What lies behind Kazakhstan’s turmoil?

CSTO "peacekeeping forces" in Kazakhstan, 12 January 2022 - Tajikistan soldiers in Almaty Power Station-1 (photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia Commons)

The mass revolt in Kazakhstan at the beginning of this year is unprecedented in this vast Central Asian country. But the explosion of anger did not come out of a clear blue sky. In recent years, workers’ struggles and mass protests against falling living standards have become bolder and more frequent. Further explosions of anger against the oligarchic elite that rules this mineral-rich country are inevitable.

The current president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, was a grey figure appointed in 2019 by veteran dictator Nursultan Nazarbaev to succeed him. It was widely understood that Tokaev was little more than a puppet of ‘the old man’. But January’s events were to open up deep divisions at the top.

Confronted with a wave of mass protest against the doubling of fuel prices that swept the country, Tokaev moved rapidly to reverse the measure. When there was no sign of the mass movement abating, he switched tack. On 5 January, Tokaev declared a state of emergency. He removed the prime minister from office, suspended the government and arrested the head of security, accusing him of treason.

On the same day, Tokaev called on his erstwhile ‘comrade’, Vladimir Putin, to come to his aid with armed contingents of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Tokaev alleged that the uprising had been provoked by tens of thousands of ‘international terrorists’ (by implication linked with Islamic State) and issued the blood-curdling order to his forces to ‘shoot to kill’ without warning.

All hell broke loose; beatings, shootings of peaceful protesters and torture of prisoners. Buildings were set on fire, shops and warehouses were looted, offices trashed, who knows by whom. And still the protesters were taking to the streets. Many police, firefighters and even members of the special forces refused to be used against angry, unarmed citizens.

However, critically, the absence of an organisation with a clear idea of how to take the movement forward meant the rule of an oligarchic capitalist clique had been brutally restored.

Nothing resolved

By 11 January, Tokaev was making a dramatic speech to Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament. He railed against the gang of ‘kleptocrats’ at the top of Kazakhstan society – the same clique that Tokaev has ruled on behalf of since 2019.

Tokaev promised a ‘qualitative’ renewal of social and labour policies and an overhaul of the country’s security system which was blamed for not taking control of the situation. It seems quite possible that splits in the ruling layer had already developed and opened further during the January crisis, with elements of the ruling elite aiming to oust Tokaev.

But for now, having behaved in a Bonapartist fashion, balancing between the classes and using both repression and concession, Tokaev has only moved one or two chairs on the deck of his Titanic. He has nominated Alikhan Smailov as a replacement prime minister and is proceeding with the trial of the former head of security. Apart from that, he has now left practically every member of the ruling government in place. He is asking them to contribute part of their wealth to a new national fund: ‘For the people of Kazakhstan’.

At the beginning of this year’s upsurge, Nazarbaev and his retinue had not been seen and were rumoured to be leaving the country for Dubai. Now it appears that the former president of Kazakhstan remains in Kazakhstan, living in his customary luxury and still surrounded by very rich family members.

Less than two weeks after the protests, after hundreds of deaths, untold numbers of injured and ‘missing’ and tens of thousands of arrests, practically the same government was back in position and newly promised reforms were already postponed until the autumn.

Protesters across the country had been calling for things like the election of regional governors and the right to organise independent political parties. But Tokaev’s new proposals include no democratic reforms or new, free elections, at any level.

“Failure to address underlying causes of unrest… only drives it below ground” commented the London Financial Times after Tokaev’s speech. “And then it may bubble up, potentially with more force in the future. As ruling regimes become more hardline, so they become more brittle”.

In Kazakhstan, there are many scores to settle. It is no accident that the heroic oil workers of Zhanaozen, where a government massacre of strikers took place in 2011, were the first to come out in protest on January 2. They were followed within hours by hundreds of thousands across the country.

Workers’ grievances had been festering. The number of strikes had increased a massive six-fold in 2019 and doubled again in 2021. This is in a country where organising trade unions independent of the state and taking strike action can risk arrest and imprisonment.

