Kazakhstan's Winter of Discontent

Feb 9, 2012

By Sung In Marshall

Fur HatUntil very recently, Kazakhstan has been the “success” story of Central Asia. Unlike its neighbors—such as Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced several revolutions and serious interethnic violence—Kazakhstan has been a relative bastion of stability, a hub for foreign investment and has experienced an economic boom, which long-standing President Nursultan Nazarbayev claims has benefited ordinary citizens. Thus, the riots in Zhanaozen, which took place on December 16 as the country prepared to celebrate 20 years of independence from the former Soviet Union, came as a shock to the Nazarbayev regime. These riots were the culmination of a year of increasing violence across Kazakhstan. This unprecedented amount of instability has marred and damaged the once positive image of Kazakhstan as the most peaceful and stable of the Central Asian states. 

Last year’s wave of violence began with a suicide bombing—the first ever reported in Kazakhstan—in Aktobe on May 17, and continued throughout the year with attacks in Astana, Atyrau, and Taraz. Shortly after the Astana attack, the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) issued a statement swiftly denying any linkage of the incident to wider terrorist activity. The year’s streak of terrorist violence ended on November 12 when seven people were killed in the southern Kazakh city of Taraz, for which the Islamist group Jund al-Khilafah (JaK) claimed responsibility. The attack in Taraz brought the death toll in 2011 to at least 30, including 11 members of the security forces. As the country reeled from a year plagued by intermittent terrorist violence, the worst was yet to come.

On December 16, as the country celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the former Soviet Union, in the western oil town of Zhanaozen severe violence broke out as oil workers clashed with government forces, resulting in at least 15 people killed, 100 injured, and around 40 buildings burnt down. This came after seven months of peaceful strikes demanding better pay and work conditions, equal rights with foreign workers, and the lifting of restrictions on the activities of independent labor unions in the region from their employer KazMunaiGaz (KMG) which operates the local oil facility via its subsidiary OzenMunaiGaz (OMG).  

A state of emergency was extended until January 31, but relative calm returned to the country just in time for parliamentary elections to be conducted on January 15. Restoring stability to the riot-scarred town of Zhanaozen was achieved relatively painlessly, despite the fact that Nazarbayev failed to visit the region until December 22. Nevertheless, his actions were intended to send a clear message that he will not be shaken by the violence. He replaced the oblast’ akim (regional governor) with a former minister of interior and fired the heads of KMG and its London-listed production unit. On December 26 he fired his son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, from his position as the head of the sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, which owns KMG and has stakes in the companies whose workers were striking. The president also promised employment to the striking oil workers.

Moreover, in a clear attempt to buy off stability from its people, the government is “releasing a mini-gusher of new financing not only for the workers but for the local government, schools and roads.” Recent events have shown, however, that while the government may be able to appease the people in western Kazakhstan, it may not be able to elsewhere. On January 28, hundreds of demonstrators defied a heavy police presence to stage a rare protest against Nazarbayev and the outcome of the parliamentary elections, gathering in Almaty’s Republic Square. Unlike the smaller opposition protest on January 17, this protest was not sanctioned by the authorities. Shortly afterwards the Almaty district court sentenced the co-chairman of the Social Democrat Party (OSDP), Bolat Abilov, to 18 days in jail, while the party's general-secretary, Amirzhan Kosanov, and its Almaty head, Amirbek Togusov, were given 15 days.

The Zhanaozen events and recent opposition protests are not necessarily a sign of widespread instability to come, but they are indications of how distant—both geographically and otherwise—the Nazarbayev regime truly is from the daily reality its people must struggle with.  Zhanaozen should serve as a wake-up call for the leadership that it is dangerously out of touch with the needs of its people. The oil workers in the Mangistauoblast’ had been on strike for months, but no one—not the KMG management, the labor unions, or regional officials—knew how to settle the labor dispute. Zhanaozen, like many other cities across Kazakhstan, is dependent on a single industry.

