Kazakhstan protests: what remains unsaid?

Kazakhstan protests: what remains unsaid?

Foreign Affairs
Reading Time: 12 minutes

On the first week of January 2022, energy-rich Kazakhstan experienced a large-scale mass protest—the largest in its three-decade-long existence—which turned extremely violent and engulfed much of the country’s southern parts. The government and the protesters clashed with each other and both sides suffered casualties.

The Kazakhstan protests initially started as an exhibition of mass resentment against the 100% hike in the prices for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) from 60 tenge ($0.13) to 120 tenge ($0.26) per litre. However, soon the protests turned violent, which the authorities are calling an attempted coup by foreign-funded Islamist terrorists.

Though the price hike of LPG was reversed and most of the demands of the protesters were accepted by the authorities, the incidents of violence continued in most parts of the south. Kazakhstan had to finally seek foreign help, especially from Russia, to control the situation.

What gathered steam on January 2nd as peaceful protests became utmost feral by January 5th resulting in the death of 164 people and nearly 18 security personnel. More than 103 people were killed in Alamaty alone, according to reports. The Kazakhstan protests caught international attention due to its strategic location, however, there have been different narratives regarding this violent outburst.

Kazakhstan protests: all that you want to know

The Kazakhstan protests initially started against the sudden rise in fuel prices. The common people, the working class, the youth and students and other sections of the society joined the protests. By January 5th-6th the protests turned violent, especially in the southern parts of the country of 19m people.

The cities of Zhanaozen and Aktau, located in the Mangistau region in southwestern Kazakhstan, suffered the first incidents of violence and armed vandalism by gangs of criminals and terrorists. Then violent clashes also took place in Almaty and other cities.

Most violence took place in urban areas like the largest city Almaty. Other towns also suffered due to the violence. Armed “protesters” fought guerrilla battles with the security forces. These “protesters” also looted the weapons of the security personnel whom they killed or wounded.

On January 4th, several militant protesters in Almaty seized the administration building (Akimat) for a short period. Though the attack was repelled by the government forces, the militant protesters returned with a larger force on January 5th and seized control of the building successfully. The president’s residence in Almaty was torched by the protesters.

Also, on the same day, a boisterous mob broke through a police cordon into the Akimat in Aqtöbe. The security forces allege that there were several explosions in the building, allegedly triggered by the militant mob. As the security forces escalated their assault, the mob retreated.

Similar violent attacks on Akimats also took place in urban areas like Shymkent and Taraz. Buildings were burned, the glass panes were either stoned or Molotov Cocktails were hailed by the feral mob. No organisation took the responsibility for this vandalism. The Baikonur Cosmodrome—from where the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first satellite to space—was also attacked by armed militants.

Officials have said 13 security personnel had lost their lives and more than 350 are seriously injured. Two of them were found decapitated. In cities like Aqtöbe and Arytau, it’s alleged that the security forces also joined the protests.

According to media reports, gunfire was heard everywhere, Molotov Cocktails were tossed at government offices, security stations and more than 120 shops, 180 cafes and small businesses suffered the pogrom during the so-called Kazakhstan protests. There has been estimated property damage worth $199m.

Following the orders of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the security forces opened fire on protesters without warning at several places, including the iconic Republic Square of Almaty. It’s alleged that there could be more than 164 deaths.

It’s estimated that between 6,000 and 7,800 people, including alleged foreigners, may have been arrested by the government for their role in the violent Kazakhstan protests. The internet was suspended in several areas during the period of violence; however, the internet has been restored by Monday, January 10th 2022.

Tokayev has harshly criticised the violence as a coup d’état attempt by “terrorists”, funded by outsiders. Tokayev appealed for help to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the tension escalated and it indicates that he is accusing the western powers, averse to Moscow, of sponsoring the trouble in Kazakhstan.

Putin’s government had earlier claimed that Tokayev can manage the situation on his own. However, when Tokayev asked for help formally, Russia obliged. Putin has reportedly claimed that Russia won’t allow any ‘colour revolution’ in Kazakhstan, referring to the 2005 CIA-funded coup called the “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan and the 2014 “Maidan Revolution” in Ukraine.

Peace-keeping troops under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military bloc of five former Soviet republics, Armenia, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, are dispatched to Kazakhstan after Tokayev’s appeal.

According to unconfirmed reports, around five Ilyushin Il-76 planes carrying peacekeepers have left for Kazakhstan from the Byelorussian territory. The situation is “normal” now, as per press dispatches from Almaty.

What did the government do to quell Kazakhstan protests?

