Kazakhstan

The territorial dimension of Kazakhstan’s protests

Published: 17 January 2022

Author: Ilyas Yesdauletov

Kazakhstan’s nationwide protests have important territorial aspects regarding their origin, scale, presence of violence, and people’s demands. The protests started in the western regions, where they were both large-scale and peaceful, focused mainly on removing the country’s first president from power. Protests were more violent in southern regions, especially in Almaty, the country’s largest city, where people’s regime change demands were overshadowed by the violence of criminal groups.

The nationwide protests started in the western Mangystau region on 2 January 2022. The next day, other western regions joined the protests in solidarity, spreading nationwide in the days that followed. Protests in the oil-rich western regions were more intense, however. This reflects greater income inequality within the regions and long-held economic grievances that these regions do not get their fair share of national revenues.

The country’s most important taxes, such as VAT and corporate income tax, are collected by the central government, with regional governments raising less lucrative taxes. Therefore, almost all regions receive additional funding from the centre in general and earmarked transfers. However, the western regions, especially the oil-rich Mangystau and Atyrau regions, do not receive general fiscal transfers and get very limited earmarked transfers. Instead, their accrued tax income is shared with central government. Formally, all regions receive funding on the basis of “need”. In practice, those regions with more connected and influential governors get more funding. Unfortunately for the western regions, very few westerners make it into the national elite, which is overwhelmingly made up of politicians and officials from the southern regions. Moreover, income inequality is higher within the western regions. Although those working in the oil and gas sector earn more than the national average, many live in poverty.

Third, the western regions also have distinct state-society relations. Although the country’s authoritarian governance inhibits the population’s involvement in decision-making throughout the country, that exclusion is especially pronounced in the oil-rich West. Fewer non-governmental organisations interact with the state on behalf of the society. Lower election turnouts and fewer votes for the ruling party also suggest that western regional governments put less effort into engaging with the society. As a result, there are substantially more protests in the west of the country than elsewhere.

Central government also has less control over the distant western regions. Anecdotal evidence suggesting that some law enforcement officers were joining the protesters were mainly coming from the west. Moreover, despite their large scale, the largely peaceful nature of these protests reflects accumulated experience of organising protests and dealing with state-sponsored provocations.

Protests were mainly peaceful throughout the country, but they escalated into violence in the south, especially in Almaty. Since the 1960s, Kazakhstan’s leaders and political elites have been predominantly from the south, and the country’s authoritarian and patronage system reproduced the southern-based political elite for many decades. Elite-backed criminal groups are also based primarily in the south. Some have suggested that the violence resulted from an intra-elite power struggle and that criminal and paramilitary groups affiliated with political elites started the violence.

Demands in Almaty have also been more radical. Almaty used to be the country’s capital until 1998 and is still  Kazakhstan’s most affluent city. It is home to leading human rights and pro-democracy organisations, and the political activists at the forefront of Almaty’s protests called for regime change and the establishment of parliamentary democracy. In the rest of the country, the protesters were less concerned with regime change, and mainly chanted “Shal ket” (“Old man, go away” in Kazakh), demanding the removal of Nursultan Nazarbayev from power. Despite stepping down in 2019 after almost three decades, Nazarbayev retained considerable power as head of the security council.

Nazarbayev’s removal from power has satisfied some demands. However, the protests have also resulted in the deployment of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) troops in Kazakhstan. The CSTO troops mainly include Russian forces. Although a limited and largely symbolic military intervention, the presence of Russian troops risks creating further public resentment. These risks are especially acute in the north, where there is a sizable Russian ethnic minority. The share of ethnic Russians ranges from 33% to 50% in six northern regions, and foreign troops could facilitate interethnic tensions.

Foreign troops may also create greater resentment in more nationalistic western regions. Although the regions’ Kazakh nationalism was historically anti-Russian, it has become more anti-Chinese in the last decade. For example, in 2016, protests demanded scrapping a reform that allowed foreigners to rent land for 25 years, reflecting concerns that China’s investors would buy out the land. The presence of Russian troops risks fuelling new anti-Russian attitudes and protests. After Nazarbayev’s resignation, some protesters in the west shared a video in which they declared that they would stop protesting. But the protests gained new momentum once the president called in Russian troops.

Lastly, Russian-led CSTO troops have also raised concerns about Kazahkstan’s territorial integrity. Russia has previously annexed neighbouring countries’ territories to bolster Putin’s popularity at home and send a signal that any democratisation in the post-Soviet countries can result in the loss of territories. Russia gained de-facto control over Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 after these countries experienced democratic revolutions. After the Armenian Revolution in 2018, Russia demonstrably abstained from intervening in the military conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. At that time, CSTO troops did not provide any assistance to Armenia, its founding member, and the country lost control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia, Kazakhstan’s protests have not resulted regime change. Kazakhstan’s president announced that the CSTO troops would withdraw entirely within two weeks. Nonetheless, the mere presence and speedy deployment of the Russian-led forces in Kazakhstan signal that a democratic revolution could cost the country its northern regions.

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Ilyas Yesdauletov is a Phd student at the University of Edinburgh. His research examines decentralisation in Kazakhstan.

​​​​​​​Image by @darya_jumelya on Unsplash.

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