Kazakhstan unrest, explained

Philip M. Nichols of the Wharton School and the Russia and East European Studies program in the School of Arts & Sciences offers some background on the protests and violence and why what happens in Kazakhstan matters to the region and the world.

Protesters and riot police stand on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as smoke rises in the background
Riot police block protesters in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov)

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Kazakhstan to protest the doubling of the price of gas after the government lifted subsidies. A regional coalition force led by Russian troops has now been deployed to “stabilize” the country, as reports of civilian killings mount. 

The oil-rich nation nestled between Russia and China is huge, about the size of Western Europe, with only 19 million inhabitants. Yet the windfall from the country’s natural riches doesn’t trickle down to the general public.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a strongman who has ruled since 2019, has fired the prime minister and other government officials in response to the uproar and put the gas subsidies back in place. But the protests—and the government’s violent response—have continued.

Penn Today spoke with Philip M. Nichols of the Wharton School, a member of the Russia and East European Studies program in the School of Arts & Sciences, to get background on the unrest and why what happens in Kazakhstan matters to the region and the world.

What events led to the protests?

There are three major factors that led to what we’re seeing in Kazakhstan today. 

The first centers on a tradition of demonstrations that have been part of the fabric of independent Kazakhstan. Before the Russians conquered the area, it wasn’t a country; it was a region filled with people who identified as Kazakhs. Kazakhstan didn’t become a country until 1991. 

One of the things that led to the notion of Kazakhstan as a country was a series of demonstrations in 1986, when Gorbachev replaced the chairman of the Kazakh Communist Party with a Russian from Russia. The people, particularly in Almaty, launched huge demonstrations that were very peaceful until the authorities stepped in; then they got violent, and perhaps 1,000 people died. This fueled the birth of parties that moved for an independent Kazakhstan. Later, in 2011 there were huge protests in western Kazakhstan for the same reason we’re seeing now: economic conditions. In 2016, there was a land-reform protest, largely against selling land to China. In 2019 there were huge protests that led to President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepping down. Protests are deeply ingrained in this country.

The second strand is that Kazakhstan is fabulously wealthy and has some of the biggest oil reserves in the world and the biggest uranium reserves in the world; they supply nearly half of the world’s uranium. But the wealth is very concentrated, and most Kazakhs don’t benefit from the exploitation of natural resources in Kazakhstan. Few Kazakhstani live in poverty, but there is a clear sense of inequity.

The third strand, which is what the media sources are reporting, is the economic disruption caused by the sudden shift of liquefied petroleum gas from controlled to market price, which affected a lot of people in Almaty and western Kazakhstan.

Politically, the northern third of the country is primarily ethnic Russian, the bottom third is primarily ethnic Kazakhs, and the middle third is pretty empty. Ethnic Kazakhs have a strong nomadic heritage. So, you’ve got this primarily nomadic-heritage bottom two-thirds of the country and historically if nomads don’t like local politics they just leave. Kazkahs are no longer nomads, but there’s this awareness that the country is authoritarian, and that doesn’t sit well.

I have travelled all over Kazakhstan, and the people are generally happy. However, there is this combination of a grossly inequitable distribution of benefits and a sense among the people that that’s just not right and neither are the politics. So they protest.

What are the protesters seeking?

What triggered the protests was the doubling of the gas prices, but what is fueling the continued protests is this underlying, very clear dissatisfaction with distribution of wealth and the benefits of exploitation of resources and its sense that how they’re governed isn’t quite right. 

The president sacked the cabinet and the prime minister; he even sacked former President Nursultan Nazarbayev from his current cabinet role. He also put liquefied petroleum gas back in the controlled category, and he promised that there will be other consumer goods moved into controlled pricing. That still hasn’t satisfied the protesters. I’m guessing it’s morphed into more of a protest against conditions in Kazakhstan than one particular thing. What will satisfy them? I would guess nothing. When a protest morphs into something like that, there’s generally not concrete, immediate actions that can be taken. You see that all over the world. So it’s not like there’s one or two things that Tokayev can do that will leave the protesters feeling, ‘Oh, great. We’re done.’

Is this the type of reaction you would’ve expected from this government, or is it different than you would’ve predicted?

What makes this incredibly different is that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has responded. That’s huge and also interesting. As far as I know, this is the first time that the CSTO has responded to an incident. You keep hearing Tokayev saying the protests were instigated by ‘foreign agents.’ That’s dogma in that part of the world. Anything goes bad, they will say, ‘it’s not our people, who love me and love the way things are run. It’s outside agitators.’

In this case, it may have been a way of justifying the collective response. It’s really interesting because Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia, has always balanced its dependence on Russia with a really healthy relationship with the United States. Kazakhstan has benefitted tremendously from having a great relationship with Russia and with the United States, but now the CSTO is coming in. That’s something everyone should be keeping their eye on.

