “20,000 foreign terrorists” – but doubled down on others. He blamed journalists, rights activists and bloggers for fueling “terrorist” actions and pointed the finger at ostensible militants from Afghanistan and the Middle East for a coordinated “coup attempt”.

As the blackout stretched on, the administration made efforts to try to quell discontent. The government sent mass SMS messages to the public from the president’s office that offered free mobile phone minutes on networks it had shut down; it promised free access to children’s shows and documentaries through a state television website to those who were able to navigate the continuing internet shutdown. It also reversed the controversial fuel price hike that had first brought people into the streets.

Amid the crisis, Tokaev also abruptly made radical changes to the country’s national security leadership. On 6 January, he removed former President Nazarbaev as chair of the National Security Council and his allies from other key positions. Authorities suggested that conflict among elites may have led some high officials to “ally with terrorists”. On 8 January, they announced that they had arrested internal security chief Karim Massimov (a key Nazarbaev ally), whom they charged with treason. By 13 January, the national security service had also announced the arrests of two of Massimov’s deputies for attempting to “seize power through violent means”. Several other senior members of the security forces have been found dead following alleged suicides.

With the state of emergency still in effect in some regions and a curfew imposed on many cities, protests appear to have ended for now. In Almaty at least, the internet is back up. Tokaev has promised major reforms but continues to insist that the protests were a terrorist conspiracy.

The lack of any meaningful capacity to effect change through the political system is a source of deep grievance.

Who are the protesters and what do they want?

Because of the internet blackout and police crackdowns on independent journalists, first-person accounts of the protests and the protesters’ motives are difficult to come by. Almaty resident Aidar Ergali, an architect, dictated a detailed account over long-distance land line to his sister in the United States, who passed his words – echoed in many other accounts that trickle out – on to Crisis Group. Ergali is adamant that “the people who went out to the streets of our cities are not from the edges of society and not looking to start a riot; they are not terrorists like those in power are insisting. They are the people of Kazakhstan, oppressed, looted and driven out of their minds by a gang of cowardly traitors and scoundrels. I was there [on 5 January] and talked to every kind of person. ... They were ordinary citizens – young people, old people, [men and] women – who couldn’t stand anymore all of this eternal shame, the lies and the humiliation”. Indeed, protesters in Almaty held up a large banner stating, “We are not terrorists, we are ordinary Kazakhs”.

The “Shal, ket!” slogan, which was reportedly introduced in 2014 by feminist activists in protests put down by police, has spread because it so well crystallises public frustration with the political and economic system put in place by former President Nazarbaev and his circle. When Nazarbaev finally stepped down in 2019, he was given a newly created title, the Elbasy or Father of the Nation, and retained lifetime power over critical functions of government, including as head of the National Security Council. The capital city, until then called Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan – mirroring Nazarbaev’s given name – and his birthday became a national holiday. Meanwhile, Nazarbaev’s extended family controlled key legal monopolies in the energy sector in Kazakhstan’s mixed public-private natural resource economy and vast commercial assets, especially in Almaty.

The lack of any meaningful capacity to effect change through the political system is also a source of deep grievance. The long-time civil society and human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis described the system in a 10 January Russian-language op-ed for Vlast, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, as “soft authoritarianism” characterised by “erasure of political space and independent media”. Combined with massive inequality, this has led to the creation of a large cohort of alienated young people and other marginalised groups. The members of this population are, in Zhovits’ words, “angry, do not feel loyalty to those in power, and even more hate the police and all the other security agencies who from their perspective defend the interests those same elites who are currently in power”.

Indeed, the gap between elites and most Kazakhs is striking. The rumours that have long circulated about hidden wealth are supported by evidence. A private wealth analysis intended to encourage investment in 2019 inadvertently also documented that only around 160 people own half of all of Kazakhstan’s wealth. As in other post-Soviet states, much of that wealth is hidden abroad: data from a Chatham House investigation shows that Kazakh oligarchs have relocated half a billion British pounds into luxury real estate in just the London metropolitan alone. The Nazarbaev family reportedly owns around 330 million pounds of that property.