This January’s uprising and its brutal suppression will never be forgotten by the masses. The movement may be stunned for a period and have to draw lessons in terms of what programme, organisation, party and leadership are necessary for defeating the brutal regime.


Accounts from participants in the escalating mass demonstrations indicate that they were spontaneous and largely unorganised.  Both in the capital Astana and in Almaty – the largest city in Kazakhstan, with three million inhabitants – confusion reigned as to where the main opposition forces were gathering, who, if anyone, was organising them and what, if any, was the expressed aims. It was also not clear who some of the unknown forces were on the streets and who was behind the vandalism and looting. Rumours abounded that agents provocateurs were organised to discredit the movement; others said it was only to be expected after decades of poverty and desperation.

There was unanimity, however, across the vast country, on the need to get rid of Nazarbaev and clean out the Augean stables of the country’s rotten government. The business research organization, KPMG, calculated that just 162 people (0.001% of the 19 million population of Kazakhstan) own 55% of Kazakhstan’s wealth.

The Economist of 27 January commented: “Anger over inequality played a significant role in the protests. In 2021 the top 1% of the population held 30% of the total net personal wealth; the top 10% had 60% and the bottom 50% a mere 5%”. As even this pro-capitalist journal remarked: “This is particularly grating in societies that came from the Soviet political culture where egalitarianism was a significant value”.

It became clear within days, in spite of the state of emergency, that there was a widespread determination to confront the regime. In the course of the clashes, there were numerous instances of the forces of the state demonstrating solidarity with the protesters. Firefighters refused to turn their hoses on demonstrators. Members of the police, the security forces and even soldiers came over to their side.

This was clearly a revolt of the workers and poor of Kazakhstan, prepared to risk all in a struggle to get rid of the Nazarbaev/Tokaev dictatorship. It revealed splits at the top and a fracturing into factions and a president zig-zagging rapidly from concession to repression. On the part of large swathes of workers and youth it was clear their fear had gone. Paving stones were dug up, barricades were built.

The working class was not able to put its stamp on the movement. There was no organisation, no leaders articulating the demands of the fighters. No one organisation had been at the head of the revolt and no struggle committees had developed. If there had been a linking up of democratically elected committees at local, regional and national level, a more organised struggle to overthrow the dictatorship in Kazakhstan would have been possible.

When the CSTO intervention brought a swift end to the uprising, Cuba’s foreign minister expressed full support for Tokaev. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, also came out clearly in support of Tokaev, although initially wary of Putin ‘meddling’ in his backyard. Kazakhstan has a 1,000 mile border with China and is home to many Uighur Muslims, including refugees from the state persecution in neighbouring Xinjiang. Xi Jinping’s country has huge investments in Kazakhstan, particularly since the launching in Astana in 2013 of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ project. China has well over $30 billion worth of investments in land, minerals and transportation in Kazakhstan – a vital trade and transportation hub.

Kazakhstan is a country with enormous riches – vast oil reserves, natural gas, precious and rare earth metals, uranium and lithium. The vast natural wealth has been exploited by the country’s notorious kleptocracy in conjunction with big foreign companies. These firms have invested hundreds of billions of dollars and ignore the widespread abuse of workers’ rights.

Advisers, consultants and friends of the dictator Nazarbaev have included former British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his lawyer wife, Cherie, as well as the disgraced playboy son of the British queen, Prince Andrew. Blair’s consultancy firm signed a lucrative deal with Kazakhstan’s government only months after Nazarbaev was re-elected president with a clearly rigged 96% of the votes. This was just weeks before the massacre of oil workers in Zhanaozen, carried out on Nazarbaev’s orders.

The handful of very rich oligarchs in the country, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, owe their vast wealth to using their former positions as ‘Communist’ Party bureaucrats to plunder the former state-owned economy when the USSR collapsed and Kazakhstan became independent in 1991.

This January’s movement expressed a widespread conviction that the ‘time is up’ for these rapacious oligarchs, but it lacked a clear idea of how to remove them and what to replace them with.