It could be that Russia is using this as a way to exert more dominance over Tokayev, and over the resources in Kazakhstan. Or it could be that Tokayev saw the writing on the wall. The last set of huge protests resulted in Nazarbayev stepping down; this one could have meant that Tokayev had to go. He doesn’t want that, and so he’s bringing in the big dogs. Those are two different sets of conditions, and we need to figure out which one it is, if we’re interested in that part of the world.

A burned four door sedan is seen on the charred ground in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
A car, which was burned after clashes, is seen on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Kazakhstan’s president authorized security forces to shoot to kill those participating in unrest, opening the door for a dramatic escalation in a crackdown on antigovernment protests that have turned violent. (Image: AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov)

What does this unrest mean for the region and for the world overall?

These are early days. It is too early to predict with certainty, but there are some things to think about.

During the Soviet times, Tashkent was the hub of Soviet Central Asia, but life there was repressive. Everything moved to Almaty when Kazakhstan became a country, and it became the hub of the region because it was pretty relaxed. People from outside the region could do business there. People from outside the region could live there, happily and well. It is under an authoritarian regime, but business could thrive in Almaty and people could have fulfilling lives there. If what we’re seeing results in shutting that down, then we’ve lost the vibrant hub of that region.

If what we’re seeing results in more Russian influence, or a closer alignment with Russia, that presents different issues. Russia is not interested in a lot of a wide-open, global interaction. Russia’s more interested in closing things off right now, and that would mean again snuffing out many of the things that made this regional hub important.

Kazakhstan’s amazing relationship with Russia and the United States could change. Kazakhstan has huge oil resources and huge uranium resources, and changes in the ways those are exported could affect world markets. Kazakhstan is also one of the largest Bitcoin miners, and the recent shutting down the internet has affected that a lot. 

Much of the world’s history has been influenced by Central Asia. Chinggis Khan came out of Central Asia and transformed the relationship between Asia and Europe. Attila the Hun came out of Central Asia and transformed the formation of Eastern Europe and Central Europe. Who knows what’s going to happen next? We should be paying attention to what’s happening in Central Asia. 

What should the international community’s response be?

Well, an international community has already responded: the CSTO, whose members include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. So when you say the international response, who is that? China has said, ‘It’s Kazakhstan’s business.’ Obviously Western Europe and North America can’t send military troops there. The Kazakhstani government saying that foreign agents provoked the protests makes any explicit support for Kazakhstani opposition groups delicate. It’s particularly difficult for the United States because the United States has its own problems. We just celebrated the anniversary of our own insurrection and face challenges with our democracy.

The international community, however, can extend their support to the people of Kazakhstan and listen to what they are saying. Maybe Scandinavia or Northern Europe can provide a model of how governments could work. One crack in the edifice that can be taken advantage of sooner rather than later is the huge dissatisfaction with corruption in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan benefits tremendously from international commerce.

If their commerce is limited to Russia and China, a lot of the things that they enjoy will wither up. So, people all over the world can require that interactions between Kazakh entities and entities outside of Kazakhstan be clean, be accountable, and be transparent. That kind of requirement drives behavior internally. We can’t just slap a bunch of sanctions on Kazakhstan; they’ll just laugh because they’ve got the oil and they’ve got the uranium, but we can require basic standards in our interactions with them.

Support, caring, acknowledgement, and standards in business are things that we can do quickly.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what is happening in Kazakhstan, or about Kazakhstan in general?

Kazakhstani people are pretty much like people here, and the things that go on here are the things that go on there. We don’t want to look at what’s going on there and say, ‘Oh, we can make this simple: It’s a bunch of ex-nomads who are pissed off about having to pay more for car fuel and are mad at their dictator government.’ This situation is as complicated as the issues that we have going on here. We need to think about it in the same way, that there isn’t a simple explanation nor is there a simple solution, and these people are not one-issue caricatures. They’re complicated people with complicated lives in a fulsome system.

They’re just like us, and they’re really, really brave. It’s very cold in Kazakhstan right now, and they’re out there every day, with special forces shooting at them. You’ve got to admire that kind of courage.

This could be a moment when things shift. We are very impatient, understandably, trying to sort out what this all could mean. There are a lot of things that need to unfold, but it is so worth paying attention to what’s happening in Kazakhstan for more than just this moment. What happens there could affect a lot of things, like energy markets and geopolitical alliances all over the world.

Philip M. Nichols teaches and conducts research on social and economic development, emerging economies, and corruption. He has conducted fieldwork in or has worked with organizations in more than 20 countries on issues of corruption control or business development, including several countries in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.