Analysis: Kazakhstan’s uprising was a long time coming, and it’s an unwelcome distraction for Vladimir Putin



Only a few dozen people took to the streets in the city of Zhanaozen to protest, but within three days their anger was echoed by people across the vast resource-rich central Asian state, fed up with everything from unemployment and inflation to corruption.

The security forces had the upper hand to begin with, vastly outnumbering those who braved arrest and sub-zero temperatures to protest. But by January 4, spontaneous unrest had engulfed Almaty, the largest city in this authoritarian former Soviet state. The government’s promises to roll back the price increase and offer other economic support were too little and too late.

Tokayev appears to have been caught off-guard by the rapid spread of the protests. On January 2 he tweeted that “citizens have the right to make public demands to local and central authorities, but this must be done in accordance with the law.” Later he said that “demonstrators must be responsible and ready for dialogue,” and promised that a commission would “find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem that has arisen in the interests of stability.”
But the responses to Tokayev exposed the depth of popular anger. One said: “Every day everything rises in price. I mean groceries and everything else. Impossibly getting more expensive. Please take some action. It’s not easy for ordinary people.”

Pressure cooker of grievances

The government’s repeated — and unfulfilled — pledges of a better economic future have turned Kazakhstan into a pressure cooker of discontent, analysts told CNN. Longstanding grievances about unemployment and low wages — especially in the heavy industries of western Kazakhstan — have been turbocharged by a pandemic-induced recession and grotesque inequality.

“This is a government that is highly detached from the reality of what happens on the ground. It’s a country where there are no institutions through which to protest; the only route is on the streets,” Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN.

Stronski says authorities have announced many different plans to improve life and crack down on corruption but they are never implemented. “People have been told things will get better but wealth is siphoned off,” he said.

The lack of dialogue and the harassment of political opposition has left the government detached from and blind to popular grievances.

Protesters rally in Almaty on January 5.

Protests in Kazakhstan are far from unknown. But they’ve rarely brought about change. Katie Putz of The Diplomat magazine tweeted that “the protests in 2016 and 2019 in KZ were precursors and, for the authorities, missed off-ramps.”

Stronski told CNN that authorities have missed both opportunities and warning signs over the past decade, he says, opting for cosmetic over real change.

It’s not just bread-and-butter issues that have fired up protest. Increasingly, according to Diana Kudaibergenova of Cambridge University, economic and political grievances have coalesced — driven by endemic corruption and resentment towards an elite seen as stashing billions of dollars in offshore havens.

Marie Struthers of Amnesty International says there’s been no outlet for this quiet fury that has gathered pace. “For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakhstani people in a state of agitation and despair,” she wrote Wednesday.

Divide and conquer?

The question now is whether Tokayev will opt to expand Kazakhstan’s political space or try to crush dissent.

Zachary Witlin at the Eurasia Group says that “having made concessions to the main original demand to lower fuel prices, the government is now struggling to reassert control through force. The protests are no longer mainly economic in nature but now overtly political.”

The violence that broke out in Almaty on Wednesday encouraged Tokayev to take a more hardline approach.

He said “bandit elements” had beaten police and robbed stores. The unrest had become “a question of the safety of our citizens,” and he would “act as toughly as possible.”

Officers at a protest in Almaty on January 4.
Officers detain a man during a protest in Almaty on January 5..

Kudaibergenova sees a wide gulf between Kazakhstan’s political activists and the crowds of mainly young men from poorer areas of Almaty who took to the streets Wednesday. She says political activists “know that rioters are robbing them of their right for peaceful protest.”

More significantly, Tokayev called upon the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help. His plea was swiftly answered by the current President of the CSTO, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who said peacekeepers would be sent “in view of the threat to national security and the sovereignty” of Kazakhstan.

Depending on their mission, the arrival of foreign peacekeepers could further aggravate tensions.

Paul Stronski says Tokayev’s appeal will cost him credibility at home — and that Kazakh nationalism should not be underestimated. In 2010 there were protests over government plans to lease tracts of farmland to Chinese investors, plans that were ultimately abandoned.

Russia’s dilemma

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, events unfolding across his southern border are troubling. Russia maintains close relations with Kazakhstan and depends on the Baikonur Cosmodrome as the launch base for all Russian-manned space missions. The Central Asian nation also has a significant ethnic Russian minority: around 20% of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnically Russian.

Putin (R) greets Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Moscow on August 21, 2021.

Autocratic former president Nursultan Nazarbaev, who’d led Kazakhstan since independence, resigned in 2019 but remained a powerful figure behind the scenes (until being relieved of his position on the Security Council on Wednesday). Such a transition model may have appealed to Putin at the time, but it looks less promising today.

The Kremlin is also preoccupied with a high-stakes game of brinkmanship over Ukraine, and events in Kazakhstan are potentially an unwelcome distraction.

Witlin expects that “Moscow will use its strong personal connections to the Kazakh elite, along with its more formal connections via the regional economic and security organizations, to urge suppression of protests.”

For international investors, the events of the last few days have undermined Kazakhstan’s reputation as a place where it’s safe to do business. Taking down internet access and putting troops on the streets will unsettle the sort of corporations in the energy and mineral sectors that Kazakhstan badly needs.

A way forward?

Tokayev has left open the possibility of dialogue, promising “new proposals for the political transformation of Kazakhstan.”

Kudaibergenova says there is a way out. Despite harassment, civil society in Kazakhstan has remained resilient — focusing on issues such as inequality and public services. There are respected activists, she says, especially among the younger generation.

But the current protests lack leadership. “Without negotiators representing protesters, it is hard to bring a quick resolution—but likewise, without leaders the protesters may not be able to sustain themselves,” said Eurasia’s Witlin.

For now, Tokayev seems intent on painting the unrest as the work of terrorists, claiming that “many of them have received military training abroad.”

Whether that is sustainable, and whether popular anger represents an existential threat to his rule, is far from clear.


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