Kazakhstan has largely been a peaceful country since it was liberated from the former United States of the Soviet Republic (USSR). Since then, all the country’s politics have revolved around its leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was everything to this country and was known to rule by autocratic measures. There was no opposition in the country and fair elections never took place. He had around him a coterie of influential businessmen who got richer and richer while ordinary men in the country suffered the worst. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Kazakhstan’s 162 richest men held 55% of the nation’s wealth as of December 2021.
Even when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked the country’s growth as one of the most progressive economies in Central Asia, the average annual salary of an ordinary man was less than $ 100 per month. Nursultan, however, went through the country through many ups and downs over the past 30 years until his resignation in 2019 and was appointed President of the Security Council of Kazakhstan.
But as the former Soviet state entered the year 2022, protests began across the country against rising fuel prices, resulting in a national emergency and large-scale bloodshed throughout Kazakhstan. The entire cabinet resigned and the country is now in chaos. As of this writing, more than 50 people have been killed and a similar number have been injured in the ongoing violence while government forces have arrested more than 4,500 people according to official estimates. The exact numbers can be much higher. Several thousand Russian paratroopers have moved around the country to restore law and order and a massive crackdown on protesters is underway. “Shoot to kill” orders are given to the security forces and Nursultan Nazarbayev has been dismissed from his post as “President of the Security Council”.
The protests that began in a remote town of Zhanaozen on January 2, 2022, spread like wildfire first to neighboring towns and then to the country’s commercial capital, Almaty, on January 4, 2022. The capital Nursultan was not spared either. and soon demonstrators were seen on the roads of all major cities in Kazakhstan with guns looted from armories. There are entries that an unknown number of foreign mercenaries were also part of the mob that was hired by the nation’s wealthy business tycoons. Such a widespread movement does not form in a matter of days and there were strong reasons why this protest has spread like wildfire.
These protests were not new. The Kazakh people have been engaged in a series of protests since 2018 and are pushing the government to act for the well-being of its citizens. It is strongly felt that the rise in oil prices was not the reason for these protests but a trigger. The most important reason was widespread corruption and the government’s active support for the country’s elites. Since Kazakhstan became a free country, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power. It was not a country poor in natural resources. It had over 40 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, significant oil reserves, and was among the top 15 countries in terms of natural gas reserves. However, as previously noted, few business elites owned a significant share of the country’s wealth and owned large estates across Europe, while the common men suffered badly.
At the same time, there was no voice in Kazakhstan. There was no opposition and anyone who opposed Nazarbayev was severely punished. This prompted residents to adopt the strategy of raising a collective voice through protest rather than standing individually. They staged timely protests across the country in large numbers which were difficult to quell.
The third most important reason for these protests was rising inflation and the accompanying issue of rising fuel prices was one of them. The year 2021 saw the worst when the average inflation rate in Kazakhstan was above 8.9%. The IMF predicted that inflation would cross 14.1% in 2022. This was mainly due to a nationwide drought, rising fuel costs and a weaker performing currency. In addition, the country’s elites were committed to making money and transferring the country’s money to their European strongholds, which brought the country’s ordinary men to the streets.
The irregularities in Kazakhstan’s 2019 presidential elections were the fourth reason that led to the protests. Kassym Jomart Tokayev, a candidate sponsored by Nursultan Nazarbayev, won over 70 percent of the vote and was elected president. Due to the skewed elections, soon after the results were announced, people took to the streets, but the Kazakh government cracked down on opponents by arresting all the main leaders of the protesters. The protests have been silenced for the time being, but these protests laid the groundwork for the events of January 2022.
The immediate trigger was the crackdown on protesters in Zhanaozen on December 11, 2021, who had gathered to pay tribute to their fallen comrades, killed in police repression ten years ago. While the iron was still hot, notifications issued by the government doubled the price of fuel, bringing the whole country together and, as a result, the Kazakh parliament had to resign. The forces of the “Central Collective Security Organization”, especially Russia, moved their forces to establish law and order in the country and it made headlines around the world.
The biggest question is what now?
Although the severity of the protests has diminished and it is assumed that in the next two weeks peace will prevail in this Central Asian country, but a comprehensive solution must be found with the help of the members of the Central Organization collective security. There will be no permanent solution unless the country conducts fair elections, has a government of its choice and measures for the well-being of its working class are secured. The era of Nazarbayev must end and a popular government must be instituted.
(Disclaimer: The views of the author do not represent those of WION or ZMCL. WION or ZMCL also do not endorse the views of the author.)