Gravity of Political Situation in Kazakhstan


Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The protests in the oil-rich Kazakhstan gained momentum in January 2022, when a crumbling old town in western Kazakhstan called Zhanaozen stirred in protests, as security forces killed some workers, who had gone to strike over late paychecks and poor living conditions.  The sudden gas price hike has also been seen as an economic failure to ensure security for its people. However, it still remains a mystery how from a grimy, Soviet-era settlement near the Caspian Sea protests suddenly spread across thousand miles, even turning Almaty, its largest city, into a war zone, littered with dead bodies, burned buildings including the mayor’s office, and incinerated cars. It shocked everyone, including its leader, who fortified Almaty with Russian troops. By ordering to fire without warning, to restore order, government critics have long bridled at government oppression and rampant corruption in the oil-rich nation.

After the protests gained momentum, especially after the statue of Nursultan Nazarbayev was brought down, Kazakhstan was sealed off from the world. Its airports were closed and commandeered by Russian troops, and information to collect became scarce, as phone and Internet services were barred. 

Echoing the repressive idioms, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev even lashed out at liberals and human rights defenders, lamenting that the authorities had been too lax when they weren’t, as they detained thousands of people. The president claimed that the recent uprising was the work of some twenty thousand bandits, who he believed were commanded from a single post. Pacifying with them, according to him, was sheer stupidity, and he just wanted them to be ‘destroyed’. It all reflected the gravity of the situation.

The slogan of the protests was Shal, ket! ('Old man, leave!'), a not-so-polite invitation to the 81-year-old Nazarbayev to forgo power. The demonstrations and riots shook the regime that the patriarch, in his reigning political past, had built and fortified for over more than three decades. Galym Ageleulov, a human-rights activist in Almaty who took part in the demonstrations believed that what began initially as a peaceful demonstration suddenly turned into mob violence, and people who did it were not students, bookish dissidents and middle-class malcontents, a sort of class who usually turn out for protests in Kazakhstan.

Among those who urged the crowd to vehemency was Arman Dzhumageldiev, known as 'Arman the Wild,' one of the country’s most powerful crime bosses, who witnesses believe provoked much of the violence. He gave frantic speeches on Almaty’s central square as government buildings blazed behind him, calling for people to press the government to make concessions. It ultimately led the interior ministry to his arrest. Firearms and edged weapons, military body armour and an armoured car were seized from him.

Danil Kislov, a Russian expert on Central Asia who runs Fergana, a news portal focused on the region, speculated that the chaos was the result of ‘a desperate struggle for power’ between feuding political clans, namely people loyal to Tokayev, and those beholden to his 81-year-old predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But, there seems to be more to it, than mere palace intrigues, as rising social inequality among Kazakhs is also something that needs to be considered.

In the recent past, many Kazakhs have derided the system created by Nazarbayev as deeply corrupt and unjust. His family members and clique became some of the most powerful people in Kazakhstan, occupying top public positions. They also ranked among the richest people on the planet, living lives of extravagance. Corruption hollowed out governance, with civil servants rewarded for their loyalty rather than their acumen. All this even put constant pressure on independent media, and human rights groups were also eventually marginalised.

Rivalries have simmered inside the family court, and they have occasionally come into public view. In 2001, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev was removed from his position as the powerful chair of the National Security Committee, after allegedly plotting a coup. In fact, authorities have accused four different chairs of this committee, including Nazarbayev’s ally Karim Massimov in the wake of the recent tumult.

When it comes to the question of Russian military intervention, it even irked the United States, and they wanted to understand the situation better. On a recent Kazakh conundrum, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said: ‘One lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.’

The fragility of Kazakh politics can be measured by reflecting upon how quickly a possible power struggle morphed into the mayhem on the streets. It also shows how really brittle Kazakhstan is, beneath the shiny surface of wealthy, cosmopolitan cities like Almaty. The country is now becoming as repressive as most in a region dominated by brutal strongmen: the former dictator of neighbouring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, was accused of boiling his critics in vats of oil and having hundreds of protesters massacred in the town of Andijan in 2005. Kazakhstan's political development is stunted by twenty years of authoritarian rule, and the citizens are still having a cold shoulder about the kleptocratic elite who instead of listening to their everyday problems, preferred to pour billions of dollars into the construction of a new city, named Nursultan, in the honour of the former president.

In fact, this kind of discontent has happened before. When police killed at least fourteen people (and maybe dozens more) in Zhanaozen in the midst of an oil workers’ strike in 2011, that tragic event was the biggest blot in the history of independent Kazakhstan, until the new protests emerged in 2022.

Kazakhstan has traditionally balanced ties with Russia, China and the West. For Russia, the operation provided an opportunity to expand its influence in Kazakhstan and in the region. The operation also has strengthened Russia’s hand going into talks with the United States on Ukraine.

According to an Oped in Foreign Affairs by Nargis Kassenova, Tokayev has eventually insisted on the direction of socioeconomic reforms, after the recent unrest. They seem to be already well-defined. Tokayev wants to build a modern welfare state. In his address to the parliament on January 11, 2022, he acknowledged the problematic distribution of wealth in Kazakhstan, and how the benefits of economic growth have fallen to a narrow class. He criticised government agencies for hardship in Kazakhstan, masking 'the real situation with terms like productive self-employed, informal employment' and leaving many people 'in a state of unemployment and social insecurity.' He called for 'a qualitative renewal of social and labour policies.' These reforms suggest that Tokayev has now been paying attention to the demands of the street. It also reflects a growing international trend that is away from free-market economics and tilts towards improved social welfare protections.

Optimists hope that Tokayev will expunge the most abominable elements of the Nazarbayev era. Nevertheless, the political system remains fundamentally the same. Tokayev has, in the past, signalled that he wants to improve channels of communication and trust between the state and the people, but such rhetoric has so far proved to be indecisive.


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