Unrest in Kazakhstan: an unprecedented outbreak of violence

Unrest in Kazakhstan: an unprecedented outbreak of violence

The beginning of 2022 has been turbulent for the previously peaceful and stable Republic of Kazakhstan, marked by unprecedented violent unrest.

12.02.2022

Kazakhstan

capital: Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana)

inhabitants: approx. 19,1 Mio

languages: Kazakh (official language), Russian (2nd official language)

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Although the protests, which began with very concrete economic demands, are symptomatic of Kazakhstan’s sociopolitical system, the emerging violence can be described as pathological and should be analyzed rather from an event perspective. An event is „something shocking, out of joint, something that seems to happen suddenly and interrupts the conventional course of events; something that seems to come out of nowhere, an occurrence without a fixed figure as its basis.“1 Accordingly, this article is an attempt to understand the character of the outbreak of violence during the January protests in Kazakhstan and to critically assess it. I do not claim to have a complete version of the problem, since the events in Kazakhstan are multidimensional (including domestic, geopolitical, economic) and complex, but especially the violence factor and the discourse that arose around it „reshuffled the cards“ and made an analysis, or adequate assessment, more difficult.

The eventful nature of the escalation of violence could generally be formulated with the following theses:

  • the uncontrollable violence can certainly be seen as a transformation of the previously stable and peaceful course of events in Kazakhstan;
  • it is important to separate the violence that emerged from the original protests and to assess it separately. In a more accurate approach, it appears that the dismissal of the government and announcement of some political reforms was a reaction to the outbreak of violence, and not to preceding peaceful demonstrations and demands by civil society. Thus, the outbreak of violence, symbolically referred to as the „Almatin tragedy“,2 influenced the new sociopolitical agenda;
  • For the first time, there was large-scale violence against the state. This fact will certainly play an important role in the further development of civil society and its dialogue with the state.
Bild 1_privat_Philipp Dippl
private Photography

Symptomatic protests and pathological violence

The protests that started in the western regions of Kazakhstan with the slogan „Gas for fifty [tenge]!“ have not been a big surprise, as liquid gas prices have become a major social issue in western Kazakhstan for years.

"History" of gas price increases in Western Kazakhstan.

The main problem of the gas price increase is the difference between the government-controlled gas prices and the market prices for liquefied natural gas (LPG). Since the middle of the 2010s, the only gas processing plant in western Kazakhstan has become loss-making due to low gas prices. Correspondingly, in 2019, a decision of the government followed regarding the transition to 01.01.2021 to regulate the market prices of gas. So, since March 2021, gas prices increased continuously and the peak came on 01.01.2022, when the market price became 60% more expensive compared to the previous month (the price of a liter of LPG increased from 80 tenge (about 16 cents) in December 2021 to 120 tenge in January 2022). This was then the last straw.

The simple free-market explanation of the price increase made no sense to the workers who produce and process this gas themselves. Therefore, they organized spontaneous demonstrations to express their discontent. On the same day – that is, very quickly – the President of Kazakhstan, who is well aware of the historically proven protest potential of Western Kazakhstan (see Infobox), reacted by promising to negotiate the issue of the price increase.3

Shangaoezh is a city in western Kazakhstan known for oil and gas production and for the potential of protest among the city’s population. A perfect example of this is the protests in Shangaoez in December 2011. At that time, already in May 2011, the largest strike of employees of the state oil industry took place in Shangaoez with demands of higher wages and better working conditions. On December 16, 2011, which is officially celebrated as the Independence Day in Kazakhstan, the strike turned into violent protests. The government of Kazakhstan at the time reacted to this escalation with a massive police response and harshly suppressed the protests. According to official figures, 17 people were killed. Additionally, more than 30 protesters were arrested. Since then, Shangaoezh and its surroundings have been discredited as a „volatile region“ of Kazakhstan.

Following this, the whole situation seemed to be under control. The further politicization of the protests is certainly a promising research topic. However, the slogan „Get lost, old man!“ addressed to the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, which had replaced the concrete economic demand for „Gas for fifty [tenge]!“, is not new and has been appearing for some time in speeches of opposition figures, both at various demonstrations and in (banal) everyday discourse (for example, in conversations with cab drivers, who are always the „transmitters“ of the quintessence of society). Therefore, the protests were not new in themselves and were symptomatic in that sense. The outbreak of violence – and this time not only on the part of the state as an instrument for suppressing the protests, but on the part of some groups of the population against the state and peaceful demonstrators – is a relatively new, unknown and at the same time pathological phenomenon in the Kazakh context, which transformed some signs of the awakening of civil society consciousness (i.e. peaceful solidarity protests in several regions of the country) into a destructive form (see „Chronology of unrest“). This pathological phenomenon makes it difficult to analyze the causality of the protests in Kazakhstan, namely according to the usual pattern for autocracies: peaceful demonstrations – violent suppression of the demonstrators on the part of the state – escalation of violence through violent clashes between demonstrators and police – increased military deployment and final suppression of the unrest.4 The outbreak of violence should accordingly be regarded as an event, as something that happens out of nowhere and is not necessarily based on sufficient grounds. The eventful effect will play an essential role in the future sociopolitical development of Kazakhstan. Moreover, the January riots reconstructed the „internal logic of society“ that existed before them in a retrospective manner. The extraordinary violence did not erupt for specific reasons, but, because the violence emerged, some reasons emerged. In other words, some socio-economic contradictions, which until then had a latent character, were exposed and openly communicated by the violence.