Soon after the protests erupted on January 2nd 2022, Tokayev, who is often accused of being a puppet of his patron, the former dictator Nazarbayev, started taking a host of measures to control the situation. He was visibly disappointed with the government of former prime minister Aksar Mamin.

On January 5th evening, by the time the Kazakhstan protests had turned violent in the major cities, Tokayev fired Mamin. He allowed the First Deputy Prime Minister Alikan Smailov to run the interim government until the Parliament is dissolved and new elections are called.

The same evening, Tokamayev went on air for the first time since the trouble started. In an address to the nation, the President appealed to the people not to “give in to provocations from inside and outside”. The “calls to attack the civilian and military offices are absolutely illegal. The government shall not fall and we need no conflict but mutual trust”, Tokmayev had said.

Along with this, to address the genuine concerns of the protesters over the rise of fuel prices, Tokayev, as the head of the state, instructed the government to bring the prices of 19 essential commodities like flour, bread, pasta, salt, eggs, buckwheat, rice, sugar, sunflower, butter and other foodstuffs under state regulation.

The fuel price hike has been reversed by bringing the prices of all fuels under state regulation for 180 days. President Tokayev also issued an order to the government to consider a moratorium on increasing prices of public utilities for the same period.

These measures by Tokayev were welcomed by the genuine protestors who were agonised by the steep rise in fuel prices amid their falling income. However, the situation didn’t normalise as the armed hoodlums, who penetrated the ranks of the protesters, continued their violent rampage throughout the major cities, except for the capital Nur-sultan.

As many protesters were exhibiting their anger against Nazarbayev and complaining about his influence over the Kazakhstan government, despite being forced to resign in 2019 due to public unrest over his sheer corrupt and tyrannical rule, Tokayev struck a blow at the former dictator.

Despite stepping down from all posts, Nazarbayev had retained the post of the head of the crucial National Security Council (NSC). Tokayev dismissed Nazarbayev, who had ironically handpicked him as his successor, from the top post of the NSC overnight. Former prime minister Karim Masimov, Nazarbayev’s powerful protégé, was also arrested on charges of treason.

Tokayev pointed fingers at Nurlan Nogayev, the former head of the Ministry of Energy, for the sudden price rise. Nogayev was the head of the Mangistau region where the protests first started. Tokayev has requested a thorough investigation into the sudden raising of fuel prices. The authorities are doubting that a nexus between corrupt politicians, crony-comprador oligarchs and foreign powers played a major role in stirring the Kazakhstan protests.

Several top executives of prominent fuel companies, which have links with Nazarbayev’s family, were arrested for raising the prices of the fuels without any valid reason. The clipping of Nazarbayev’s wings exhibits that the protests may have been a political instrument for the former dictator to seize power once more.

While these measures by President Tokayev helped to dissuade the genuine protesters, who found their demands met, a group of extremists, allegedly with Salafist Islamist links, carried out the mayhem by butchering security personnel even on January 6th and 7th. There have been sporadic incidents of gunfire and vandalism in the southern parts of the country.

This recurrence of violence under the garb of protests indicated that there could be a larger geopolitical reason behind this unrest. Tokayev has been blaming the foreign powers and sought help from the CSTO to show that the threat may be emerging from western forces.

What are the geopolitical causes and implications of the Kazakhstan protests?

Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest Muslim-majority country that has remained relatively stable in the last 30 years of its existence as an independent country. The energy-rich country is on the radar of both Russia and the US. Both want to have a friendly regime in Nur-sultan so that they can get a pie in the energy reserves of the country.

The Kazakhstan protests turned violent at a time when Russia is facing a threat from the US-led NATO forces in its neighbourhood. To deter its eastern neighbour and former Soviet republic Ukraine from joining the NATO and bringing a major military threat right up to the nose of Moscow, President Putin has amassed nearly 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border.

Though Russian President Putin and US President Joe Biden have been discussing the Ukraine issue over the telephone, their discussions have reached a stalemate as both parties have adopted an obstinate position on Kyiv’s future course.

According to reports, Biden has warned Putin of “severe consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. Measures may include sanctions on Putin’s coterie, blocking Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany or even severing Russia’s link to the global banking system managed by the US and the EU.

Putin, on the other hand, has stated that Russia has been consistently betrayed by the west and NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US-led NATO has engulfed most of the Warsaw Pact countries and two Baltic countries that were under the Soviet rule.

This has turned real Russia’s fear of being militarily encircled by its western adversaries. Putin has reportedly told Biden that Russia is ready to sever ties with the US if the latter continues with its imperialistic agenda in Ukraine.

