Kazakhstan faced the worst civil unrest since its independence, when popular protests turned violent and nearly caused state collapse in early January. Long perceived as the most stable and economically advanced state in Central Asia, the oil-rich country that attracted billions of foreign investments over the past three decades was forced to resort to Moscow’s help, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to save the embattled regime.
The political turmoil has had a number of far-reaching consequences: 225 people were killed, including 19 members of the security forces (Kazinform, January 15, 2022); the government became indebted to Russia for helping quell what it called a “terrorist operation”; foreign investors’ confidence was shaken; and Kazakhstan’s position as a regional leader was undermined. And although relative stability has been restored and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised to deal with social demands and endemic corruption—enabled by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev—the danger of further unrest in the future has not dissipated.
The reasons for this crisis are complex and multi-layered. Judging by available information so far, it appears that genuine public protests were highjacked by rioters and armed groups in some cities. At the same time, the events intersected with an ongoing power struggle within the ruling elite, as the old Nazarbayev guard was still in charge of the national security apparatus (see EDM, January 20, 2022). The confusion at the top resulted in the security forces’ failure to protect major cities like Almaty and the president eventually calling on the CSTO for help (on the CSTO mission, see EDM  , January 19, 2022).
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for CSTO intervention was motivated by fear of another “color revolution” in what Russia considers its backyard and security buffer, Central Asia. Putin told the CSTO meeting on January 10 that “Maidan technologies” were used in the unrest (Ukrainskaya Pravda, January 10, 2022). Russian social media quickly labeled the protestors “Kazakh Banderovits,” meaning Kazakh nationalists, similarly to the way they branded demonstrators in Kyiv in 2013/2014 (using the name of the 1930s Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera) (Twitter.com/Wild_Vagabond_, January 6, 2022).
But a closer look at the reasons for the social protests and how they developed into political demonstrations provides insights into Kazakhstan’s serious domestic problems and stark economic disparity brought on by decades of government policies. Kazakhstan is an upper middle-income country that has seen remarkable economic development in the last 30 years (Worldbank.org, 2020). And yet it is also a country of sharp contrasts, between ordinary people and the ultra-rich few who have accumulated billions from the country’s oil and mineral extraction industries. Experts estimate that there are 660 super-rich citizens of Kazakhstan, whose net worth surpasses $30 million (Kz.expert, March 13, 2020; Forbes, January 7, 2022; Occrp.org, January 19, 2022).
The demonstrations earlier this month started in Zhanaozen, in the western Mangystau region, against a price increase of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). In Kazakhstan, this energy source is often used as a vehicle fuel and in heating and cooking appliances. Reportedly, 70 to 90 percent of vehicles in the region use LPG as fuel. On January 1, the price per liter of LPG more than doubled from 50 tenge ($0.11) to 120 tenge ($0.27) (Vlast.kz, January 3, 2022). Located on the Caspian Sea coast, Mangystau and Atyrau are the country’s largest oil-producing regions, with vast Western investments concentrated in the Tengiz and Kashagan oil fields.
The fact that the protests began in Zhanaozen is not by chance. The town saw oil workers’ strikes and protests in December 2011, when the police shot and killed 14 people (see EDM, January 17, 2011). Subsequent investigations discovered local corruption and neglect of the population that lives in an environmentally polluted desert area, with no local source of fresh water (water is supplied from a tributary to the Volga, 1,000 kilometers away). Frustration among oil workers demanding better pay and an end to local corruption, along with a large young population eager for better life prospects, were met with a brutal police response, sparking a domestic and international outcry. Although the authorities prosecuted 37 officials at the time, they failed to understand the main lesson from Zhanaozen: resentment among ordinary people, even among those who were relatively well-paid, such as oil workers, will continue growing unless the government undertakes decisive reforms. This did not happen under former President Nursultan Nazarbayav and was slow to start under current President Tokayev, with the pandemic aggravating underlying popular anger.
The government offered special pricing for LPG to the residents of Mangystau; but then, the protests quickly spread to other major cities in Kazakhstan. Soon they became full-scale political demonstrations, demanding the resignation of the government, an end to endemic corruption, and the departure of the old guard of former president Nazarbayev.
The protests differed markedly in the various regions of Kazakhstan. And while they notably spiraled into violence in Almaty, Shimkent and in a few other cities, they remained largely peaceful in most regions.
Almaty witnessed the worst riots, including armed attacks on government and police buildings, killings and beatings of police officers, arson assaults, looting of businesses, and a takeover of the Almaty airport (Twitter.com/buch10_04, Twitter.com/gt_lozz, January 6, 2022). The events gave President Tokayev reason to claim that “foreign terrorists” had attacked the country, and he issued an order to the security forces to “shoot to kill” (Tengrinews.kz, RIA Novosti, January 20, 2022). Only a thorough international investigation can provide credible findings about who was responsible for the violence; the United Nations’ human rights body and the European Parliament have already called for prompt, independent, impartial investigations (Un.org, January 11, 2022; TASS, January 20, 2022).
All along, however, the protests were nonviolent and orderly in the Mangystau region, where they started (Twitter.com/_ZhN_, January 6, 2022). Researchers say that during the last ten years since the tragic events in Zhanaozen, local trade unions gained experience in organizing strikes and demonstrations, preparing for the risks they could face from both the security forces and provocateurs. According to Kazakhstan’s prosecutor general, demonstrations in the regions of Atyrau, Aktobe, Karaganda, and East Kazakhstan region also remained peaceful (Inform.kz, January 15). And while the incidents of violence could be blamed on radical and criminal groups and foreign terrorists, the peaceful well-organized demonstrations should worry the authorities even more—they demonstrate Kazakhstani society’s maturity, restraint and determination to achieve the changes it needs. The government’s window to implement significant reforms in the economic and political arena is thus exceedingly narrow. History shows that peaceful protest movements either grow to become a strong political force demanding social transformation, or they turn angry and destructive and are exploited by foul actors.