Facing its most acute demonstrations since gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan witnessed a crucible of political tensions at the start of the new year. While police violence and the presence of foreign peacekeepers seem to have subdued the momentum of the popular protests against the country’s ruling elite and oligopolistic structures, Osob Dahir examines whether these protests will prove to reflect the Kazakh government’s willingness to reform, or if they have exposed a wounded government’s desire to quickly put a lid on long-simmering discontent.
The recent protests in Kazakhstan, which began in the small industrial city of Zhanaozen on 2 January and quickly spread to major cities countrywide, reached their crescendo after one full week on 9 January. The death toll has exceeded 220 people, with over 10,000 arrests. Though the frequency of protests have risen in Kazakhstan since 2018, both the spontaneity and scale of the recent demonstrations appear to have surprised the ruling elite and international commentators alike.
Spontaneous or inevitable protests?
While triggered by the government’s decision to lift a cap on energy prices which doubled the price of liquified natural gas, a fuel resource disproportionately used in Kazakhstan’s poorer regions, the protests quickly revealed Kazakhs’ resentment of the country’s elite and the deep inequalities of the oligopolistic status quo. Anger was particularly directed at Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former strongman president who served since the country’s independence in 1991 until 2019, when he designated Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his close ally, as his successor. Rather than resigning from power, Nazarbayev continued to hold the position as chairperson of the country’s security council, a powerful advisory body, through which he was granted additional veto powers over key political and security appointments, thus restricting President Tokayev’s executive powers. Many of Nazarbayev’s family members chair or sit on the boards of Kazakh state-owned enterprises operating in the country’s lucrative oil and gas sector. In many ways, Tokayev’s presidency has widely been perceived as Nazarbayev’s rule by proxy.
Unprecedented levels of violence
The recent protests, which quickly turned violent, have been Kazakhstan’s most acute since its independence in 1991. Protesters set government buildings alight, tore down statues of Nazarbayev, and seized the Almaty airport, prompting the president to announce a state of emergency. On 7 January, Tokayev also made the unsubstantiated claim that the protests were orchestrated by unspecified foreign “terrorists.” The protests themselves had no clear leader or motives, but appear to have been principally motivated by dissatisfaction of deeply-embedded and historical inequalities. Tokayev responded with more violence, providing shoot-to-kill orders “without warning” to Kazakh security forces on 7 January, and calling upon the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states, to support the government — a request which the organisation obliged. 2,500 Russia-led troops deployed four days after the protests began, and their presence is widely credited with smothering the unrest, as they quickly established control over the country’s urban centres.
An opportunity for meaningful reform?
Coupled with the government’s violent response came Tokayev’s apparent concessions. On 11 January, after quelling the unrest, Tokayev made a pledge to tackle inequality in Kazakhstan in an address to parliament on 11 January. In an unprecedented move, Tokayev also criticised Nazarbayev for sowing the seeds of inequality, and denounced the culture of oligopolies in the country. The president sacked his government, resumed the cap on energy and electricity prices, and even removed Nazarbayev from his post as chair of the security council. Several of Nazarbayev’s cronies and family members were also recently removed from senior governmental positions, including the former president’s sons-in-law, who resigned from their positions as chairs of KazTransOil and QazaqGaz, two of Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil and gas companies. The process has been described in some Central Asia-focused publications as the beginning of the “de-Nazarbayevification” of Kazakhstan, with some suggestions that the protests have also revealed a so-far disguised intra-elite clash between the Tokayev and Nazarbayev camps in the Kazakh government. Nazarbayev has since emerged in a national address to deny such claims, seemingly indicating his support for Tokayev, and minimising his role post-presidency to that of a mere pensioner – perhaps a pre-emptive move to join the winning side in recognition of the tide finally turning against him.
"In an unprecedented move, Tokayev criticised Nazarbayev for sowing the seeds of inequality, and denounced the culture of oligopolies in the country."
Given how extensively the former president’s power permeates the country, it is difficult to imagine a Kazakhstan completely “de-Nazarbayevified.” Critics argue that Tokayev’s measures to address inequalities are superficial and designed to quash the enthusiasm for demonstrations in the short-term. If this is his aim, then to some extent, it appears that Tokayev’s plans have worked. The government has ended its state of emergency, and CSTO troops have completely withdrawn. Life in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, is cautiously returning to its metropolitan norm, with the resumption of transportation and other public services which were suspended during the unrest. Momentum for the protests, as unprecedented as they were, seems to have subsided for now amid state-sanctioned violence and promises of reform.
An opportunity to consolidate power?
One Kazakh activist has described the quelling of protests as the “calm before the storm,” and on 19 January, an opposition group already called for renewed anti-government demonstrations. Despite this remaining spark of restlessness among protesters, Tokayev — far from a reformer — will now likely move to consolidate his power in the absence of Nazarbayev and his allies, in a “Tokayevification” of Kazakhstan. But such a precarious centralisation of power coupled with a lack of promised reform will only serve to recreate the exact conditions that drove unrest in early-2022.