Kazakhstan and the illusion of a 'Central Asian Spring'

Protests sparked by rising fuel prices, started in the towns of Zhanaozen and Aktau in western Kazakhstan on January 2 and spread rapidly across the country.
6 min read
10 January, 2022
Analysis: Sudden and large-scale protests in Kazakhstan have led many to draw comparisons with the Arab Spring revolutions. But autocrats have shored-up power since then, and Russia and China have vested interests in the status quo.

On the 2nd of January, protests erupted in the small town of Zhanaozen in southwestern Kazakhstan near the Caspian Sea.

The main driver for the demonstrations was the recent spike in energy prices, which almost doubled locally in a matter of days.

However, the protests quickly adopted a more widespread form of political grievance, tackling issues such as economic stagnation and longstanding corruption.

"Considering the sudden and forceful nature of the protests and their deeper socio-economic triggers, many analysts and commentators have rushed to make a direct reference to the Arab revolutions of the last decade"

The protests quickly spread across the country, including to the capital city of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and the commercial capital Almaty.

Considering the sudden and forceful nature of the protests and their deeper socio-economic triggers, many analysts and commentators have rushed to make a direct reference to the Arab revolutions of the last decade, discussing how Kazakhstan’s popular turmoil could turn into a “Central Asian Spring”.

But a deeper look into the events, the root causes, and the qualitative characteristics of the protests show that many of these analyses are flawed.

Comparisons

A youth bulge, high unemployment rates, and widespread poverty were some of the key underlying factors motivating the Arab Spring protests in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Numerous MENA countries were unable to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis, with pre-existing social and economic problems rapidly compounded by the economic turmoil.

A similar pattern could be said to exist in Kazakhstan due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Central Asia has also experienced a 35% population increase in absolute numbers over the past two decades and has a median age of 27.

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Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are particularly impacted by poverty, with high unemployment rates, inflation, and food security, among other socioeconomic issues. Four out of the five countries in the Central Asian region are also considered authoritarian.

But beyond these factors, the comparisons end.

The autocrat's playbook

One of the most important reasons for the success of specific Arab Spring protest movements was the unparalleled, spontaneous, and unpredictable nature of the uprisings.

Ponderous and rigid autocratic regimes could barely cope initially with the new challenges and realities of the mass popular protests.

In Kazakhstan, however, this is not the first time that the government has faced public unrest. In 2011, violent clashes took place in the city of Zhanaozen, with high energy prices once again the common denominator.

Considering the timing, several analysts had tried to make a connection with the Arab Spring movements of the era, but the reality on the ground proved otherwise. Since then, protests have been sporadically taking place over the past decade, most notably following the summer elections of 2019.

On each occasion, the government has harshly suppressed protests through violence and arrests, consolidating and emphasising its undisputed control.

Kazakhstan and the illusion of a 'Central Asian Spring'
The energy-rich nation of 19 million people has been rocked by a week of upheaval. [Getty]

Dr Sarah Dorr published an academic article in April 2021 discussing how the Arab Spring had impacted the Kazakh government’s approach to regime security, pushing it to shore up its position due to heightened perceived threats.

Social media also played a key role in the Arab Spring protest movements, with new technologies and digital tools fundamental to the globalisation of a cause and the mobilisation of massive numbers of protesters.

But governments in Central Asia, and elsewhere, have learned their lesson over the past decade and are well-prepared to maintain their grip on power.

One of the first steps taken by the Tokayev administration once the protests spread was to shut down internet access across the country until the early hours of 10 January 2022, while an aggressive security response moved to contain the scope of the demonstrations.

More than 160 people were killed and 5,000 arrested during the crackdown.

This control over telecommunications drastically limited the protesters’ capabilities and contained the local and international reach of such rapid developments, decisively blocking the momentum of the demonstrations.

"With the country - and the wider region - sandwiched between Russia and China, it is no surprise that both major powers were eager to control the situation on the ground"

Vested foreign interests

The involvement of foreign powers remains a key metric for the development and success of a popular uprising. The fact that Arab Spring movements rocked several countries in MENA at a time when the United States had already started shifting its focus from the region is far from incidental.

For instance, if Mubarak had still been relevant to Washington’s interests in 2011 the outcome in Egypt could have been very different. Likewise, if France was not in favour of toppling Gaddafi in Libya, and there was no NATO involvement at all, we might be looking at a completely different situation in MENA today.

A similar pattern can be identified in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. With the country - and the wider region - sandwiched between Russia and China, it is no surprise that both major powers were eager to control the situation on the ground.

The Kremlin swiftly deployed forces in the country after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s call, activating the Collective Security Treaty Organization provision of select post-soviet states, which enables members to assist by any means - including militarily – their fellow members facing internal or external acts of aggression.

In realistic terms, Russia would never allow turmoil to expand across its southern resource-rich neighbour, especially at the peak of a great diplomatic struggle for Moscow. With a standoff between President Putin and the West escalating over antagonism in the areas of energy and diplomacy, Moscow’s reaction has been far from unexpected.

In fact, Putin seems to be turning a turbulent situation to his own advantage as he is practically substituting the Moscow-affiliated, but domestically denounced, Nazarbayev legacy with new leaders, including President Tokayev, whose role so far has been perceived as rather superficial, with former President Nazarbayev still pulling the strings until recently.

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At the same time, Russia is willing to intervene in any perceived problematic region, while the EU and US are distracted by the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19, an energy crisis, and the rise of China.

The protests also rang alarm bells for Beijing, considering that Kazakhstan holds a prominent place in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has invested approximately $19 billion over the past decade in Kazakhstan and another accumulated $10 billion in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Furthermore, Kazakhstan - and to a lesser degree Turkmenistan - remain fundamental for the oil and gas supply of China, leaving no doubts that Beijing will seek to secure its energy interests. Indeed, China will likely assist the Kazakh state in substantial ways as and when required.

Following several days in a state of emergency and with Russian forces deployed in critical areas of the country, the possibility of a continued popular movement and the collapse of the old regime seem implausible.

Even more unlikely is the potential spillover of the uprising to neighbouring Central Asian countries, the way Arab Spring protests spread across MENA back in 2011.

With the communications and media infrastructure under direct governmental control, no key opposition figure to lead the movements, no political leverage, and, most importantly, no implications around overt or covert foreign - aka Western - assistance to protesters for the time being, as opposed to Chinese-Russian support for the current status quo, the momentum of the protests seems rather short-lived.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris