Revolution or coup?

January 16, 2022

Thousands arrested as Kazakhstan witnesses deadly protests over fuel price hike

Revolution or coup?

Starting on January 2, Kazakhstan was rocked by weeks of unprecedented violent protests triggered by rising fuel prices. The protesters clashed with police and security forces across major cities, killing dozens of people, including 16 security personnel. On January 13, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that the violence was an attempted coup d’etat. So far, security forces have detained 12,000 people.

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia in terms of territory. It is surrounded by Russia (northwest and north), China (east) and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (south). It was one of the constituent units of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). When the Union disintegrated towards the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet Central Asian Republics emerged as independent nation-states. Kazakhstan declared its independence from the USSR on December 16, 1991.

Like most the post-colonial countries, the post-Soviet states have struggled in respect of constitutionalism, federalism, governance, public welfare and effective foreign policy. Little wonder, the Western model of democracy has remained a distant dream in the region and political parties, though a hallmark of modern democracies, remained grounded in clan-based politics.

Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, who became the country’s first president in April 1990, reflecting the socioeconomic domination of his clan, ruled the roost for next thirty years. He resigned from the office in 2019 but did not lose interest in politics and power. He has continued to stay relevant in the country’s realpolitik as head of its Security Council, which makes economic, security and foreign policy. There have been reports that amid ongoing riots he has been removed as chairman of the said council. Since 2010, Nazarbayev has had the title of Elbasy leader of the nation. Due partly to old age (81 currently) and political considerations he preferred in June 2019 to hand powers over to the former prime minister Tokayev. The latter was believed be a bridgehead among various clans with stakes in the Kazak economy, society and the state.

Having assumed the presidency, Tokayev had to deal with Nazarbayev’s powerful family especially his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, who has deep corporate relations with the real estate and industrial conglomerate of the country. The former president’s three daughters, namely, Dariga, Dinara, and Aliya, are also among the most powerful women in the country. Dariga is seen as a great host for international events; Aliya manages the Elitstroy construction company that built many of the country’s steel-and-glass offices; and Dinara Kulibayeva handles the giant Halyk Savings Bank with her husband, Timur Kulibayev, who is seen as politically ambitious. He has chaired many of Kazakhstan’s major energy and wealth enterprises. Over the decade, he has also run Kazenergy industry association, which groups the country’s energy companies and enterprises. In the last year and a half, he has been very vocal on media in political terms. This might have raised concerns for Tokayev and his team who gradually started replacing Nazarbayev’s sympathisers. Besides taking institutional measures, a key challenge for President Tokayev has been the not-so-well economy.

Like most of the Gulf countries, Kazakhstan, has manifested an overreliance on carbon resources and not put much interest or capital into research and innovation. Unplanned development and uneven growth, have had varied effects on different sections of the society. The rich have become richer and the poor poorer, reflecting regional variation in socioeconomic terms, too. The socioeconomic profile of the segment of population living on industrial and oil-oriented enterprises has been better than others living in the (urban) periphery. For past many months, inflation has hit high, affecting the low- and middle-income households. Ineffective governance coupled with clan feuds for power and resources have added fuel to fire.

A small protest in western Kazakhstan triggered agitation in other parts of the country including, Almaty, the country’s largest city. Instead of assuaging the popular demands, the government, used repressive tactics. In the past, similar protests over wage and labour issues had erupted in Zhanaozen, located in the western region of Mangystau, in 2011. [Then] President Nazarbayev had used force to suppress the workers of whom 16 lost their lives. About a decade later, poor living conditions and a price hike have again led to restlessness. In the first week of January 2022, for instance, the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) soared from 60 tenge ($0.14) to 120 tenge ($0.28) per liter. The sudden price hike has been viewed as another failure of the government to ensure equitable socioeconomic development.

Revolution or coup?

