Violence in Kazakhstan: Corruption, Allegiance, and Power

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has been a nation of little international note, save for its massive oil reserves. Just as many other former Soviet republics, however, the elite of Kazakhstan has become exorbitantly wealthy while the majority of the nation continues to live in squalor with an average income of 2500 euros per month. As such, the Kazakh government’s recent decision to lift the cap on the cost of liquidated petroleum gas (LPG) engendered an uproar among much of the populace. Indeed, this removal was the breaking point for many. The subsequent riots, which lasted from January 2 to January 11, concentrated in Almaty—Kazakhstan’s most populous city—and is indicative of a time of incredible volatility for Kazakhstan.

In past weeks, as many as 160 people are reported to have been killed—including 19 members of the Kazakh security forces—as a result of the riots. Considering Kazakhstan’s largely repressive and non-transparent government, the actual number could be much higher. More than 12,000 people have also been detained and arrested by the government. To assist in putting down an uprising of such a massive size, Kazakhstan has appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led, NATO-like structure composed of a number of former Soviet republics. In the wake of the protests, the CSTO has sent 2,500 troops, mainly from Russia, to act as a peacekeeping force. The Russian contingent has already departed from Kazakhstan, but it is unknown whether or not other CSTO forces have remained. 

The impetus for the uprising is quite complex. While the immediate cause, the spiking of gas prices, is quite obvious, the underlying contributors are rather difficult to discern at first glance. 

In part, the revolts are the result of decades of governmental corruption and a low-level of trust in the government at large. Economic inequality within the nation has long proved a contentious issue; much resentment brews among the Kazakh populace. The handling of corruption has poured oil on the proverbial flame. Although there have been numerous presidential addresses promising to help combat corruption within Kazakhstan, there has been little actual change in the nation. Indeed, as long as Kazakh government officials remain the principal beneficiaries of corruption, Kazakhstan’s corruption qualms will only grow. 

Also fueling rioters’ discontent were complaints over the authoritarianism of the state. The revolts have come as the culmination of a particularly tumultuous spell of Kazakh political history. Indeed, the transfer of power of former de jure president and de facto autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev to his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev remains underway. The revolt led to the removal of Nazarbayev from any important political post under the demand of the populace and Tokayev. This revocation effectively eradicated Nazarbayev’s control over the nation, which once remained the sole constant since Kazakh independence from the USSR. Removing more people than just Nazarbayev, Tokayev charged one of Mazarbayev’s long-time loyalists, Karim Masimov, with treason. Masimov had served as the head of the National Security Committee up until the moment of his arrest. Tokayev’s choice to call for Russian aid while pushing Nazarbayev and his allies out of positions of import is indicative of both Tokayev’s awareness of the need to solidify his base of power and a close political relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia that will likely persist for the near future

The riots have wreaked further political havoc within the Kazakh government. In January 2022, Prime Minister Askan Mamin and his cabinet resigned as a result of the debacle. The Kazakh government finds itself in near shambles.

The legacy of the 2022 Kazakh riots remains in the making. The protests have led to a six-month reinstatement of the cap on LPG prices. However, political balance is far from restored—the resignation of Mamin and his cabinet has only solidified Tokayev’s power. Kazakhstan’s stability now hangs in limbo, secured mainly by the military. Now, Tokayev must rise to the challenge of creating a modern state. His failing to do so would be his enduring legacy.

By: William Buehler