Date: 28 January 2022  Author: Mariusz Patey & Witold Dobrowolski

Social Crisis in Kazakhstan. Repercussions for Poland

The first symptoms of civil disobedience began inconspicuously with the roadblocks set up by residents in the town of Zhanaozen on January 2, 2022 . It was there in 2011 that Nazarbayev’s security forces, while pacifying demonstrations, killed, according to official government estimates, 18 people, however, as the opposition claims, up to a hundred demonstrators may have been killed.

  • In the USSR, Kazakhstan was one of the more Russified Soviet republics.
  • After the end of the so-called “korenization” period in the USSR, an intensive policy of Sovietization and Russification was implemented.
  • After the collapse of the USSR, the country tried to build its independence, implementing cautious changes in the sphere of culture and learning the Kazakh language.
  • Kazakhstan after 1991, in view of the weakness of its social organization, quickly came under the control of the former Soviet local elites who had also exercised control over Kazakhstan during the communist era.
  • In practice, since the restoration of independence, a part of Kazakh society has been striving for greater emancipation of the Kazakh culture and language, which has met with the counteraction of Russian and Russified circles.
  • Kazakhstan was perceived in Poland as a reserve resource for obtaining raw materials.
  • The assumption of power by a Moscow-educated, Russian-speaking president may be the beginning of the process of Kazakhstan’s permanent reintegration into the Kremlin’s political space and the end of the so-called multisectoral policy and balance of President Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev.
  • Despite the apparent democratic deficits and authoritarian form of government, the recent protests have shown that the authorities must take into account the social factor.
  • In view of its potential permanent political dependence on the Kremlin, it will probably no longer be possible to consider Kazakhstan in projects aimed at diversifying supplies of energy resources. Kazakh suppliers must be treated as companies under the exclusive control of the Kremlin.
  • Poland should not be indifferent to the situation in Kazakhstan, not only because of the economic projects it is implementing, but also in connection with the Poles living in Kazakhstan, the descendants of the victims of the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. Poland should adopt a sympathetic attitude towards the people of Kazakhstan; however, having limited possibilities of influencing the situation in that country on its own, it may gain greater effectiveness within the framework of NATO and EU cooperation.

A brief history of Kazakhstan

Kazakh statehood has a long history, and the continuity of state structures dates back to the 15th century, when the Kazakh Khanate was formed as a result of a successful uprising. The power of the khans was limited by the mäslichat, a council of sultans. It is similar to the institution of the senate known from the European parliamentary tradition. Separatist tendencies were not conducive to the strength of the Kazakh state. The lack of political unity resulted, especially in the 18th century, in the functioning of many Kazakh khanates. Their political existence was then ended in the first half of the 19th century by the second phase of Russian colonization, when it was decided to eliminate the fief dependence of the khanates and introduce a system of direct administration of the Kazakh areas. The longest Kazakh state ruled by the khans was the Bukey Horde, administratively subordinated to the Russian authorities in Orenburg. It was abolished in 1845 after the death of the Zhangir-Kerey Khan.

The Kazakhs’ idea of how serfdom functioned differed from that of Russian officials. Kazakh khans, sultans, and society understood serfdom as a patron-client relationship. In contrast, Tsarist Russia maintained a strong hierarchical power structure. When these approaches began to be mutually exclusive, national liberation movements were born. Kazakhs repeatedly spoke out against imperialist policies.

Kazakh historians link the definitive end of the khanates to the 1847 collapse of an anti-Russian uprising led by the Kenesary Khan. In 1916, a Kazakh uprising was brutally suppressed by the tsarist army. The reason for the uprising was the fear of men being drafted and sent to build fortifications on the front lines of World War I. During the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Kazakhs attempted to gain greater autonomy. They formed parastatal structures – Alash Orda, Alash Autonomy, which existed from 1917 to 1920.

In April 1928, by order of Joseph Stalin, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz intelligentsia were slaughtered, accused of “nationalist aspirations” and “bourgeois nationalism.” The historical Kazakh leader, a politician of great authority, Alikhan Bukeikhanov was resettled in Moscow without the right to return to Kazakhstan, and his activities were put under scrutiny. During the terror of the 1930s, mass repression of the Kazakh population began, and resettlement of the Slavic population took place. Soon the Kazakh people became a minority in their own country. Many of the remaining Kazakh patriots, representatives of Kazakh culture and science, even educational activists with communist views were sentenced to gulags, and death sentences were also passed. All activities other than those controlled by the communist party were forbidden, and those who disobeyed were severely punished.

