Of the various republics that gained independence when the Soviet Union dissolved, Kazakhstan was long considered one of the most successful. Thanks to a booming oil and gas sector, the country’s growth rivalled Russia’s own. Under the iron fist of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the young nation was not free, but it was stable, avoiding the ethnic strife, political turmoil, and economic woes that plagued its neighbours. In 2019, an ageing Nazarbayev decided it was time to retire. Passing the presidency to his hand-picked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, he became an eminence grise, keeping an eye on domestic affairs as chair of the country’s security council.
One week ago, this success story went up in smoke. Price caps on liquified petroleum gas (LPG) were lifted and costs shot up. This triggered local protests in Kazakhstan’s western oil-producing regions, which quickly swept the country. With even small pickets having tended to end in detentions, thousands marching on central Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city and economic hub, was historic.
Things quickly spiralled. First clashes between crowds and police were reported in the early hours of 5 January. Despite president Toqayev firing his entire cabinet, promising to bring LPG prices back down, and having his security forces deploy tear gas and stun grenades, administrative and ruling party buildings were soon in flames. Crowds stormed Almaty airport, which has been forced to suspend operations for several days. Though the unrest was most intense in Almaty, other cities were hit too. In Taldıqorğan, three hours to the north of Almaty, a statue of former president Nazarbayev was torn down.
Unable to control the protests himself, a panicked Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance consisting of Russia and several other post-Soviet nations. Before long, Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy – which sought to strike a balance of good relations with all global powers, instead of relying on any particular geopolitical allegiance – had gone out the window. By 7 January, a “peacekeeping force” of several thousand mostly Russian troops was aiding local security forces in their crackdown. While an internet and phone blackout lasting several days has made it hard to ascertain exactly what has been happening on the streets, thousands of protesters have apparently been detained; hundreds are feared dead.
The rhetoric being mobilised by Putin, and regurgitated by Western anti-imperialists on Twitter, is that recent events represent a “colour revolution”, a term used to describe protest movements in states following the collapse of the Soviet Union, instigated from abroad to weaken russia. Yet Russia has traditionally been regarded quite positively by Kazakhs; desires for geopolitical realignment played no discernable role in this uprising. Nor was it motivated by any neoliberal yearnings to abolish lingering Soviet-era restrictions on business: according to various indices of business-friendliness, Kazakhstan has long been top of the class in the region.
Instead, the root cause of the uprising was fury at the inequality and precarity generated by the current order, coupled with the kleptocratic elites’ suppression of any attempt at independent oppositional organising.
Because behind the glittering façade, the reality for most Kazakhs has long been harsh. A 2015 study found that half felt that the rising costs of living, low incomes, unemployment and welfare cuts were likely to lead to protest. While many average working people have been struggling to pay off their debts, the ruling elite has continued to get phenomenally richer. More than half of the country’s wealth belongs to fewer than 200 individuals, among them Nazarbayev’s billionaire daughter Dinara.
“These protests began as a real expression of those deep-seated grievances from the population, … against 30 years of … misrule”, says Edward Lemon, a central Asia expert at Texas A&M University. “It’s a disgruntlement with the lack of political reforms coupled with economic grievances.”
Having foreclosed most avenues for complaints to be aired openly, the regime turned the country into a pressure cooker of discontent. It is no coincidence that the current unrest originated in Zhanaozen, an oil town synonymous with the most brutal instance of state repression since Kazakhstan’s independence. In December 2011, security forces shot dead at least a dozen striking oil workers in the town’s main square. Many believe the true death toll was much higher. In the years since, independent unions were banned (state-controlled unions remain permitted), and labour organisers persecuted. In 2017, the International Trade Union Confederation listed Kazakhstan as one of the world’s ten worst countries for workers.
With Russian tanks now helping Tokayev to regain control, some may find it tempting to construe the bloodshed as but another example of Putin’s long anti-democratic arm, keeping one more former Soviet nation in his illiberal orbit. Yet while it’s true that Russia is a malign, imperialist force in the region, this perspective obscures an important point. What these protests are challenging is the unique blend of post-Soviet kleptocracy which Kazakhstan has perfected, and which combines Soviet-style practices of control with the mechanisms of enrichment offered by Western financial capitalism. The accomplices of Kazakhstan’s ruling class aren’t just in Moscow, in other words, but also in London.
Among their greatest accomplices of all is, of course, Tony Blair. In the aftermath of the Zhanaozen massacre, Blair helped Nazarbayev whitewash his image. For a hefty fee, Blair advised Nazarbayev on how to present the massacre in “the best way for the western media”. It was important, Blair insisted, not to let the workers’ deaths, “tragic though they were”, obscure the “the enormous progress” Kazakhstan was making. But Blair’s aren’t the only British pockets to have been stuffed with wealth stolen from the Kazakh people.
A report recently published by Chatham House states that kleptocratic elites like those ruling Kazakhstan “could not store their dubiously acquired wealth without the help of professional service providers and other prominent intermediaries and influencers in countries like the UK”. It describes a network of UK-based enablers – lawyers, bankers, property dealers and wealth managers – stashing kleptocrats’ wealth in London real estate, providing them “with future sources of income and assets should the situation at home ever turn against them”. And so it has; as unrest spread through Almaty, private jets left for London and Geneva.
The current unrest is unlikely to bring about a more just social order. The more likely outcome is a rearrangement within the elite. There is some indication that the violence that ravaged Almaty over the past week was at least partly a result of inter-elite power struggles, with different factions mobilising criminal groups and the state security apparatus against one another. For the moment, it appears that president Toqayev is emerging victorious, having replaced Nazarbayev as chair of the security council and having had the head of state security, a Nazarbayev-loyalist, arrested on charges of treason.
While it’s unclear which of Kazakhstan’s kleptocrats will rule the fiefdom, what is clear is that the future of their class is secure. If the worst comes to the worst, and one’s clan loses the game of thrones, one can always escape to London, Moscow or Dubai and live a life of unimaginable comfort, thanks to the hard work of your wealth managers in London.