Having assumed the presidency, Tokayev had to deal with Nazarbayev’s powerful family especially his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev. Even former president’s three daughters: Dariga, Dinara and Aliya, are still among the most powerful women. Dariga is seen as a great host for international events; Aliya manages the Elitstroy construction company that built many of the country’s steel-and-glass offices; whereas Dinara Kulibayeva handles the giant Halyk Savings Bank with her husband, Timur Kulibayev.

The Ministry of Energy has tried to justify the sudden increase in terms of an institutional transition to electronic trading for LPG with a gradual decrease in subsidies for domestic consumers and a shift to market prices established through online platforms. These economic grievances provoked agitation politics in urban parts of the country.

On January 2, the protesters took on security forces deployed to curb what the president called some “20,000 bandits”.

Kazakhstan was viewed by some regional countries and analysts as a case for authoritarian stability. However, the country has suffered from a lingering crisis of political and socioeconomic instability the seeds of which predate the ongoing riots. The crash of the tenge, Kazakhstan’s currency, amid low oil prices in 2015, extravagant spending on EXPO 2017 and the new capital Nur-Sultan in 2019, the deadly effects of Covid-19 have all contributed to public resentment.

In other words, the current episode needs to be seen in the wider socioeconomic and political context of the preceding decade. Aggrieved communities and clans have intermittently registered their protest. The Central Asia Protest Tracker, a dataset compiled by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, state that out of 981 recorded incidents in the five Central Asian states from January 2018 to August 2020, 520 protests occurred in Kazakhstan alone. Thus, the ongoing protests are not an isolated incident. The Oxus Society has posited that around half of the recorded protests in Kazakhstan in the last two and a half year called for political reforms.

According to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), unemployment rate in Kazakhstan soared by 12 percent in 2021. It disproportionately affected internal migrants such as youth from low-income families, who migrated to cities from rural areas in search of job opportunities. The Covid-19 lockdowns and decreasing oil revenue further diminished job opportunities. Like Pakistan, Kazakhstan has a high proportion of youth in its population; the median age is about 30.7 years. Usurpingly, the protesters have overwhelmingly been the country’s youth energetic, aware, unemployed and leaderless.

For leadership, the youth are seemingly dependent on existing leaders of clan-based politics; the likes of the former president and the current president. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s team and Nazarbayev’s extended family are seen vying for power and resources. Samat Abish, Nazarbayev’s nephew and deputy chairman of the National Security Committee, informally controls the local security forces. This has rendered ineffective Tokayev’s ability to command the military and other security agencies. The president has taken some harsh measures, perhaps having sensed a looming clan-oriented threat to his political survival. These include Nazarbayev’s removal from the National Security Council chair. Karim Massimov, head of the National Security Committee and a former prime minister, has been fired and put behind bars.

To ward off any potential threat to his rule, President Tokayev has also called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation’s military to help him quell the protests. Operationally, Russia has a lead role in this respect. Russian President Vladimir Putin has publically spoken in favour of President Tokayev and said that Kazakhstan has been targetted by international terrorism. He has provided no evidence for this claim. President Putin has said that Russia will never allow such ‘revolutions’ in the region.

China has supported Russian-led forces’ deployment to Kazakhstan to help quell unrest. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that China supports the Kazakhstan president’s assessment that the source of the unrest was terrorist activity. However, the European Union and the United States have criticised the use of military means against the protesters. 164 people are reported to have lost their lives and hundreds are reported to have been injured.

Given the structural issues like high inflation, high and rising unemployment, the youth bulge, domestic, regional and global power-tussles among various clans, corporations and countries, orderly rule will not come easily to chaotic Kazakhstan. It is still unclear how long the foreign troops will stay on. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken ominously said the other day, “one lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”. The Russian foreign ministry found Blinken’s remarks offensive and stated: “When Americans are in your house, it can be difficult to stay alive and not be robbed or raped”.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from    UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and   Fulbright fellow. Currently, he is an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University,  Islamabad. He tweets  @ejazbhatty

Revolution or coup?