Perspective and programme

Putin’s swift operation in Kazakhstan, including the retaking of Almaty’s airport, was of great assistance to Tokaev. Putin will have tried to use this brief intervention to boost his support at home and abroad at a time of flagging popularity amongst Russians and with the confrontation with Nato powers over Ukraine.

Russian intervention could also result in an anti-Russian mood developing in Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian population is around four million out of a total population of nineteen million. Tokaev’s ranting about ‘foreign’ terrorists could also open up tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the mixed community. The powerful movement brought together all those who wanted an end to the country’s brutal dictatorship, regardless of ethnicity or beliefs. Activists in the country fight for the rights of all. But widening ethnic divisions, whipped up by politicians, cannot be ruled out.

There are activists in Kazakhstan who are fighting to gain support for socialist ideas, to build trade unions independent of the state and to found a workers’ party with a socialist programme. They have given accounts of the horrific degree of repression used against a peaceful protest movement. These include Tokaev’s notorious order to ‘shoot to kill’ demonstrators without warning, the brutal torture of people arrested and the handing out of severe prison sentences with no legal representation available. It had looked at one point as if a wholesale massacre might be carried out, but splits at the top and the fear of provoking a more determined counter-offensive against the regime must have stayed the hand of Tokaev.

Once the movement was broken, the Financial Times commented: “That the Kazakh regime weathered this political storm was in line with our analysis… But Kazakh protests are unlikely to be a one-off”. (13 January)  An Astana independent trade union leader concurs: “This ‘coming out’ is just a beginning!”

It could take time for workers to recover their confidence or for a new palace coup to open the floodgates of a movement from below. But this movement has shaken the oligarchs and other corrupt governments in the region, like no other. Many foreign investors have sold up and cleared out before losing everything.

Workers in Kazakhstan, determined to step up the struggle against the bosses and their representatives in the fake parliament, are engaged in building independent trade unions. They are pushing for the establishment of a workers’ party that can fight for a socialist alternative.

Solidarity has been expressed in protests around the world, not least in countries that are also former members of the USSR. To build the workers’ movement in this region it is important to clarify what has happened in the past under Stalinism and how the ideas of genuine socialism are the most valid for a movement to change the world and rid it of all tyrants and oligarchs and false friends of the workers and poor.

Just as in the past, it would be impossible to build socialism in one country, even one as big as Kazakhstan (the size of Western Europe). The fact that so many former republics of the USSR border the country and that China is a powerful neighbour means that a successful overthrow of oligarchic capitalism in Kazakhstan would have to spread, through a clear class appeal, to workers throughout Asia, Russia and beyond.

Any new movement needs to be armed with a programme of democratic demands – freedom of speech, the release of detainees and political prisoners, freedom to organise parties and unions, freedom to protest and to strike. Given the demands that were voiced in the uprising this year, campaigns for genuinely democratic elections to local, regional and national representative bodies need to be pursued with the stipulation that no representative receive wages higher than an ordinary worker or perks and privileges not available to others and that they are subject to immediate recall by a majority vote.

In the course of any new mass movement, democratic bodies would need to be established at local, regional and national levels to co-ordinate the struggle, debate and decide demands and be the basis for an assembly of democratically elected representatives to hammer out and decide the country’s future. In such a parliament of the people, socialists would argue for a break with capitalism and the establishment of a government of workers and poor representatives based on popularly elected bodies.

The emergence of a socialist workers’ party in Kazakhstan is vital for achieving this. Such a party would need to inscribe on its banner a programme of demands that would include a decent minimum wage to cover the cost of living and a sliding scale of wages to keep abreast of inflation. It would demand jobs and housing for all, good quality free education at any age, a health service without charges and free public transport.

To implement all of these demands, such a party would have to stand for the public ownership of banks and finance, extracting and manufacturing industries and land and for planning and control to be exercised by democratically elected workers’ representatives.

These ideas are not new; they stem from the programme of the Bolshevik Party that carried through the elimination of capitalism in Russia in October 1917. Without a return to these basic principles, many more mass struggles will end in defeat for the working and poor people and victory for the thieves and exploiters who have ruled for too long, not only in Kazakhstan but worldwide.

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February 2022