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The revolt in Kazakhstan was three decades in the making 

Petra Bardaq, a socialist from Kazakhstan, argues last month’s revolt was driven by ordinary people’s anger at decades of poverty and repression
A photograph of a burnt out bus in Kazakhstan, the bus once white is blackened on most of the outside

Riots took place in Almaty on 5 January, targeting public buildings, statues of Nursultan Nazarbayev and police stations (Picture: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The rapid pace of Kazakhstan’s revolt last month was incredible. A dominant narrative of it erases the masses from history, relegating them to a violent, disorganised mob. But the reality is very different.

A series of protests and strikes triggered by a gas price rise quickly gained a revolutionary character. In the west of the country, the revolt centred around organised workers. Protests in various Kazakh cities had a mixed social character. But there was a distinct presence of the poorer masses—especially in the south, especially in the country’s biggest city and industrial heart, Almaty. 

A popular, collective consciousness developed and there were pronounced working class elements in the revolt. This was in spite of the plague of free market individualism so prevalent across the former Soviet Union.

By 5 January—just three days after the protests began—the amplitude of the revolt reached unseen heights. Images from across the country showed police refusing to shoot at protesters, people taking over the city streets and besieging administration buildings. Then the internet access was cut off. 

Thousands of Russian-led troops were called to put down the revolt. The next days saw violent repression, “shoot to kill orders”, and non-stop propaganda about “foreign terrorists” causing the unrest. The repression left many dead—and many more arrested, facing prison terms and torture.

Kazakhstan’s revolt seemed to come out of nowhere. Its scale surpassed many other movements inside and outside the former Soviet Union and it triggered a repressive reaction of unheard proportions. And yet—from a historical viewpoint—it was perhaps an expected guest.

Less than a month earlier, Kazakhstan marked its “independence day” on 16 December. It celebrates the memory of the 1986 protests in Almaty, driven by the rural masses. Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev had appointed an ethnic Russian to govern Kazakhstan, then a formally autonomous part of the Soviet Union. 

These events were turned into a formal spectacle by the authoritarian regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former Stalinist bureaucrat who became Kazakhstan’s first president after independence in 1991. The media—including the “independent” media—are silent on the obvious analogy between today and 1986. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the level of urbanisation has barely changed, topping at around 58 percent. But the agricultural sector—built during the Soviet era, often with much violence—was severely damaged in the 1990s. At the same time, industry was sold off. Nazarbayev’s “multi-vector” policy—balancing between rival imperial players—meant that multinationals from a variety of countries were welcome to loot Kazakhstan.

The poverty in the countryside is extreme—and even in many cities, the equivalent of just over £400 a month is considered decent. This kind of money is unable to provide a decent standard of living. A lot of the poorer city dwellers rely on aid from their younger relatives in Russia or further away. I say this, since I know it personally from my time in Kazakhstan. 

What I also know, is that the “interior migrants” doing the driving, delivery and other “blue-collar” work in Kazakh cities earn even less than people local to the city. This new section of the working class shares many features with Western “gig-economy  workers”, often issued from migrant backgrounds. 

In Kazakhstan, immigration is internal to the country. The presence of this section of society on the protests was even apparent from their look— inexpensive, functional jackets and plain wool caps. Different crowds in different cities were dressed the same way, because poverty would not allow otherwise. 

These dire conditions have been amplified by two years of Covid. Already in 2020, the KPMG consultancy firm warned the pandemic “is likely to cause one of the deepest crises in Kazakhstan since the collapse of the USSR”. And “as Covid 19 has caused a global economic crisis”, the extent… is still difficult to fully assess.”.

The Nazarbayev regime has relied on repression, and stoking ethnic division in a country with over 100 ethnic minorities. In spite of the official propaganda of multicultural coexistence, the reality is of a creeping distrust between ethnic groups. 

This is often “ethnic Kazakhs versus everyone else”. But even more so, the ethnic Kazakhs are themselves divided. This is partly due to older divisions among nomad clans—but, even more significantly, it’s due to assimilation policies during the Soviet Union. 

The official Soviet approach combined promoting some minority faces to high places within the party and state structures, while pushing “Russification” to shore up the centralised state. Most ethnic Kazakhs living in cities speak Russian, and some of them even don’t speak Kazakh at all. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the assimilation story has taken new dimensions. Ethnically Kazakh Russian-speakers often emigrate to Russia and even have a significant cultural impact over there. One of the famous Russian rappers, Skriptonit is an ethnic Kazakh. They also find themselves at odds with the rural population, which often sees them as “traitors”. 

The Nazarbayev regime stoked fears in Russian-speakers by constant threats to reduce the legal status of Russian language. And it set ethnic Kazakh against ethnic Kazakh—not only along urban and language lines, but also by playing up the old clan hierarchy. 

A conversation on a far right Russian YouTube channel sums up the character of the Kazakh elites. A youngster with parents inside the Kazakh government appeared as the guest. He’d returned from his London studies to have a mountain holiday in Almaty, and was taken by complete surprise by the riots. Sitting in his mansion, scared, he complained, “I do not know where my two drivers are.” As for the protesters, they were animals and “mambets”. It’s a highly pejorative word similar to “redneck”, but usually used against ethnic Kazakhs. “What if they come here and ask me if I know Quran or speak Kazakh? They should have shot them just like in 2011.”. That, they did the morning after.