In these circumstances, the precarious situation in Kazakhstan will provide a leeway to the US-led NATO. One of the notable points in the Kazakhstan protests is the role of the US Embassy in Nur-sultan, which called the banned extremist group Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan or DVK an “opposition party” when it issued the warnings for possible riots on fuel price hikes as early as in mid-December 2021.

This downplaying of DVK’s record in promoting militancy by the US embassy and issuing forecasts of severe protests for American citizens raise doubts about its role in the fiasco. Moreover, as the southern provinces experienced severe unrest, but the northern parts remained relatively peaceful, experts are doubting a sinister attempt, which may include Nazarbayev and his coterie, to split Kazakhstan in case the pro-west and anti-Moscow forces can’t seize power at the centre.

Nearly 85% of Kazakhstan’s fuel goes to the west. Following the western neo-liberal economic template, Kazakhstan’s ruling comprador elites have turned their country into a hub of cheap labour and resources for the west to plunder. However, there is a pro-Russia section in the elites, who still promote the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which makes the west uneasy.

Moreover, for years, Turkey has been trying to influence Kazakhstan using its Salafist Islamist ideology. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been using his influence on Islamist militants to foment trouble in Kazakhstan and bring it under NATO’s influence.

Nazarbayev, who is largely stripped of his powers but enjoys legal immunity as per an agreement that made him step back, is allegedly a supporter of such an attempt to save the fortunes of his daughters. This is a reason that the NSC, which he continued to head after stepping down, didn’t ban the preaching by radical Salafist hatemongers in Kazakhstan.

Several Saudi Arabia-trained militant preachers have been continuously running radicalisation centres, right under the nose of the Kazakh government in different cities. Though Tokayev condemned terrorism and removed Nazarbayev from his position, he didn’t train his guns at the Salafists as the latter have a strong influence on the ruling oligarchy.

If the NATO-backed and big oligarch-funded Islamist militants manage to sweep Kazakhstan riding on the popular resentment against the government, then it will be possible for the US-led western forces to take Kazakhstan out of the Russia-led CSTO bloc and make it a NATO member. In that case, it will be Turkey that will help Kazakhstan’s new Islamist regime to build a bridge with western powers.

For Russia, it will mean a major catastrophe, as apart from the tension in hundreds of kilometres wide Ukrainian frontier, it will have thousands of kilometres of troubled borders in the south. For Russia, it will also mean diversifying its troops and military operations, especially against NATO-backed terrorists, on different fronts, which will provide an edge to the US to push NATO further close to Russia’s western frontiers.

But it’s not just Russia that NATO will aim at fomenting trouble in. China’s Xinjian region will be also troubled by Salafist terrorists using southwestern Kazakhstan. The Turkey-backed Islamist militants can intensify terror attacks in China and provide a haven to the terrorists fleeing China. This will help the US in its long-term project of bleeding both China and Russia to consolidate its global economic and military hegemony.

As the Kazakhstan protests didn’t turn up as expected, the US administration has been visibly upset. Tokayev seeking Russia-led CSTO’s help to restore peace in Kazakhstan added to the US’s agony. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state warned Kazakhstan about Russian troops. “Once Russians are in your house, sometimes it is very difficult to get them to leave”, Blinken said.

While the Russians, and earlier the Soviets, had been involved in several conflicts and even occupation of foreign countries, but nothing matches the record of the US, which has been, for over 77 years, spreading its military presence across the world with multiple military bases in different colonies and neo-colonies that the Pentagon subjugates under its jackboots.

It took the people of Korea, aided by China, three years to defeat the US, yet Washington DC still has its military base in the southern Korean peninsula it has been occupying since 1953. For the people of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan, it took nearly two decades, in different periods of modern history, to get rid of the US occupation and imperialist aggression.

For countries like Iraq, Japan, etc, the ordeal continues even now. When the US has been involved in utmost grotesque human rights violations and macabre war crimes all over the world, how can Blinken have the moral right to criticise the Russians? Can the US clarify to the world and victims of its aggression, why the American troops are on a killing spree all over the world throughout the last seven decades?

Inside the dark world of comprador-oligarchy-ruled Kazakhstan

The Kazakhstan protests have exposed the grotesque underbelly of the comprador-oligarchy rule in the Central Asian former Soviet republic. The unbridled aggrandisement of the comprador-oligarchs under former dictator Nazarbayev has created such a trickle-down economy where the wealth gap has increased manifold since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gennady Zyuganov, the senior leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF or CPRF), has lambasted the post-Soviet economic liberalisation, prescribed by the west to all breakaway Soviet republics, for the Kazakhstan protests.

