Turmoil in Kazakhstan Heralds the End of the Nazarbayev Era

The protests in Kazakhstan have shown that the current model of governance has angered millions of people who missed out when the resources pie was shared out. Yet that model is such an intrinsic part of the country’s economic and political structure that the leadership is unlikely to be able to change it, should President Tokayev wish to do so.

As recently as last year, Kazakhstan was considered a progressive autocracy: a model for other former Soviet republics, no less. The power transition model launched there in 2019 had attracted keen interest from Moscow. Just a few days into 2022, that has all changed. At least 164 people have been killed in the worst mass unrest the country has seen since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, and the ruling regime has been forced to appeal for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO): i.e., to Russia.

Amid the chaos of unfolding events, some important details are impossible to ascertain, but one thing is clear: the era of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s control of Kazakhstan has come to an end.

The crisis began at the start of the year with protests in Western Kazakhstan against fuel prices, which had doubled since a government price cap was lifted. From January 3, the protests spread in just twenty-four hours—aided by social media — across the entire country in an explosion of general discontent.

The root of the current protests lies in the fact that in the past two years, the material well-being of many Kazakhs has noticeably deteriorated. Inflation rose to 8.9% in 2021 from 7.5% in 2020. It was even higher on food items: 11.3% in 2020 and 10.9% in the first eleven months of 2021. In 2020, the amount of personal borrowing hit a record high, growing 12.3 percent from the previous year.

The pandemic has hit Kazakhstan’s labor market hard. According to an express poll by the Eurasian Economic Union, the official unemployment rate went up by 12 percent in 2021. The worst hit were domestic migrants, mostly young men (the average age in Kazakhstan is less than thirty-two) who move to big cities from the provinces to find work. Many of them lost a significant proportion of their income because of strict lockdowns imposed over the pandemic. At the same time, a fall in oil prices in the first half of 2020 impacted budget revenues, meaning the government’s ability to extinguish the smoldering dissatisfaction by throwing money at it was also limited.

Violence in Almaty

The most popular destination for domestic migrants in Kazakhstan, other than the capital Nur-Sultan, is the former capital Almaty. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Almaty became the center of the protests. Of more than 1,300 protests held in Kazakhstan from 2018 to June 2021, most took place in Almaty. The city has also seen a rise in its crime rate, which quadrupled from 2007 to 2017.

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