While mostly composed of ethnic Kazakhs, the elites usually come from the cities and from upper echelon of the old clan hierarchy. They speak Russian daily—often much better than Kazakh—and spend significant time in the West. The biography of Tokayev himself shows such a profile. Moscow-educated and connected to the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, a former United Nations functionary and director-general of the Geneva office. How distant is such a person from a rioter who works as a delivery driver in Almaty? 

Alongside the underlying social crisis, rifts have been widening within Kazakhstan’s ruling class.  Nazarbayev established a cult of personality—calling himself “Elbasy”, or father of the nation. Multiple monuments to him exist all over the country and many places, including the capital Nur-Sultan, bear his name.

In 2019 Nazarbayev brought in Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as a “substitute president”, while retaining other important positions such as chair of the security council. This was to test a power transition, but it also further entrenched divisions within the elites. 

However, the splits at the top have fed another narrative that relegates ordinary people to spectators. It’s the idea that the rioting on 5 January, and the disappearance of the cops and KNB secret police from the streets of Almaty, was down to sections of the state still obedient to Nazarbayev. The goal, according to this false version of events, was to take back power from Tokayev—who managed to beat off the attempt. 

Of course, divisions at the top do matter. But the masses of ordinary people weren’t just manipulated by one group of the elite in order to grab more power from another group in the elites. The inaction of the police and its disappearance in Almaty can be explained if we accept that a revolution was taking place. Its amplitude made even the power structure of the state question their allegiance. 

The city of Zhanaozen shows how ordinary people were in the driving seat. Back in 2011, it was the focal point of the workers’ protests and strikes, mostly in the oil and gas sector. What followed is now known as the 2011 Zhanaozen winter massacre. Protesters were shot and imprisoned, a workers’ movement punished and drowned in blood. Ten years later, the town struck back. This time around, it took very little time for the protesting workers to move from economic to political demands. 

On 5 January, the following list of demands began circulating, attributed to the people of Zhanaozen:

  • Regime change. 
  • Democracy on all levels of the system of government, free elections. 
  • Return to the 1993 constitution. 
  • Cease any political prosecutions, including labour activists. 
  • Power transfer to an outsider, a “revolutionary”. 

More broadly than Zhanaozen, the pace of people’s ideas changing increased. By 5 January, the protest already went past the initial question—the spike in the price of gas that the government tried to defend by appealing to the “laws of the market”. The night before, Almaty already had its fair share of protests, with people taking over the streets and confronting the military. Soldiers seemingly retreated in disarray and mostly left the city. The police were also confused, and in retreat. 

On 5 January in Almaty, protesters targeted government buildings, monuments to Nazarbayev and police and KNB offices. In fact, some of the protesters managed to get weapons and ammunition from a KNB office. The mayor’s hall of Almaty was burned to the ground. Compared to the movement in Belarus in 2020, Kazakhstan’s revolt was certain the power structures of the state should be taken over as soon as possible. And if not, destroyed.    

As with the Zhanaozen massacre of 2011, there is no certainty how many died following the repression. The official number is around 200 so far, but it isn’t reliable—with discoveries of out-of-city burials of corpses. The number of detained is in the thousands. Many remain behind bars and claims of torture are becoming widespread. More detentions will happen as the purge takes a slower, more systematic pace. 

In its background, Tokayev now presents himself as a saviour of the nation, ready to punish “irresponsible” officials for gas prices spikes and corruption. All that to wash away the image of a liar and a butcher, who surpassed even Nazarbayev by applying the 2011-style repression to the whole of the country.

The Kazakh revolution managed to deliver a fatal blow to the cult of Nazarbayev. The elites have not yet renamed the capital Nur-sultan back to Astana. But it is impossible to imagine Nazarbayev’s family coming back to public life after the events. The former president calls himself “just a pensioner” now. 

Tokayev acts in the vacuum formed by a disappearing cult of personality. This, combined with his prime role in repressing the revolution, makes his position extremely unstable. It may mean that Tokayev will offer even more to the “investors” in order to keep Kazakhstan “stable”, and his rule with it.

The organised working class that participated in the revolution came from the industrial sector, but the city protesters were not organised along the class lines. Had that been different, the protest could have been more resilient because of the collective nature of the working class. 

Perhaps the “white collar” workers would have also joined in, refusing to continue working for state structures that were sent to work from home as state buildings were stormed? This “what if”, however, needs to be seen against the scale of the problem. The precarious “gig economy” workers, for example, are struggling to establish organised resistance in any country. The organisation of workers of big Kazakh cities was not present, and yet the revolution tried to do its best with the means it had. 

The revolution will perhaps face different material conditions when it comes back. And it will come back—just as this time around, events repeated Zhanaozen of 2011 on a national scale. Time will show how big the next comeback will be and how successful it will turn out. The revolutionary left must do its best to be ready for it. At the very least, it must remember what really happened. 

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