When he ran for the presidency in 2019, Tokaev promised change, and a different, “listening state”. Instead, Kazakhstan remains much as it was under Nazarbaev, a country dominated by its single ruling party, Nur Otan. The president directly appoints regional governors and mayors of major cities as well as other representatives. Thus, as Zhovits recently observed, Kazakhs live in a system in which “we have no channels [to communicate with those in power], no go-betweens, nothing, there is no political system. This is the result of the... regime that Mr. Nazarbaev created, that continued to develop until it reached a [breaking] point”.

Is there any truth to the government’s claims of terrorist and/or foreign involvement?

The government has offered no evidence to support its claims that terrorists were involved in stoking the unrest, and some of its arguments border on absurdity. For instance, Tokaev has stated that the bodies of dead protesters cannot be identified or recovered because “they were stolen from the morgue by the terrorists”, as well as that police or security forces firing on protesters were “terrorists dressed in police uniforms”. Some analysts speculate that the Tokaev administration’s references to international terrorists were formulated to help ensure CSTO support, as the organisation has previously denied requests for intervention from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

Claims by commentators that Islamists are involved in protest violence seem rooted in the unsupported assumption that violence in places where more observant Muslims live, such as the rural south, must have Islamist roots. Nor has the government produced evidence that the protesters have Middle Eastern or Afghan links. Sociologist Serik Beysembaev, founder of Paperlab research group in Nur-Sultan and a leading scholar of Islamist and terrorist movements in Kazakhstan, told Crisis Group, “In the videos that I have seen there were no religious slogans or other symbols that belong to ISIS or other extremist groups. It appears that the current authorities decided to use ‘Islamist terrorists’ as a convenient enemy on whom they could easily hang the responsibility for mass unrest”. As for the contention that foreigners infiltrated the protesters’ ranks, one Almaty resident sarcastically rejoined on social media, “If all these terrorist groups, who attacked Almaty and ‘other cities’ went through serious training abroad … how come the only language they know is village Kazakh?”

Government attempts to put forward evidence of foreign involvement have been discredited. In a video “confession” aired on state television on 9 January, a visibly injured citizen of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan stated on camera that he had been recruited – along with unnamed Uzbek and Tajik citizens – by an unknown organisation to travel to Almaty to participate in the unrest for $200. Kyrgyzstani social media users quickly recognised him as a well-known jazz pianist who had in fact gone to Almaty for a performance. Kyrgyzstan’s national security services and the spokesman for Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov confirmed the musician’s identity, leading to a convoluted explanation by Kazakh security forces and his release the following day.

How are these protests different from others elsewhere in the region?

The protests in Kazakhstan differ from recent movements in Belarus, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and from the earlier “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in that they appear to be fundamentally leaderless. Those other protests were spurred by contested elections. They were spearheaded by political leaders like Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia or Svitlana Tikhanouskaia in Belarus, or, as in Kyrgyzstan, emerged against the backdrop of a consistently contested political system. In Ukraine they evidenced both leaders and contested politics. But in Kazakhstan, where the political system has been completely scrubbed of any meaningful alternative to the ruling party and its leaders, no political faction or leader played a discernible role as the protest spread, seemingly without coordination.

Some commentators have suggested that January’s events in Kazakhstan reflect intra-elite conflict as well as popular grievance. But if the government shakeup and treason accusations suggest some jockeying for power, available evidence in Kazakhstan is as yet insufficient for more than speculation. For example, Nurseit Niyazbekov, a Kazakh political scientist in Almaty who observed the protests firsthand wonders if there may be “link[s between] the arrest of Massimov and the failure of the security apparatus to suppress the protests during 4-6 January”. He further told Crisis Group that, “All of the violent riots mainly occurred in the south and all had the same style”, suggesting that “perpetrators used a peaceful gas [price] protest as an opportunity to create turmoil”.

Why did the CSTO get involved and what is its role?

The request for CSTO assistance indicates that Tokaev felt very much under threat. With reports of security forces going over to the protesters’ side, he may have feared he would lose control of the situation in the streets. If he also feared a coup from within the ruling party, as the security services have suggested, the call for CSTO assistance may have been intended to buy time to instal trusted allies in key security roles. Massimov, the ousted security chief and the first high-ranking official publicly arrested, was replaced by the head of Tokaev’s personal security force, for example.