Since 1991, Kazakhstan is acutely divided into two antagonistic camps, one of the handfuls of elites, who are mostly comprador oligarchs, the other belongs to the common masses who have been rendered as human flotsams of the “reform” process.

In a statement issued by the CPRF’s Central Committee on the Kazakhstan protests, Zyuganov said, “Every broad movement contains different components. The events in Kazakhstan have absorbed both social discontent, and the activities of the ‘fifth column’, and the actions of terrorist groups (sic).”

He accused the radical Islamist extremists, western-backed non-governmental organisations (NGOs), individual security officials who were “looking for benefits in the troubled waters of instability” and oligarchs who look for “redistribution of power” of forming this fifth column.

The CPRF, which strongly advocates for the reformation of the Soviet Union, albeit in a new style, called the situation in Kazakhstan a direct consequence of the tragedy that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Zyuganov said, “The destruction of the USSR, the rejection of the socialist system and Soviet power laid numerous mines under the new ‘independent and democratic’ states. The primitive capitalism into which the post-Soviet republics were plunged, inevitably doomed the working people to impoverishment and lack of rights gave rise to glaring inequality. At the same time, our peoples turned out to be extremely vulnerable in the face of external threats.”

The veteran communist leader claimed that one in seven Kazakhs is poor if $5.5 per day is considered as the benchmark of poverty. He showed that polls have revealed that the proportion of those who don’t even have enough food has increased from 3% to 13% in Kazakhstan. Another 44% had admitted that they only have enough money for food.

While this is the situation of the working class in Kazakhstan, who formed the majority of the genuine protesters, the oligarchs have a diametrically opposite condition. The number of dollar billionaires in Kazakhstan increased from four to seven in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As most Kazakhs have been protesting the sudden hike in oil prices, Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter Aliya Nazarbayeva—who has been accused of using her father’s position and clout to grow her business empire at a high pace— was on a spending spree in the UK, apparently in a bid to relocate in case her father-backed oligarchs fail to usurp power.

Nazarbayeva’s purchases include an £8.75m luxury house in Highgate, a private bank and a $25m private jet. Coming from the daughter of a man who was a Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) official in his early life and a president of a Central Asian republic for the rest of his life, this spending spree shows how Nazarbayev promoted corruption throughout his public life.

Kazakh oligarchs related to Nazarbayev, like Patoksh Shodiev, the co-owner of Euroasian Resources Group, Kenes Rakishev, the head of the Sat & Company that’s into metallurgy, etc, fled to the west since the Kazakhstan protests rocked the country. Nazarbayeva’s frantic attempt to relocate to the UK is also a sign that the failure of the coup has upset a large section of the oligarchy.

What’s the way out for Kazakhstan?

The way out for Kazakhstan and all other former Soviet republics is to unite against the west, discard the neo-liberal economic policies that have destroyed the lives and the livelihoods of millions, and pursue a path of inclusive economic growth through the nationalisation of major assets. The end of the filthy wealth accumulation can free resources for the people’s common good.

Neither Tokayev nor his opponents, who either want Kazakhstan to be a Russian appendage or an American lackey, can take it to a realm of freedom and economic progress that will touch the lives of the underprivileged. No true and permanent solution for the Kazakh people can be found in the patchworks that Tokayev and the CSTO can provide.

The Kazakhstan protests showed that the people’s discontent is rising as the illusions regarding the “free market” and private ownership of resources, which were packaged with the idea of ‘liberal democracy’, and sold to the people of the Soviet Union and other East European countries to lure them into the trap laid by the US-led imperialist bloc, are shattering at present.

Western monopoly-finance capital, in its wild profiteering spree, has jeopardised the lives of the people of most of the former Soviet republics. Most of these republics failed to progress in terms of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. The promised land flowing with milk and honey remained as a chimaera. Rather, freed from the Soviet clutches, the people of these republics have been turned into political pawns by the west and Russia in their imperialistic geopolitical adventures.

Despite its fallbacks and the attempt by the Islamist and foreign-funded militants to fuel a ‘colour revolution’, the Kazakhstan protests opened a can of worms. The capitalist system is promoting fascistic dictatorship and not the democracy it promised. It’s fuelling terrorism and violence throughout the region, which remained peaceful for a long period.

Until capitalism thrives, oligarchy will rule and the people will continue to suffer, which will give rise to more incidents like the Kazakhstan protests. To end the vicious cycle of mass poverty, exploitation, violence and the consolidation of tyranny, it’s imperative to smash the capitalist system itself and not merely do cosmetic changes. It’s to be seen whether the former anti-capitalist citadel of the world again begets a new crusade against the exploitation of humans by humans.

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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