Chronology of unrest in Kazakhstan 2022

chronology kazakhstan

The reasons for the riots and the eventful effect of the violence

The nepotism of the first president, an extreme level of social inequality including regional disparities, a rising poverty risk level and a high inflation rate, which was especially noticeable in pandemic times,5 are the reasons that can be used to explain what happened in January in Kazakhstan. Before January 2022, these social and economic problems were certainly known, but existed rather without a direct connection to each other and as elements of an unassembled puzzle. Through the violent unrest of the first decade of January – through the event – the puzzle that will determine the public agenda in the medium-term perspective was finally put together. In other words, the proclaiming „end of the Nazarbayev (the first president of Kazakhstan and constitutionally established „leader of the nation“) era,“ which has dominated media discourse as a lofty narrative since the beginning of the protests, seems to have only (!!!) led to the eventful outbreak of violence.

In this respect, the indirect debate between the state and representatives of civil society and experts is very revealing. The state admits that „the government slept through the worsening of social problems“ and now had to change the situation as quickly as possible: The establishment of a new foundation for the Kazakh people, as well as some reforms, including in the education sector, have already been announced. Experts and representatives of activist organizations build a different narrative in the sense that „they have been talking about it for a long time, but they were not listened to.“ The gap between these two narratives reflects the gap that exists in Kazakhstan between the political regime and society. They not only diverge, but are transcendent to each other. What-if not pathological violence-should be used to fill this gap, is a question for the coming years. President Tokaev has already promised Kazakh society many things in his last statements. On this basis, while there is hope for a lasting solution to social problems and a better future among citizens, the critical issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press – regarding the ongoing arrests of journalists and activists – remain a barely addressed and rather shunned topic.

Radical marginalized mass and "perished" civil society

Bild 2_privat_Philipp Dippl
private Photography
The German expression that circulated in the media that the peaceful demonstrations in Kazakhstan were „hijacked“ by violent radical groups6 is a perfect description of the whole process of the outbreak of violence. Unfortunately, it was precisely these violent factions, largely composed of marginalized youth, mainly from southern regions of the country, that set the tone of the entire events. It was also these groups that acted with violence against the state (storming public buildings, attacking the police, etc.). As a consequence, on the one hand, there was the deployment of the CSTO peacekeeping forces. On the other hand, it also led to the current discourse on announced reforms. Accordingly, questions follow as to where civil society has „gone down“ and whether it can still function at all in its present form. In fact, the following can be said about civil society and its actors: Peaceful demonstrators and activists have found themselves in a difficult situation. They have not only become victims of the state’s monopoly on the use of force, which has been „perverted“ in authoritarian regimes, they have become a vulnerable and marginalized segment of the population. As a result, one can only speak of Kazakhstan’s future civil society development with strong doubts and skepticism. However, if one perceives lofty designations, such as „the end of the Nazarbayev epoch,“ quite pragmatically, then it is time for Kazakhstan’s civil society to develop a new constructive and creative idea of society through critical self-reflection. This has hardly been pursued so far. Moreover, the absolute majority of initiatives have encountered quite trivial ideological themes of „democratization,“ „transition[s] to a parliamentary republic,“ and so on. For some citizens, these are simply „empty signifiers“ that hardly advance Kazakhstan’s civil society development.

Conclusion

This article was meant to make clear that the January protests in Kazakhstan were not a sign of an awakening civil society consciousness. The violence that erupted during these protests, with its pathological and eventful character, was certainly an exceptional phenomenon that affected the internal logic of Kazakh society, the usual stable course of events, as well as the political agenda. The autocratic state can reproduce itself relatively „painlessly“ through this outbreak of violence with the help of reautocratization on the one hand and the announcement of reforms on the other. Whether civil society, whose position so far has hardly been advantageous, will not fall into the trap of the „victim mentality“ and find a new productive social idea is an open question, which unfortunately must be answered with skepticism.

Author: 
Filipp Semyonov

Sources

1. Žižek, Slavoj (2014): Was ist ein Ereignis? Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag GmbH.

2. Qassym-Schomart Toqajew [@TokayevKZ]. (07.01.2022) On January 2, 2022, I instructed the Government to quickly respond to the concerns of the protestors in the Western Kazakhstan and to implement a package of measures to regulate the price of liquefied petroleum gas.[Tweet]. Online: https://twitter.com/TokayevKZ/status/1479521559245201412?cxt=HHwWiIC9hZ7BqIgpAAAA (last access: 27.01.2022).

3. the speech of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan during the extraordinary session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on 10.01.2022. Online: https://en.odkb-csto.org/news/news_odkb/10-yanvarya-v-formate-videokonferentsii-sostoitsya-zasedanie-soveta-kollektivnoy-bezopasnosti-odkb-p/#loaded (last access: 27.01.2022).

4. such an interpretation then links the January protests in Kazakhstan with „the Soviet-style interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia“. See the European Parliament’s „MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION“ of Jan. 18, 2022. online: Online: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/B-9-2022-0077_EN.html (last access: 27.01.2022).

5. Agaidarov, Azamat; Izvorski, Ivailo V. & Rahardja, Sjamsu (2020): “Kazakhstan Economic Update: Navigating the crisis“, World Bank Group Working Paper, 1.

6. Glas, Othmara: Machtkampf in Kasachstans Elite (2022). Online: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/kasachstan-machtkampf-im-inneren-fuehrungszirkel-des-landes-17723056-p2.html (last access: 27.01.2022).

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