In quelling the unrest, the government utilized its preferred method of crisis management and control—restricting the freedom of speech. It shut down internet sites such as Twitter and YouTube, isolated the region by cancelling flights to Atyrau, and blocked mobile phone networks. More disconcerting was the unprecedented use of violence by the authorities—security forces were permitted to open fire on the crowd. These issues, should they continue to go unaddressed, could cause serious long-term instability. In order to prevent this, Kazakhstan needs political evolution, not revolution: “policies need to be changed and political institutions strengthened for the leader of the nation to successfully transfer power and secure his place in Kazakh history. Only time will tell if the rethought political, economic, and social policies will have their desired effect, but it is the Kazakh population itself that will make the ultimate judgment.”

This confluence of events—the rising threat of Islamic extremism and terrorist activity, the labor strikes by oil workers, the 20th anniversary of independence, and the opposition’s reaction to the parliamentary elections—raises significant questions about where Kazakhstan is heading. Kate Mallinson, an expert on Central Asia with the political risk consultancy GPW, said that “this could be a wake-up call that Kazakhstan is facing a potentially turbulent transition period.” Several others have expressed similar concerns. In a recent hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the stability of Kazakhstan, Sean Roberts put forth three trends (the rapid growth of Islam’s popularity, the rise in Kazakh ethnic nationalism, and unmet economic expectations) in Kazakhstan’s society to which the government is poorly prepared to respond. This increases the possibility that the recent violence is the beginning of a longer period of instability.  Additionally, in this year’s Worldwide Threats Assessment report the Director of National Intelligence noted the potential for continued instability in the region: “Central Asian leaders are concerned about a Central Asian version of the Arab Spring, and have implemented measures to buttress their control and disrupt potential social mobilization, rather than implementing liberalizing reforms.”

Addressing such concerns over long-term instability, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov has tried to reassure the West, insisting that Kazakhstan is an “aspiring democracy” that is “still learning how to balance the wishes of its citizens with its economic realities.” However, questions about Kazakhtan’s long-term stability remain, namely one: Should the Kazakh government be concerned about a “Kazakhstan Spring”?

Some analysts suggest that if Nazarbayev cannot maintain stability in Kazakhstan, even the majority of religiously non-affiliated Kazakhs may question the purpose of his two-decade rule, which (like many of the toppled Arab Spring dictators) has been characterized by the trade-off of people giving up democratic rights for the stability provided by regime. Moreover, at 71-years old and with no apparent plan for succession,Nazarbayev does not have infinite time to initiate reforms and open up his country’s politics and economy, prompting some analysts to suggest that Kazakhstan may witness serious instability and violence again soon if meaningful reform doesn’t take place.

Nevertheless, while the Arab Spring may have sparked several other protest movements, Kazakhstan is unlikely to experience a large-scale uprising of its own. This is in spite of the fact that recent events may seem on the surface reminiscent of the Arab uprisings: “an oil-rich state, undergoing rapid economic growth and modernization, is confronted by unrest that takes a long-term autocratic leadership by surprise.” But Nazarbayev will not likely permit any mass protests unlike Putin who, in response to the discontent with the December Duma elections, permitted—albeit to a limited extent—public demonstrations against his rule. Both scenarios are improbable because geographic isolation plus economic disparity equals no revolution. The ingredients for an Arab Spring-like situation seem to be there, but the vast swathes of steppe separating Kazakhstan’s major cities prevent this from occurring. Zhanaozen, it seems, was the “Kazakhstan Spring” that wasn’t.

The comparison that ought to be made is not with the Middle East but with Russia, according to Joshua Kucera. The protests in Russia, though very unlikely to prevent the election of Vladimir Putin as president, did puncture holes in the once taut image of Putin’s omnipotence. Although the protests in Zhanaozen were an isolated event and cannot be compared in terms of scale to those in Russia, the net effect has largely been the same. Nazarbayev has been forced to acknowledge that public input is, in fact, vital and ought to be taken into greater consideration. 

Despite experiencing a minor setback due to the past year of violence and unrest, Nazarbayev is still firmly—although perhaps slightly less confidently?—in power. His Nur Otan party took the majority in the January 15 parliamentary elections. And although two opposition parties, Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, will be represented in the parliament both parties are in fact loyal to the president. Consequently, it looks as though it will just be more of the same in Kazakhstan. Will there be change or meaningful reform in the long-term? The 71-year old Nazarbayev cannot live forever (although he has reportedly tried to find ways to do so). There will be change one day, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. 

Sung In Marshall is a research intern at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.