The time of the USSR, especially after the death of Stalin, is remembered as a time of stability, economic development, based, admittedly, on the plundering of natural resources, but it was then that the flagship space projects were developed in Kazakhstan, such as the base for launching satellite-carrying rockets, which is still in operation today. In fact, the policy of Russification and displacement of the local element in favor of the Sovietized population of Slavic origin continued uninterruptedly until the collapse of the USSR. The process of replacing the local culture and language with the Russian one was carried out according to the same scenario known from the experience of Eastern Europe. Thus, in the 1970s, no particular pressure or violence was needed to induce the population to abandon their language and culture.

The Russian language was a ticket to a career in the structures of the USSR and allowed people to move up the social ladder. It was synonymous with education, refinement, and belonging to a higher culture. According to the census of the early 1970s, after the decades-long policy of settling Kazakhstan with a non-Kazakh population, the Kazakh people became, as already mentioned, a minority in their country. As late as in the early 1990s, educated Kazakhs living in cities communicated among themselves in Russian.

Period after the collapse of the USSR and gaining independence

After the collapse of the USSR, the structures of the new state were built on the basis of the old apparatus of communist power. The transitional period of liberalization caused by uncertainty and bewilderment with the new situation soon ended. Already in the first half of the 1990s, there began to appear a consolidation of power and the use of the former apparatus of the USSR services to fight the former gulag detainees, national activists, but also the opposition emerging from the same power structures. The former beneficiaries of the system, who had fallen into disgrace for various reasons, were driven by ambition and the desire to retain influence in the economy, and became involved in activities against their former principals.

The society did not reap possible benefits from the income from gas and oil production, because a large part of the funds was transferred abroad by the emerging oligarchic system of businessmen linked to the ruling camp and the Russian Federation. Corruption on an unprecedented scale made and continues to make life difficult for ordinary residents. As in other post-Soviet republics, people had to pay for the opportunity to work in the public sector, even despite their family connections. Job stability was also in question. People had had enough. The bitterness was compounded by cyclical crises, during which reduced gas and oil export revenues, controlled by the oligarchs, were attempted to be compensated by increases in the domestic market, hitherto subsidized by the state, thus frustrating the citizens and provoking protests. Such incidents occurred as early as in 2011 in Zhanaozen, a city located in the Mangystau Region on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, the center of the mining industry.

The reasons for the protests in Kazakhstan that began in January 2022

The global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has struck Kazakhstan’s economy. Reduced gas and oil revenues affected the interests of oligarchic structures. It should be remembered that 200 citizens of Kazakhstan control 50% of the country’s GDP. The deteriorating economic situation undermined the authority of the ruling political elite.

After a rebound in global energy prices, the authorities decided, against all logic, to marketize gas and oil prices in the domestic market at the time of high price increases. The public, accustomed to gas and oil subsidies, experienced a shock. Many motorists, especially those using their LNG vehicles for business, faced a drastic price increase overnight. The pro-market reform of the domestic energy market, delayed and awaited for years, had its own rational justification. However, the timing was very inconvenient for a society impoverished by the crisis.

Interviews conducted with Kazakh students show that even among young people from wealthy families connected to the government, there is a dominant aversion to the ruling elite accused of massive corruption. However, the lack of reliable news coming out of the country and the reliance on the Russian media has its consequences in the assessment of events.

“I pity the people. They thought something could be changed in the country, but the thugs stick together and won’t be easily put off the table…”

“These were peaceful demonstrations, but armed people came from the outside to compromise a legitimate protest…”

“The thugs shooting in the streets are inspired by foreign forces. Which ones? We don’t know.”

One student studying in Poland stated:

“It just occurred to me that, oddly enough, a very important Russia-U.S. strategic negotiations are scheduled to begin in Geneva on January 10.”

To sum up, the society, when pushed up against the wall, begins to protest. The lack of democratic mechanisms for the exchange of power elites leads to violence and bloodshed. Regardless of how we evaluate the actions of the protesting Kazakhs, we must admit that they had enough reasons for dissatisfaction

1. The corruption of the power elite.

2. In spite of the enormous natural resources, the standard of living of ordinary people is still far from expectations.

3. The rampant lawlessness, the rule of oligarchic structures. They, by transferring profits from the extraction of natural resources abroad, are responsible for the slower-than-expected economic growth and, consequently, lower incomes of the population. The development of social initiatives and of the SME sector is blocked by the oligarchy’s desire to secure their interests.

4. The lack of possibility of social control of the government and deficits of democracy make it impossible to rectify systemic errors by means of a ballot.

One may ask why the protests broke out so late.

The course of protests

During the peaceful demonstrations of early January, as in 2011, an attempt to negotiate between local officials and politicians and demonstrators was observed. However, this did not lead to de-escalation; demonstrators gathered in the city’s central square, where they spent the night. At the same time, protests began to spread across the country. The government and President Tokayev were actively engaged in responding to the protests by withdrawing the price increases, however, political demands grew louder among the demonstrators. A crowd of six thousand gathered in Aktau by the Caspian Sea and began occupying the square. Although the protests were peaceful, the first arrests began.

On January 4, demonstrators gathered in Almaty’s main city square, where police began pacifying the peaceful demonstration in the evening. This was the breaking point, when the demonstrators not only did not disperse, but took up arms against the forces of the Interior Ministry. This revealed the complete lack of organization and tactical preparation of the police, who have modern equipment for suppressing protests, including, among others, vehicles with barriers for pushing back demonstrators, which were successfully used during the demonstration in Minsk in 2020. The chaos and lack of discipline in the ranks of the crime prevention forces was exploited by the protesters and the streets of Almaty turned into a battlefield. Outnumbering the opponent and determination proved to be the key to pushing government forces out of the city center. Police abandoned a number of police vehicles, which were then seized by the demonstrators.

The government reacted too late to the situation by deciding to cut gas prices. At the same time, President Tokayev imposed a state of emergency in Almaty. The first attempts were made to disrupt the Internet in order to prevent the protests, which continued to spill over into other regions and cities of the country, there were reports of soldiers and policemen siding with the demonstrators, and the military command itself was said to have refused to participate in the pacification of the protests.

One of the main demands raised by the protesters was the departure of former President Nazarbayev from politics, resignation of the government and new elections. The next day, the government resigned and President Tokayev announced Nazarbayev’s departure as head of the Kazakh Security Council. In Almaty, however, Interior Ministry forces again attempted to pacify the protest under a state of emergency, which led to the most serious escalation.

Not only did the demonstrators again manage to repel the attack of the police and the National Guard supporting them, but they also began to disarm the officers. They stormed the administration building, which was set on fire after it had been captured. Arms depots and the police headquarters were seized. Armed with automatic weapons, the demonstrators engaged in a regular battle with the security forces. The first people were killed, including those defending the authorities. The first video footage of the use of firearms shows guardsmen being shot by demonstrators. The government lost control over Almaty, some guardsmen and policemen were taken prisoner, most retreated from the city. At this point, the demonstrators’ greatest weakness became apparent. They gained control of the city, after which most dispersed to their homes, and those who remained were unable to organize effectively. Clashes also occurred in other regions, but of a more limited nature.

As late as the evening of January 5, the military entered Almaty with the task of conducting an “anti-terrorist operation” and regular fighting began, which continued for at least the next day. The military and special forces of the Interior Ministry methodically cleared the city on January 6, eliminating nests of chaotic resistance. They also opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing an unknown number of people. Forces loyal to the President retook the Almaty airport, which had been overrun by protesters, virtually without a fight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the request of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev, ordered the preparation of “aid” for Kazakhstan, and Russian Army Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov was in charge of the operation. Russian troops assumed responsibility for protecting government facilities. The nature of their participation was more a demonstration of force and an indication of who rules in the area.

The contingent deployed to Kazakhstan was composed not only of Russian troops, but also included Belarusians and Armenians, however, their participation was purely for propaganda purposes. They were invited there by the Kremlin in order to share before the public opinion the responsibility for possible victims and to erase the bad impression of the intervention of an imperial power. By observing the dynamics of protests in various countries, we may conclude that where regimes have used excessive violence and weapons to break up demonstrations, tendencies have also been triggered among protesters to repay the “authorities” with the same. The police and military, whose representatives often sympathized with the protesters’ demands, were often disarmed. A similar escalation ladder took place in Kiev, when after attempts to violently disperse the protests and the use of weapons, the most radical and determined groups of demonstrators also came into possession of firearms.

In Almaty, a new factor was the widespread emergence of anarchic elements looting and destroying property. It is possible that in the face of the de facto lack of strong leadership and weak self-organization of the participants of the protests, criminal elements were mobilized by the authorities in order to discredit and compromise the protests, as well as to have a pretext for more decisive action with the use of the military.

Reports about the detention of foreign “Islamists” gave a legal basis for the new President’s request to the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes the former Soviet countries: Kazakhstan, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), and in practice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for military support for the forces suppressing the protest and for the army loyal to the authorities. The attitude of Nikol Pashinian is surprising. The Prime Minister of Armenia (which currently holds the chairmanship of the CSTO), who came to power as a result of the street protests, decided to send a CSTO military contingent to Kazakhstan to suppress the Kazakh demonstrations.

Kazakh society is heavily secularized (as a result of the atheization policy adopted in the USSR) and Russified. Kazakh is spoken by villagers, and educated people gossip in Russian in the cafés of Astana. Talking about the influence of the Muslim Brothers in the Russian media is therefore pure manipulation.

The majority of young people spoke out against the corrupted elites who are Russified (President Tokarev made a career in the structures of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, he graduated from a Moscow university and speaks Russian, not Kazakh). It was this anti-Russian element that resounded in the street speeches. The protests do not have a religious motif, but they emanate from the emancipatory aspirations of Kazakhs. They would like to have a state that is influenced by the Kazakh culture and language to a greater extent, without corruption. It is difficult to say what the demonstrators think about democracy, but they undoubtedly want to have an influence on the choice of the government. Demands to repeat the elections testify to the dream of building a democratic state under the rule of law. The Russian propaganda machine will create a negative image of the protesting Kazakhs. They will make of them Islamists, radicals, nationalists, Russophobes, criminals, so as to discredit them and to have a pretext to increase political control over Kazakhstan.

Impact on the society and foreign partners of Kazakhstan

An assessment of the impact of the largest protests in Kazakhstan since independence in 1991 has yet to be made. The President of Kazakhstan, by requesting assistance from the CSTO, incurred a political debt. Its cost was mentioned by the Turkish portal yeniakit.com. According to an anonymous source, Russian military intervention was conditioned on the Kazakh side recognizing the annexation of Crimea, giving the Russian language the status of a second official language, guaranteeing autonomy to the Russian minority, and making Kazakh military bases available to Russia. If these conditions are implemented, they will reverse the entire previous policy of careful “Kazakhization” of the country.

Many Kazakhs have taken this information as a prelude to the re-colonization of their country. The open change in the objectives of the CSTO is noteworthy. The intervention in Kazakhstan highlighted the real function of the organization, which is to defend regimes not so much against external threats as internal ones. The CSTO resembles the “Holy Alliance” of European monarchs from the 19th century, except that now its armies do not defend the interests of kings and emperors, but the post-Soviet kleptocracy. For the time being, Moscow seems to have won this game, but it is unclear whether it will do so permanently.

It is possible that the process of emancipation of Kazakh culture and language will be if not reversed, then significantly decelerated. Russian cultural and political expansion will return. Enunciations of the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky that Kazakhstan is a Russian land, so far taken as a dream of a frivolous political celebrity, may actually come true.

The anti-Russian dimension of the revolt is not surprising, if we know both the historical context of Kazakh-Russian relations, as well as the tradition of Kazakh anti-Russian national uprisings. It is not clear how extensive the repression will be and what social circles it will cover. Mass emigration of nationally conscious Kazakhs may weaken the will to resist for many years. On the other hand, the collective memory of the injustice suffered by the people will preserve the dream of their own free and independent state, which, if the decision-making center in Moscow is weakened, may probably lead to another attempt to gain independence from the Kremlin.

In economic terms, the Kazakh government, by allowing in foreign interveners, suffers an image loss as being unable to deal with its own people by itself.

Many foreign investors may wonder to what extent the authorities in Astana are independent from the Kremlin, and whether it is not in Moscow that they should seek approval and support for their investments in Kazakhstan. The PRC government has de facto already acknowledged that Kazakhstan is the exclusive domain of Russian influence. Beijing’s statement gives no illusion that the PRC supports Russian actions to prevent possible uncontrolled political changes in Central Asia. The President’s staying in power has come at a potentially high cost to the country.

The consequences of the Russian intervention in Kazakhstan for Poland

Poland will probably have to postpone for a longer period of time the projects in which Kazakhstan would be treated in the policy of diversification of supplies of raw materials as a reserve source of supply, independent from the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, Kazakh sources should be recognized as dependent on, and controlled by, the Kremlin, which does not mean that Poland should give up Kazakhstan if certain price and quality conditions are met. In the context of the policy of gestures and declarations, the Polish political factor should remember that governments come and go, but the people remain. In the name of short-term benefits, decency should not be forgotten. This remark is all the more important, as it cannot be ruled out that our country will have to prepare for the increased migration from Kazakhstan not only of people with Polish roots, but also native Kazakhs.

Already today, Poland has become the destination of many citizens of Central Asian countries. There is an increasing number of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen looking for work in Poland. It is necessary to prepare in advance for different scenarios, especially because the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border may escalate at any time, and Kazakhs could easily become a tool of hybrid war of Minsk (with Russian support) that has been directed against Poland and the Baltic countries for some time.


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