Words by Ritika Srivatsan, News Print Editor
On 2nd January 2022, protests erupted in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, and quickly spread to the rest of the country. Originally protesting over the rising price of liquified petroleum gas (L.P.G), a low-cost fuel commonly used to power cars in Kazakhstan, protests intensified as residents fought against their autocratic government for wider social and political reform.
In Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, demonstrators seized the airport whilst setting vehicles, the mayor’s office and City Hall ablaze. Close to a dozen policemen and National Guard officers were killed. In response, they fired tear gas, water cannons and used stun grenades on the public before President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a shoot-to-kill order.
Tokayev’s harsh order mirrors his time in office and is symbolic of the severity of struggles Kazakh residents face. After accepting his cabinet’s resignation for their failure to quell protests, Tokayev announced a state of emergency in several districts and temporarily shut down the internet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in Russian peacekeeping forces at the behest of Tokayev but the protests further weakened an already turbulent region. The death toll has risen above 220 with hundreds more injured (at the time of writing), causing widespread uncertainty and international concern.
A mineral-rich nation, Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence in 1991 after which President Nursultan Nazarbayev came into power. The autocratic leader controlled natural resources and within months of his presidency, sought to increase his wealth via deals with private corporations.
After years of making millions with the help of foreign investment companies, his wealth handed him the power to rig elections and maintain political representation for nearly three decades. Wealth was concentrated within a minority elite whilst commoners were deprived of similar privileges.
Nazarbayev stepped aside in 2019 and hand-picked Tokayev to be his successor. Despite the change in presidency, many considered Tokayev to act on Nazarbayev’s accord and retain his methods of leadership during his tenure in office. Stifling dissent, undemocratic elections, corruption and imprisoning the opposition were all common occurrences.
What led to the protests?
Price hikes seen with L.P.G aggravated residents. However, their demonstrations highlighted deeply ingrained problems with the nation’s social, economic and political fabric. Government statistics state the average salary to be $580 a month but this is inconsistent. Unemployment and inflation rates have steadily risen to 5% and 7% respectively. Largescale inequality amongst residents whilst the elite lived lavishly incensed people who in turn took to the streets.
Authorities deny allegations made by those protesting and claim foreign militants intended to destabilise the country in an attempted coup d’état.
What are protesters demanding?
Along with a reduction in L.P.G prices, reform within public institutions and an improvement in living conditions are paramount to protesters. However, there is no main opposition leader to deliver the same. All previous instances of discord and defiance have been met with strict crackdowns. In 2011 for example, 16 people were killed and 64 were injured by state police in Zhanaozen over industrial action undertaken by oil workers who had been on strike for eight months. The ever-increasing wealth gap makes accessing essentials tougher and the lack of fair political representation silences a majority of the population.
Similar uprisings with protesters seeking a move to democratic values were previously seen in Ukraine’s 2014 and Belarus’ 2020 protests.
How does the turmoil affect the world?
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country and is bigger than western Europe. It has long been considered the edifice of economic and political stability in Central Asia, despite it being at the cost of repression.
The United States and Russia have long been vying for dominance in the region. An intervention led by Russian forces, part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance of 6 former Soviet states, has the power to greatly impact geopolitics in the region. Fearing a ‘colour revolution’, Putin once again had the opportunity to showcase Russian prominence within a former Soviet nation, akin to Ukraine and Belarus in recent times.
Bordered by China to the southeast, many expected the superpower to condemn Tokayev for turning to Russia instead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a central Asian bloc. Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping fully endorsed Tokayev and guaranteed support, worrying the United States.
The US has historically maintained good ties with Kazakhstan and was the first country to recognise its independence. Trade relations and substantial investment into the nation’s energy sector may be strained.
Neighbouring countries and authoritarian regimes around the world have been eyeing developments closely as the uprisings could influence similar actions.
The way ahead
Tokayev assured he would listen to grievances and bring about reform. He initially showcased the same by accepting his cabinet’s resignation and announced a probable dissolution of Parliament, a move that would result in new elections. He also dismissed the “leader of the nation” Nazarbayev from his post of chairman of the country’s security council after demonstrators repeatedly shouted “Shal ket” or “old man out”, referring to the 81-year-old Nazarbayev who controlled Kazakhstan from behind the scenes.
Residents are sceptical regardless. Tokayev’s image transformed from a replacement carrying out his predecessor’s wishes to that of an uncompromising authoritarian leader aiming to retain and expand his sphere of influence.
Many believe that the balance of power has been permanently altered. Nazarbayev lost his power with loyalist Tokayev breaking free and exercising his own power. Russia’s intervention cannot be taken lightly either. An associate fellow at think tank Chatham House, Kate Mallinson, stated “Nothing comes for free with Putin, and there will be a quid pro quo”.
There has also been speculation on Putin’s future. When his term ends in 2024, stepping aside and controlling Russia through a kleptocracy akin to Kazakhstan’s model seems ideal. This may now seem risky and Putin may choose to remain in power as long as possible.
Britain and its links to Kazakhstan’s kleptocracy
Many kleptocrats choose Britain to store their ill-retrieved wealth, courtesy of poor transparency laws. In December 2020, Chatham House published a report titled ‘The UK’s Kleptocracy Problem’ which mentioned 34 properties bought and owned by Kazakhstan’s ruling elite at a cost of approximately £530m. John Heathershaw, an author of the report said, “Most of the property is linked to Nazarbayev’s family or members of the ruling elite that are close to them”. Scholars believe this is the tip of the iceberg since a lot of data is unavailable.
It is tough to cease kleptocracy if there is an easily available option for them to guard and access their assets.