As to why Moscow, as the strongest political and military voice in the CSTO, agreed to deploy troops to Kazakhstan, when it had not done so for Kyrgyzstan in the face of ethnic unrest and a request for help in 2010, the answer is likely multi-faceted. First, Moscow has grown ever more nervous about street protests at home and in neighbouring countries, such as those that resulted in the ouster of Ukraine’s former President Victor Yanukovych in 2014 and those that have demanded the removal of Belarus’ Oleksandr Lukashenka since 2020. To the extent the Kremlin feared a similar movement might be building in Kazakhstan, decision-makers there were surely motivated to help nip it in the bud.

Meanwhile, Russia has been increasingly active on the global stage – most obviously in war zones in Syria and Ukraine but also in other areas, such as central Africa – while also eager to demonstrate its leadership in its own neighbourhood, which it sees as its sphere of influence. Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the Kremlin to demonstrate its reliability in support of friends and partners globally and its ability to solve security problems locally, a message to the West that Russia is in the lead here, as it was when conflict broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Relatedly, it may have calculated that helping Tokaev now would keep him and his allies in Moscow’s debt for the long term despite Kazakhstan’s longstanding commitment to a foreign policy that seeks balanced good relations with Russia, Western states and China.

Other CSTO members may have had their own motivations. Despite its corruption and unequal distribution of wealth, Kazakhstan enjoys higher incomes than do its neighbours. Thus, unrest there tends to unnerve those neighbours’ leaders. As Helene Thibault of Nazarbaev University put it, “On a regional perspective, it might send a warning message to the Tajikistani and Uzbekistani authorities that their own populations might be a step away from engaging in similar actions”. While Uzbekistan is not a CSTO member, Tajikistan’s decision to contribute troops to the peacekeeping force may be a sign that it hopes for similar help in the event of future unrest.

CSTO troops, once deployed, engaged primarily in providing static security at airports. As such, their role has been largely symbolic – a manifestation of Moscow’s support for Tokaev’s government. That said, their presence may also have helped prevent defections by security forces. Moreover, they now seem to be leaving. Tokaev announced that CSTO troops would begin to withdraw on 13 January and as of the next day, some, at least, were on their way out.

Like several other countries in the region, Kazakhstan has found itself trapped in a cycle of unrest and repression.

How big a surprise were the protests?

While protests in Kazakhstan should not have come as a surprise, few people expected their rapid growth and scale. As Thibault told Crisis Group, “The protests’ scale took almost everyone by surprise even though signs of discontent were already visible”.

Recent years have seen an uptick in protests in Kazakhstan. The city of Zhanaozen, where the January wave began, was the site of months of labour unrest in 2011 that ended when security forces shot and killed sixteen strikers. But as the Oxus Society Protest Tracker documents, demonstrations have become more frequent across Kazakhstan since 2014. They have been catalysed by an increasingly wide range of issues, from the environment and politics to pensions and social support payments. Moreover, like several other countries in the region, Kazakhstan has found itself trapped in a cycle of unrest and repression. When frequent promises of reform like those recently made by Tokaev are not kept, they tend to be followed first by protests, and then by violence against protesters from unreformed security and police agencies, while grievances remain unaddressed or at best papered over.

The increasing protest activity also reflects frustration with the 2019 leadership transition, which brought in some new faces, but also kept the old guard very much in place, blunting effective responses to an increasingly challenging domestic situation. Because key powers were split between elite factions, the new system was inherently one marked by intra-elite conflict as groups jockeyed to see who would come out on top when things shifted once again. Constantly competing elites were also less prone to agree on promised reforms, exacerbating economic frustration on the part of workers. Meanwhile, economic stagnation, a sharp rise in predatory consumer debt, rising internal migration, the pandemic, increasing protests and widening inequality meant that weakened institutions faced significant tests. In October 2020, Kazakh demographers quietly noted that the flow of migrant workers from weaker economies in the rest of the region had slowed, and Kazakhstani citizens themselves were beginning to permanently leave in numbers that exceeded immigrants entering by a ratio of nearly three to one.

Two weeks before the protests began, Dmitriy Mazorenko, editor at Vlast, expressed his frustration: “The government has shown that it has no cure, no social policies that can fix this discontent. … Whenever there is a crisis, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government points the finger at global processes, reasons beyond its control. Yet the decisions in this country have been made by one family for 30 years”.

What’s next for Kazakhstan?

