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The Kazakh Blunder

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

On Sunday, 2 January 2022, thousands took to the streets of Kazakhstan to protest a surge in fuel prices. However, there existed deep cracks in the country’s socio-economic foundation. The sudden rise in prices only sparked the mass agitation. Unveiling the precursors to the Kazakh Blunder, Perspectoverse’s Urvi Agarwal.


On 5 January 2022, smoke billowed out of Almaty’s City Government building. Hundreds stood outside, rioting for concessions from a corrupt government. The sight, some might say, was truly reminiscent of the Capitol Riots merely a year ago, just on the other side of the Pacific.

The ignited properties that ran along the same road revealed a lot more than surface agitation. The powder keg had been set ablaze.

On December 16 1991, Kazakhstan declared complete independence from the Soviet Union. The Republic was new to concepts such as free market and international trade. Naturally, like most newly-independent nations, it’s system of social organisation found its roots in Western and Napoleonic codes of society. Signing the NATO’s Partnership of Peace in 1994 fostered the Western ethnocentrism in Kazakhstan.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the Prime Minister of the country since 1991, the year of independence, to 2019.

Notably, Kazakhstan took around 60% of the mineral resources when it left the Soviet Union, and now accounts for 60% of the GDP of Central Asia. The per capita income of its people is $24, 380 (2020), making it the wealthiest nation, in terms of GDP, in Central Asia. It is not only a major oil consumer but also a major oil exporter.

Although the country seems to be prosperous on paper, the social divide is immense. Many earn considerably less than others. Mukhtar Umbetov, a human rights activist, said, “Kazakhstan is rich, but its natural resources are not working in the interests of all; they work in the interests of a small group of people.” Moreover, the consumer economy lacks consumer security measures. Evidently, the problems faced by this country are parallel to most ‘western’, capitalist countries of the 21st century.

Over the years, the 2008 Financial Crisis and the MH17 disaster sanctions delivered heavy blows on the economy. The exports were affected. Consumer wealth distribution grew polarised. The government started using citizens’ pension savings to plug financial gaps. Political intermediaries went extinct - civil demands grew reticent due to the lack of politically sound channels to express them. The government “has removed all legal ways to participate in politics”.

Furthermore, an Islamist group started asserting its dominance, especially in the lower belts of society. Using the debt-ridden middle class’ grievances, the group bridged finance and ‘religion’. The group agreed to pay off debtor’s loans at zero interest if they agreed to abide by their religious practices instead of the Central Mosque (which is public property). The movement created a strong foothold quickly, given the dire state of Kazakhs. There, thus, emerged an anti-government identity.

At a shaky stage of his Presidency, Nazarbayev made a table-turning political decision - he resigned and nominated a new President. The presidential elections were cancelled, Nazarbayev’s future was secured, and Kazakhstan got a new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Amidst these large-scale political transitions, coupled with ethnic turnarounds, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Kazakhstan’s management of the crisis was particularly abject. While minimum wage was paid to citizens initially - a sum of $100 per month - the service was revoked soon after. While the Delta variant has reportedly achieved herd immunity in the community now, it has done so at the cost of thousands.

The winter of 2021 was marked by a resource crunch, ethnic strife and inflation. The Liquid Petroleum Gas hike was a mere spark to these underlying occurrences.

Conservative reports state that at least 400 businesses were disrupted, 6000 mobbers have been detained, 2000 injured and multiple casualties. Russia has deployed troops to temporarily neutralise the situation while President Tokayev said, on Wednesday, that the mob fury would be met with harsh reaction.

However, even if the situation were to dissolve in the following weeks, the deep-seated attributes of a confused society have insurmountable ramifications. There is no certainty that Kazakhstan will be able to reach a popular consensus about its social, cultural, economic and political decisions. The government, led by Tokayev, has vowed to meet protests with arms.

The guarded military troops in Almaty are reminiscent of those outside Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, and even those on the streets of major United States cities while the populace rose for ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests.

Indeed, the quandaries of the New World are common - the difference is that some trend as hashtags while others remain buried to be discovered by history books a hundred years later.

Written by Urvi Agarwal

(edited January 10, 2022)

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