Photo Credit: Valery Sharifulin
By Nicholas Tappin
The protests in early January calling for political and socio economic reform within Kazakhstan, stemming from an abrupt increase in oil prices, revealed a fundamental conflict within the region: a general dissatisfaction with the authoritarian political order that has characterized most of the post-Soviet states and underpinned Russia’s ambitions to reassert its Soviet-era geopolitical power across Central Asia and abroad.
Like the progression of a wildfire, the Kazakh protests spread from the embers of smaller protests in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen, and ultimately into nationwide protests calling for free and fair elections to address the extensive economic inequality that has ravaged the nation since its inception. The Kazakh government’s decision to lift the price ceiling on oil, or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), was the catalyst for the initial protests in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen. Although rising oil prices have been experienced around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conditions in Kazakhstan were uniquely ripe for disruption. Many Kazakh citizens switched to oil-based transportation because of its lower cost due to the government’s longstanding subsidies to the oil industry. Of course, an argument can be made that the government’s decision to raise the price ceiling was justified. Oil consumption was predictably high due to the lower cost of oil which led to frequent oil shortages in the country. Therefore, raising the price ceiling was considered a reasonable, effective measure to slow down consumption. However, this solution—while theoretically infallible—caused the price of oil per gallon to increase two-fold. Protests against the government’s new price cap policy suddenly swept the key cities of Nur-Sultan and Almaty and spread throughout the rest of the nation.
Some protesters and outside observers have called Kazakhstan an “oligarchy” where the wealthiest citizens control most of the nation’s wealth and wield outsized influence over policy. However, this is only partially correct. Kazakhstan is, by all means, a kleptocracy—a system where government officials exploit the wealth of a nation or citizenry and misappropriate that wealth to further enrich themselves. Mirroring the Russian trajectory after the fall of the Soviet Union, many nationalized industries that were controlled by the Soviet government (natural resources, heavy industry, transportation, etc.) were quickly privatized. Unsurprisingly, the reason that Kazakhstan can effectively be labeled as a kleptocracy is because many of the wealthiest people in Kazakhstan were either former government officials within the communist party before 1991 or had extensive ties, allowing them to gain powerful positions within the newly privatized industries, with most of their wealth coming from the natural resource industry. Since this time, economic inequality has become so dire that a mere 162 people in the entire nation control more wealth than 55% of the population. If one were to live on Kazakhstan’s minimum wage, they would make around $100 a month, while the average cost of living is approximately $418 excluding rent. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated an already strenuous economic environment in which resource costs have a substantial impact on the lives of ordinary Kazakh citizens.
Coinciding with the economic discontent is a broader dissatisfaction with the political system in Kazakhstan. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled oppressively for over 30 years, solidifying his rule by silencing opposition and crippling hope for democracy in the country. In 2015, Nurusltan won his bid for reelection with an astounding 98% of the vote—a figure that was widely contested by think tanks, the United States, and other democratic governments in Western Europe. In fact, there was an amendment added to the Constitution in 2010 that protected Nazarbayev and his family from any civil or criminal prosecution following his resignation. Even though Nazarbayev technically resigned from office in 2019 and Kassym-Josart Tokayev—the current President—filled the vacancy, the protests demonstrate the belief that the long-standing political system no longer represents the best interests of the population and requires systemic change, as opposed to a nominal change in leadership, in order to improve the fortunes of the Kazakh people. Thus, it must be supplanted by a system prioritizing democratic values and socioeconomic equality. However, these ambitions are being stifled by a political establishment still allied with Nazarbayev and, more concerningly, to the belligerent and anti-democratic Russia.
Kazakhstan has remained a close ally of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and was one of the first signatories of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a military alliance among several former Soviet states, primarily led by Russia. Between 2010 and 2019, Russian military spending increased by approximately 30%, indicating that Russia is seeking to reassert its once absolute and uncontested power in Eurasia. The crisis in Kazakhstan occurs as Russia’s irredentist pursuits are being challenged in Ukraine by an international effort led by the United States. With Russian geopolitical pursuits stunted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia believes that it must secure the support of one of its closest allies in order to entrench its political power in the region. Russia’s deployment of an estimated 2,500 CSTO forces to Kazakhstan is an explicit demonstration of its commitment to its regional ambitions, and signals to Western powers that any challenge to these ambitions will be met with substantial force. Its involvement in Kazakhstan relays a clear message: Russia’s reclamation of its Soviet-era prestige will be bound by no cost, be it diplomatic or militaristic.
As it stands today, the Western powers—Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are divided on how to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and thus cannot provide an effective and united front. Protesters in Kazakhstan also face dwindling odds for success against the Kazakh government, especially as Russia—a re-emerging global power—actively supports it. While the world holds its breath for what will come of the Ukraine crisis and the unrest in Kazakhstan, Russia is the only nation strategically positioned to benefit from the chaos.
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