Mar 16

Kazakhstan’s domestic unrest: a new age of instability?

Kazakhstan’s recent wave of protests are different and signal that the government must draw up a new social contract with its millennial generation if it hopes to retain stability

A November 2019 #OyanQazaqstan (“Wake Up Kazakhstan”) pro-democracy protest in Almaty, © BNE IntelliNews

In recent months, Kazakhstan, considered as a beacon of stability in Central Asia, has been shaken by a series of domestic protests. Hundreds-strong demonstrations, otherwise rare in the tightly controlled oil-exporting country, have repeatedly broken out since the election of career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev who won 71 percent of the vote and secured a five-year term.

The election was triggered in March by the sudden resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev as the head of state after nearly 30 years in power. The nomination of his hand-picked successor, Tokayev, sparked criticism among the population who called the election vote rigged with little competition and transparency. The wave of protests, taking place in different parts of the country, exposed the population’s general dissatisfaction with endemic corruption, lack of political freedoms, and an uncertain economic future.

Stability via control and co-optation

The scale of protests in Kazakhstan is surprising for a country where free media and any forms of opposition are quickly repressed by the regime.

This was well demonstrated during the 2011 Zhanaozen oil strike, where the police opened fire on peaceful protestors who demanded better pay and working conditions. But such violence is rare and is rarely effective. In the aftermath of the Zhanaozen clashes, the government sought to resolve tensions by offering rhetorical and material concessions, as well as the sacking of top officials such as Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, who was the head of Samruk Kazyna, Kazakhstan’s $80 billion sovereign wealth fund.

More recently, in 2016, protests erupted in Atyrau, Aktobe, and Semey against the proposed changes to the country’s Land Code that would allow foreigners — especially Chinese companies — to rent land for farming, and for the government to lease or sell property via auctions. Following this unrest, the government detained dozens of protestors, most of whom were either fined or jailed for inciting violence, and pursued a further crackdown on political activism in the country.

However, in contrast to the Zhanaozen oil protests, the government didn’t resort to force. Instead, Nazarbayev postponed the implementation of the plan to lease vast areas of farmland to foreign investors for five years and sacked ministers for the economy and agriculture. Most importantly, the government created the State Commission for Land, a multilateral platform composed of opposition politicians to discuss and to review the land reforms. These combined steps marked a significant shift in government’s strategies to respond to domestic unrest.

As the academic literature shows, when governments encounter domestic dissent, they often favor accommodation and co-optation to avoid high costs of engaging in recalcitrance and repression. The Kazakh government’s response to land protests showed that the government could accommodate and make concessions to protestors’ demands if they feel the public mood is turning against them. The government evidently learned its lessons from the Zhanaozen events: to maintain stability in the country, the government must appear to hear and respond to the people’s demand to prevent escalations of social tensions.

A lack of substantive legitimacy?

However, the latest wave of protests demonstrates that both ‘soft’ accommodation and ‘hard’ control practices are increasingly ineffective as the population demands greater accountability and integrity from the regime. Additionally, the traditional slogan of Kazakh authorities ‘economy first, politics second ‘ is losing its appeal due to a lack of substantive legitimacy. The country edges closer to economic recession from negative supply- and demand-side effects, primarily caused by lower output in the oil industry and the devaluation of the tenge.

There is only a small proportion of the population, those tied to the political patrons, who has benefited from resources rents; the vast majority of the population is left behind. As a result of inequality and inefficient redistribution, the feeling of social discontent gradually grows among various layers of the population.

Nazarbayev’s pro-market policies helped the country benefit from its abundant hydrocarbon and mineral resources and reduce poverty. But since 2014, the economic crisis has fuelled a growing dissatisfaction among all the layers of the population. If, in the past, Kazakh people have agreed to give up its social and political freedoms for economic security, since 2014, the economic recession has fed insecurity and uncertainty among the population. As a result, the social contract between people and the government is breaking down.

Who is behind these protests?

The space for an independent civil society in Kazakhstan is small and is largely populated with government-organised NGOs (GONGOs). Restrictions on civic engagement, freedom of association, and speech are routine and accepted by these groups. As a result, there are only a few independent civil society organisations left in the country.

The absence of strong civil society has created a void to be filled by independent platforms, often youth-led like Oyan Qazaqstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan),who are stepping to fill the vacuum and provide immediate assistance to the population in need, demanding greater state reforms and accountability. As reported by Dr. Zhabybek Ayrin, a postdoctoral fellow at Nazarbayev University: “as the authorities turn a blind eye to many socio-economic problems, youth-led online activism creates a bond with ordinary citizens which resonates with their needs. In doing so, they demonstrate that someone else does care about their issues.”

According to 2017 figures, the population aged between 14–29 represents 27 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Generally, rural youth have a lower level of access to opportunities than those living in the cities. Socio-economic problems, including the low quality of local education, expensive housing, and unemployment, have pushed youth to migrate and seek better opportunities in the cities.

However, one of the most significant constraints to labor mobility is the high-cost of living in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and Nur-Sultan, the capital. As a result, internal migration from rural places to cities led to an increase in urban poverty and the unfulfilled aspirations of young migrants. Such socio-economic conditions are pushing many young Kazakhstanis to demand better social conditions from the government.

In this regard, the defining role of the country’s youth and its cyberactivism has been the defining feature of this wave of political mobilisation in Kazakhstan. As in the case of the Arab Spring, social media acted as an essential resource for widespread mobilization and protests diffusion. Despite censorship and surveillance from the state, the use of digital media has considerably lowered the transaction costs associated with political action and therefore acts as a catalyst to protests.

On the eve of the presidential transition, Kazakhstan is faced with severe challenges of finding a new social contract with the new generation. Unless the authorities address their grievances, the protests are likely to increase in the near future.