In the past, Kazakh authorities have responded to protests with a combination of repression and reform, pairing arrests of protesters with new welfare programs to address some of their grievances. For now, they seem to be proceeding according to the same plan, albeit on a larger scale.

The newly reshuffled Tokaev government likely also hopes that relieving Nazarbaev and some of his more prominent relatives and allies of official duties will alleviate the public’sfrustration with the country’s leadership. On 11 January, Tokaev’s new administration promised to end the notorious legal monopoly associated with Nazarbaev’s youngest daughter that collected exorbitant “eco-fees” on car sales. He also announced plans to set up a People of Kazakhstan wealth fund that would collect “donations” from large corporations that thrived under Nazarbaev to pay for social services. Tokaev also promised that major political changes would be announced in September, though he offered no details. Asel Tumuutlu, an associate professor at Near East University in Turkey and a native of Kazakhstan, reports that her contacts in the country expect the government to adopt “some measures to assist the regular folks with living conditions, such as loans, utilities and welfare payments”.

There are many reasons to believe, however, that fundamental changes to the political system or social contract are not in the works. Tokaev has strengthened his control over the internal security forces, but little else has changed. The country’s most important economic assets remain in the hands of a tiny minority that will fight to retain its control. The hastily appointed new government has a few new faces among a crop of old ones, if in a slightly different configuration.

Meanwhile, Tokaaev’s popularity could be at risk following the vocal backlash to both the invitation to Russian troops and his encouragement of security personnel to use extreme force against Kazakh citizens. As such, he may be, as the Central Asian saying goes, trapped between two fires. To win the public back and prevent another cycle of protests he needs to follow through on promised reforms. But the more those reforms threaten rival elites, the more they may seek to undermine him or potentially remove him.

Thus, many of those who participated in peaceful demonstrations or documented them fear that instead of reform, there will be more crackdowns. With thousands arrested, the government has said nothing about how it will decide who will face minor administrative fines and who will be charged with terrorism. Many fear that civic organisers could fall into the latter category. Assem Zapishova, an independent journalist and political activist in Almaty, told Crisis Group, ‘For years they robbed our country and drove the people to poverty. But of course, who’s to blame? [According to them] it’s the human rights activists who are asking them to listen to the people and not drive them to the brink”. Based on her own contacts, Tumuutlu agrees: “In the next months, everyone is concerned with the crackdowns in which innocent people may suffer. … And we all want to stop the fabrication of the terrorist story using the most vulnerable people from within and outside the country. This needs to stop. Instead, we need open, public investigations into what happened on the night of [5 January]”.


Why does this matter outside Kazakhstan and what should outside actors do?

While unrest in Kazakhstan draws particular attention from the world given its role as an energy exporter, there is little to suggest that internal conflict will disrupt markets. But events in Kazakhstan could have troubling implications abroad – for instance, reports that security services are using digital self-documentation to round up suspected protesters. The rapid deployment of CSTO troops and the organisation’s immediate acceptance of the Tokaev government’s “terrorism” narrative and extreme repressive measures send disturbing signals about the ease with which escalations of violence against domestic dissent and internal conflict can be justified in the name of counter-terrorism. Combined with a new precedent for CSTO intervention in domestic unrest, the region’s leaders may find in this situation encouragement to further ignore public opinion and international pressure and rely on force to suppress protest movements.

As Kazakhstan rolls out new policies and determines what happens to the many it arrested, international organisations and Western, and ideally other, governments should to continue to pressure the Tokaev government to release information about peaceful protesters killed and to end prosecutions of journalists covering events and other citizens detained arbitrarily. While Russia is very unlikely to take such steps, international organisations and Kazakhstan’s other partners, including those with substantial financial investments like the U.S. and UK should push Kazakh authorities to carry out a credible investigation into the violence: blaming faceless “terrorists” risks additional discrimination against practicing Muslims and already marginalised ethnic minorities, a process that has resulted in a vicious cycle of repression and violence well-documented in neighboring states.

If, however, one effect of these protests is to draw more international attention to Kazakhstan, then caution is warranted. Observers and those keen to support reforms should be wary of making assumptions on the basis of other experiences. Political sociologist Asel Doolot, who studies Central Asia, notes that Kazakhstan’s very narrow political space means it lacks alternative political parties, recognisable civic group leaders and activists like those in Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan. Aspiring supporters from abroad will need to follow local leads if they are to offer useful assistance.

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