Kazakhstan: demands for radical change met with lethal response
Protests prompted by a fuel price increase grew into demands for economic and political reform in Kazakhstan. But while Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev reintroduced a fuel price cap and replaced the prime minister and cabinet, continuing protests were met with lethal violence and mass detentions. Foreign troops were called in to help suppress protests, once again showing the determination of Russia’s Vladmir Putin to stamp down on demands for democracy across his country’s borders. President Tokayev used the protests as an opportunity to rein in the power enjoyed by his predecessor, but the problems that triggered protests remain, with few other routes available for people to express dissent.
It’s now clear why mass protests are so rare in Kazakhstan. It isn’t because people are broadly happy with their leaders. It’s because of the brutal suppression exercised in response to mass mobilisation, something the people who came out to protest in January can sadly attest to.
Although official figures aren’t to be trusted, and the absence of free media makes an accurate assessment even harder, perhaps 10,000 people were detained in the protests that erupted earlier this month. Those killed under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s brutal shoot-to-kill policy likely stretch into three figures. Kazakhstan’s security forces, assisted by troops from Russia and other neighbouring countries, have crushed this wave of protest. There seems no sign the Kazakh authorities are about to accept that people should be allowed to have a say without risking death or detention as a result.
From fuel to fury
Kazakhstan’s protests followed a trajectory seen time and again in country after country: when the price of essentials goes up and people feel strained to the limit, protests erupt. And when the system of governance is broken – when the state doesn’t listen to people’s needs and wishes, institutions don’t respond to their demands and fundamental freedoms are denied – street mobilisation will offer the only outlet for dissent, even when it entails high risks. Even when triggered by apparently minor changes in policies or prices, these protests carry a potential to spread and deepen into demands for structural change.
That’s what happened in Kazakhstan when the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) almost doubled in a matter of days. This mattered to people, as LPG is widely used as transport fuel, particularly in the west of the country. Moreover, people feared this was just the beginning: experience has taught them that when fuel costs rise, the price of all other essentials also goes up. Unsurprisingly, protests started in Zhanaozen, an oil city in western Kazakhstan that has previously seen protests.
The price rise was no accident: it came after the government ended subsidies that kept the price down. The government switched to an online trading system that allowed the market to set prices. But the new system didn’t last long: within days of protests starting, Tokayev restored price controls. He also dismissed the government and pledged to appoint a new prime minister.
These were concessions to protesters’ anger, but they did not cause protests stop. As is often the case, by then the issue that sparked initial protests was seen as a symptom of much deeper problems. As typically happens with leaderless, spontaneous movements, protests increasingly encompassed a wide variety of grievances, with people demanding change over numerous problems that make their lives hard: corruption, oligarchic power, economic inequality, poverty and the absence of democracy.
By now the protest had spread far from Zhanaozen to Almaty, the largest city, and Nur-Sultan, the capital, among others. In what became the biggest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union, protesters occupied public squares, government buildings and Almaty airport.
Protesters’ demands were targeted not just at Tokayev, but also at his predecessor, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev held a unique position in Kazakhstan’s politics. He led the country from independence in 1991 until 2019, finally stepping down after public anger over economic hardship came to a head when five children died in a housefire because both parents had to work nightshifts. Tokayev, who he handpicked as his successor, had his appointment rubber-stamped at a fraudulent election, during which protests were repressed with thousands of arrests. He promised dialogue, but little happened.
Nazarbayev continued to lurk as the power behind the throne. He took the title of ‘leader of the nation’ and remained the face of Kazakhstan’s foreign relations. He stayed on as head of the Security Council. The capital, until then called Astana, was even renamed after him. His family retained its vast wealth of dubious origins and corresponding economic influence.
As protests evolved, the end of this profoundly undemocratic state of affairs became a key demand. People attacked Nazarbayev statues and chanted ‘old man out’. They meant not just Nazarbayev but the whole system that remains built in his image. They called for parliament – chosen in elections in which minimal political competition was allowed – to be replaced with a more democratic body.
People demanded the right to elect regional and local leaders, who are currently appointed by central government: the inadequacy of this arrangement was made clear even before protests broke out in Zhanaozen, when people complained to their local government official and were told they should put their grievances in writing to the local authorities; protesters pointed out they had already done so only for their complaints to be ignored.
A lethal response
After reversing on the fuel price policy and changing ministers, Tokayev made no further moves. Instead, he responded to the continuing protests with increasing violence. A state of emergency was declared. Internet and mobile phone coverage was cut. And when the teargas, water cannon and stun grenades used ty the security forces did not do the trick, he called in foreign reinforcements.
Undoubtedly by then security force violence had elicited some protest violence. There were reports of looting, predictably enough in a context of hardship and inequality, and of buildings and police vehicles being set on fire. The government reported that several security force personnel had been killed. Some criminal elements may have attached themselves to protests: protests became a magnet that attracted all kinds of expressions of disaffection.
