In Kazakhstan, 2022 began with nationwide protests that were showcased internationally as a spontaneous mass demonstration against an authoritarian Russian supported state government. What began with a mass demonstration against rising fuel prices in a small town led to a nationwide movement. This occurs a few years after another mass demonstration led to the resignation of Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan for nearly thirty years. While the protests started as a reaction to the state’s unwillingness to protect its workers, it has now been displayed as a call for less state intervention.
Protests began on 2 January 2022, after the Liquified Natural Gas price, after the public subsidy was cut, doubled. Protests began in the West Kazakhstani town of Zhanaozen and spread across the country within a day.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that he was looking into the matter. Tokayev said that his government would launch a full investigation into price-fixing cartels. However, the protests escalated on 4 January with violent clashes with law enforcement officers in many towns.
The authorities insist that prices were determined by electronic systems, and hence reflected market prices. The government promised to bring down the LNG prices. Protests continued for over a week, leading to nearly 200 deaths and 8,000 arrests. The Russian government sent in peacekeeping troops to help the Kazakhstani state restore order.
10 January was declared a day of mourning by the Government for those who lost their lives in the protests.
Why the Workers went on strike?
Last year, Tengiz Oil fired nearly 40,000 workers at once with no action by the state, leaving millions of family members without any source of income. This has led to many workers in Western Kazakhstan feeling insecure. The strike started as a spontaneous reaction against the sudden jump in fuel prices.
While the strike appears to be sudden, it must be remembered that Kazakhstan’s economy is not very developed, and is heavily dependent on raw material exports. Strikes from the western part of the country have been common on a smaller scale for over 10 years, with workers demanding a stronger state hand in these sectors to protect employment.
The International Dimension
Kazakhstan has been one of the most stable states to have broken off from the Soviet Union. For nearly thirty years, the country was ruled by President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev was a former steelworker, who rose the Communist Party, to become the First Secretary in the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev ran unopposed as President in 1991.
Nazarbayev’s Presidency was filled with many constitutional machinations which allowed him to keep running with very little political opposition.
In terms of foreign policy, Nazarbayev was keen on keeping close ties with Russia, both politically and economically.
End of Nazarbayev’s rule
Nazarbayev’s final term ended in the wake of large-scale protests that began in 2018 and continued past his resignation in 2019. The protests were carried out by large groups that eventually came together under a common platform call Oyan, Qazaqstan (in English: Wake up, Kazakhstan) on 5 June 2019. The Oyan, Qazaqstan activists were well versed in social media, using videos and hashtags as part of their demonstration. As a result of the protests, Nazarbayev stepped down, and a snap election was held, with Nazarbayev not running. The elections were won by Tokayev, who was also the acting President after Nazarbayev’s resignation. Though Oyan, Qazaqstan was not a political party, many members of the group were close to the banned party, QDT (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan). The QDT was a pro-business party, founded in 2001 that eventually got banned following criminal accusations of financial fraud of billions of dollars and political abuse. Leaders of the QDT insisted that the election was a fraud and called for a boycott. The election had the lowest turnout since 2005 with 77.5% of eligible voters coming out to vote. Tokayev won with 71% of the popular vote.
Tokayev’s regime was characterized as moderately conservative. He has been critical of nationalism, which he has claimed has been creating rifts between people of different countries during the COVID pandemic. He is considered to be the political and ideological heir to Nazarbayev.
Tokayev, as a practising Muslim, has been vocal in his opposition to radical elements, calling for “enlightened Islam” that supports science and cultural traditions. He supports a strong central state. While being accused of authoritarianism, he has projected the need for a responsive state, in light of protests.
Real issues behind the protests
Many of the protesters have legitimate grievances. Rising fuel and food prices and drinking water shortages, which have been too common these past few years, not just in Kazhakstan. Inflation in Kazhakstan was very high last year, adding to the misery of the poor country. The initial upsurge in Zhanaozen occurred in an especially poor part of the country, which has high levels of unemployment. Even Tokayev’s “State that listens” approach has to face a difficult situation.
Internationally, the western powers have tried to show this as a response to an authoritarian Kazakhstani government. Nazarbayev extremely long reign, coupled with the changes to the Kazakhstani constitution, which removed term limits and extended Presidential powers, has led to a very centralized state, and hence less responsive to the needs of the rural west of Kazakhistan. Russia has claimed that there are outside influences that have supported the protests, which may be motivated by pro-western or radicalIslamic elements.
The initial protest of Zhanaozenis was the result of the very genuine needs of the local people to have a state that protects their employment. Given that political opposition is very difficult to mobilize from western Kazakhstan, strikes and protests are their only tool. However, since they have spread, on the international stage, the protests are described as a microcosm of Western powers vs the Russian umbrella. The state was willing to address the demands of the initial workers, though it may not have been enough.
The author is a mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore.