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The protests in Kazakhstan

D. A. P. Sharma

Professor, Delhi College of Arts & Commerce

University of Delhi, India

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Q: How do you assess the roots of the protests in Kazakhstan?

Answer: To understand its roots, let's first know briefly about the deadly anti-establishment protest that led to the huge loss of Kazakh human lives and properties. Indeed, the beginning of the New Year 2022 was terrifying for Kazakhstan with far-reaching consequences. On January 2, this year, the protest erupted in the petroleum-rich Zhanaozen town in the South-Western Kazakh province of Mangystau against the steep price hike of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

But, it seems that anti-establishment sentiments that were already stirring people up, sooner joined the protest, causing mass political unrest across the country. Even if the price hike may be the immediate cause of the protest, it appears that the two-fold increase in LPG price was the tip of the iceberg, but the roots of protests are persistent in the political system, governance, and economic policies of the country. I will briefly dwell upon relevant economic and political aspects in sequence:     

First off, you may be thinking that why protests were triggered in Zhanaozen? In fact, Zhanaozen in Mangystau province has been in the news since 2011 when fourteen oil workers were killed by the police for protesting over labour rights. Mangystau, though rich in income-generating natural resources (oil and gas), the quality of life here is inferior, infrastructure is inadequate, and facilities are poor as compared to urban centers where the rich, resourceful and influential people live. We can say that this region is the victim of the ‘resource curse’ that contributes handsomely to the Kazakh economy but has not been given its share of the income in terms of socio-economic development. LPG has been a lifeline of the Mangystau region, widely used for vehicles as well as for cooking and heating. This is the reason why the LPG price hike has always been a cause of resentment among the people of this region. According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of vehicles in the region run on LPG, a much higher proportion than other parts of the country. Food items have to be brought from thousands of kilometers away, so they become expensive, while the purchasing power of the people is comparatively low in this region. Thus, the people suffering from pandemic, inflation and unemployment could not bear the double increase in the price of LPG a day before the protests triggered.  Starting from Zhanaozen, the protest reached Almaty, the financial capital of the country, passing through areas of abundant natural resources Aktau, Aktobe, Atyrau, Karaganda, and zhezkazgan. Soon there were protests all over Kazakhstan, and the extent of the outrage was the largest in the history of independent Kazakhstan encompassing wider political and economic grievances. 

Let’s now understand what caused the doubling of LPG prices. Until 2018, the LPG price was subsidized and regulated by the State. The LPG prices at gas stations doubled since the phased transition to electronic trading for LPG and market dictated LPG pricing rolled out in January 2019. The era of subsidy for domestic consumers ended and the market was allowed to dictate the LPG prices. Defending its reform initiative, the govt says that it was unavoidable due to the gap in the demand and supply of the LPG. In 2021, demand for LPG increased 14 percent year on year but the production remained flat. The production cost of a kilo of LPG in Mangystau is 80 tenge per kg but it was allowed to sell at the price of 60 tenge. Policymakers in the govt believe that the reform would fetch investment in the oil sector to make it productive, profitable, and sustainable. Electronic trading will tackle the illegal trading of LPG. The govt agencies doubt that the LPG filling stations in the region might have manipulated the price-fixing which is under investigation by the anti-monopoly agency.         

Then, the next thing is how the protests against LPG price hike encompassed across Kazakhstan demanding “Shal-Ket” (old man go out)? Acceding to the demands of the protesters the govt slashed the LPG price in the Mangystau region to 50 tenge, lesser than the price at the time of the beginning of the protests. President Kassym Jomrat Tokayev announced sufficient measures to pacify the agitators including the sacking of his cabinet and removing ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev from the post of chairman of the National Security Council. In spite of all these pacifying measures, the protests continued showing frustration against a wide array of political rights and the economic challenges common people are facing in day to day life. It appears that the slogan of the protest ‘Shal Ket’ (old man, go out) became the unifying factor reflecting deep anger against the system built and nurtured during former president Nazarbayev’s rule. The question is why a majority of Kazakh people are very critical of their founding president when he has already demitted the office in 2019? Let’s dig into this briefly.  