But the protests weren’t what Tokayev consistently characterised them as. He repeatedly portrayed them as the work of foreign-trained and supported ‘terrorist gangs’ and ‘bandits’ using protests as cover for a coup attempt. Bizarrely, Tokayev even claimed terrorists had broken into morgues to steal the bodies of their fallen colleagues to hide the evidence.
The government paraded foreigners on TV to back its claim of external agitation. Among them was a well-known musician from Kyrgyzstan, Vikram Ruzakhunov. With his face showing signs of beating, Ruzakhunov offered an apparent confession that he had been paid to come to Kazakhstan as a foreign agitator. He later revealed he had performed as directed for the cameras so he would be released and allowed home.
Which foreign force would like to stage a coup – or why – was unspecified, but such rhetoric did what it was presumably fashioned for: it enabled lethal violence. Security forces reported they had killed dozens of ‘rioters’ in Almaty, state TV – purely a government mouthpiece – described security force actions as an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and Tokayev gave a shoot-to-kill order and said those who did not surrender would be ‘eliminated’.
Tokayev was bolstered by troops provided by the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CTSO), a defence pact of six of the region’s states, among them Russia. Tokayev may have conjured up the threat of a foreign-backed coup, but it was he who invited Russian paratroopers into his country.
The activation of the CTSO, an alliance meant to defend borders, to suppress domestic dissent is highly concerning. It may set a precedent: the autocrats who rule other member countries, such as Belarus and Tajikistan, may well see this as an option the next time they face protests.
Tokayev’s blaming of foreign agitators for domestic pressure strongly followed the lines used by Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, who customarily falls back on this fiction at home and was quick to do so in relation to Kazakhstan. Putin also claimed the unrest pointed to the danger of social media use and unrestricted internet access.; he would hardly miss this chance to suggest further restrictions on free speech and communications are needed to maintain order.
A compromised strongman
The forces summoned were more than enough to suppress the protest movement. Those detained can expect to face rough justice. In one way, Tokayev looks to have emerged stronger: he seized on protests as an opportunity to detach himself from Nazarbayev’s legacy. He took Nazarbayev’s place as head of the Security Council, and at the time of writing the normally high-profile former president has not been seen since protests began. Karim Masimov, former head of the domestic intelligence agency and a close Nazarbayev ally, was detained on grounds of high treason. There even seem to be rumours that Nur-Sultan could get its old name back, hinting at a line being drawn.
In making these moves, Tokayev may have hoped to placate a segment of protesters. But he took their demands for change and channelled them only towards Nazarbayev, protecting himself. Personalities aside, the political and economic order built by Nazarbayev hasn’t been touched. The new prime minister, Alikhan Smailov, was deputy prime minister in the old government. The old elite retains its grasp on political power. None of the changes have strengthened human rights or democratic institutions. And now Nazarbayev has been side-lined, it should be clear that the blood is on Tokayev’s hands.
When President Tokayev had a choice between accepting demands for democracy or hiding behind Russia, he chose the latter.
In another way, Tokayev has emerged weakened. In inviting Russia and other states in, he has made himself a compromised strongman. When he had a choice between accepting demands for democracy or hiding behind Russia, he chose the latter.
Doing so brings risks. Many Russians regard at least some of Kazakhstan as part of ‘greater Russia’, a concept promoted by Putin in his hostile moves towards another of Russia’s neighbours, Ukraine. Putin supporters have talked about extracting concessions from Kazakhstan, such as demanding greater use of the Russian language. Kazakhstan long managed to maintain a balance between Russia and the west in its foreign policy. Now it’s decisively tilted in Russia’s favour.
Russia is now ringed by countries where democracy movements have been brutally suppressed – and as well as stamping down on dissent at home, Putin has been active in curtailing mobilisations for democracy in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It’s clear that Putin will move to prevent democracy from taking root near his borders, by force if necessary.
But this is about more than Russia, the lens through which western commentators inevitably viewed Kazakhstan’s protests. It’s about the aspirations of numerous Kazakhstani people to live dignified lives in a fair system, where political and economic decisions that affect them – like the policy to let the LPG price float – are subject to democratic oversight. It’s about people being forced to turn to protest in desperation in a country that not once has had an election recognised as free and fair.
Kazakhstan is rich with oil and a major exporter of uranium. Many western firms are involved in its extractive industries, including oil giants Chevron, Exxon and Mobil, taking advantage of the country’s wealth to get rich alongside Kazakhstan’s corrupt elite. Investors generally like Kazakhstan because it’s seen as a stable bet: mass protests are rare and the government is unchanging.
The January protests proved what the stability investors covet rests on: autocratic rule and iron fist repression. But most importantly, they also indicated that an economy based on repression is unsustainable in the long run, because once people have dared take to the streets to express their discontent in circumstances they knew were so unfavourable, they will do so again, and repeatedly, when a new tipping point is reached.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Tokayev must immediately release all those detained in relation to protests.
The United Nations should launch an independent, internationally backed enquiry into human rights violations in response to protests, including deaths, so those responsible can be held to account.
Western companies with interests in Kazakhstan should insist on stronger action on human rights, corruption and accountability as conditions for doing business.
Cover photo by Guy Smallman/Getty images