Before entering into independent Kazakhstan, allow me to remind you about the anti-establishment consciousness of Kazakhs and its suppression by the police forces in consecutive regimes. From 1949 till 1989 hundreds of nuclear tests were conducted in Kazakhstan when it was a part of the erstwhile Soviet Union known as Kazakh SSR. Nuclear tests severely affected the life and the environment of the country. In December 1986, the Kazakh people broke their silence, gathered in Almaty and protested strongly against the then regime, which was suppressed by the police brutally. But the anti-establishment consciousness continued to grow. During the late 1980s when the Soviet power was decaying in Kazakh SSR and people’s discontent growing, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a communist leader rose to power from an ordinary steelworker. He later became the founder president of Kazakhstan when it was declared independent in December 1991. Since then, president Nazarbayev ruled the country until he stepped down and nominated the present president Kassym Jomrat Tokayev in 2019. However, president Nazarbayev remained head of the National Security Council, a supreme power center of the country.    

It is believed that Ex-President Nazarbayev during his rule strengthened the economy of the country but exercised extensive control over political and economic power denying genuine democratic rights to the citizens. Human rights activists say that he has never allowed functioning democracy in Kazakhstan, but soft authoritarianism has remained in independent Kazakhstan as well. People also believe that economic prosperity remains confined to a handful of elites of the country. Within about two decades of independence, people began to feel that the slogan of "Economy First" given by the then president Nazarbayev did not work well for the common people. Private enterprises were developed on the one hand while authoritarianism was strengthened on the other hand.  Capital poured into the country but it gave birth to crony capitalism which did not bring fruits of economic prosperity to the common people. People feel that anyone should be blamed for the lack of democratic and political rights, authoritarianism; accumulation of wealth by those in power, and economic disparities in Kazakhstan is the former president Nazarbayev who indeed still runs the country. He has demitted post of President, not power.  After his resignation from the post of President, people expected that his successor president Tokayev would implement democratic rights in the country and improve the economic condition of the people. But this dream did not come true. The frustration of the people was clearly reflected in the slogan 'Shal-Ket', a unifying sentiment of the protests. The ‘Shal-Ket’ slogan is said to have first been heard in the 2014 anti-establishment protest by woman’s rights activists that has been expressing the political sentiments of the people since then. You can imagine how people are frustrated that they toppled statues of former president Nazarbayev. 

Q: What would be Russia’s reaction to the Kazakhstan crisis?

Answer: Certainly, Russia’s reaction or response is important, at the same time regional responses and geopolitical implications of the crisis in Kazakhstan are also very important. A large section of the international media views it as an opportunity for Russia to expand its influence in the region, but it is not so simple and straightforward. For Russia, the situation was a bit uncomfortable. It could not even say no to send the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) forces considering the geopolitical compulsions and it knew the risk and responsibilities of being involved. Russia and other members have decided to send CSTO troops to manage the crisis because Russia cannot afford to allow instability and chaos in the region to happen when it is already dealing with the crisis in Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow knew that according to Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty sending military is justified only in case a member State “undergoes aggression (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty)”. Therefore, after sending military help, Russian officials of the foreign ministry termed protests as inspired from the outside to undermine the security and integrity of Kazakhstan, a theme later reverberated by president Tokayev. There is no doubt that Russia’s bold step has reposed influence in the region and strengthened strategic ties with its neighbouring partner Kazakhstan, however, it is unclear how native Kazakhs would digest it while their approach to the Russian Influence has been different from that of the government of Kazakhstan. It is also early to predict what effect this will have on the strained relations between the Russian-origin Kazakh citizens and the native Kazakhs. Some experts have perceived that Kazakhstan would become a headache for Russia, but I do not agree. 

Interestingly, after CSTO’s help to Kazakhstan, Turkey has convened a virtual meeting of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) on the developments in Kazakhstan. After the meeting, Turkey's foreign minister announced to extend all kinds of assistance to Kazakhstan but hoped that Kazakhstan will overcome the crisis with its own means and abilities. Apparently, Turkey appeared uneasy over Russia’s role in Central Asia which it believes is part of the ‘Turkic world’. Experts think that the involvement of CSTO troops at the request of Kazakhstan reduced the plan to build a ‘Turkic world’ under the leadership of Turkey. My opinion is also similar.     

But, truly speaking, the unrest in Kazakhstan is an alarm for rulers of the neighbouring countries in the region. We have seen what happened in Kyrgyzstan (2010), in Armenia (2020) and the things happening in Belarus. It is feared that challenges would increase for the rulers of Central Asian countries and then obviously a geopolitical crisis may also arise. 

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