It began on 2 January in the oil town of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. The oil-workers here have a history of struggle. On the weekend of 16/17 December 2011, the dictatorship’s police opened fire on an oil-workers’ demonstration in the town, killing at least 15, injuring hundreds more.
It was the doubling of the price for liquified gas – the basic motor fuel on which people depend in this vast, sparsely populated country – that triggered a fresh round of protests. But this time, they spread like a wildfire.
Already, on 3 January, fresh demands were raised. With inflation taking off, the protestors want cuts in food prices. With shortages of drinking water a perennial problem, they are demanding a solution. With the government riddled with corruption, nepotism, and self-enrichment, they are calling for the resignation of a swathe of government officials.
Then there is the plight of the unemployed: help for them is another demand, especially in western Kazakhstan, which has been ravaged by neoliberal cuts. Most local industries have been shut down except for oil. Even here, 40,000 workers were recently sacked at Tengiz Oil. One oil-worker feeds between five and ten family members.
Oil, gas, and minerals are the basis of Kazakhstan’s wealth. The country stands eleventh in the world league for proven reserves of oil and gas, second for uranium, chromium, lead, and zinc, third for manganese, and fifth for copper. It also produces coal, iron, gold, diamonds, and phosphorite (used in fertilisers and a host of other things).
A vast country of a million square miles and around 20 million people, it dominates the Central Asian region. It has close economic ties with Russia – which processes much of its crude oil – and with China – which promises to make it a major transport hub of the new Belt-and-Road project.
But it also has intimate links with transnational capital, attracting a total of $330 billion in foreign direct investment since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of Kazakhstan’s oil is exported and most of the profit is creamed off by foreign corporations.
The same applies to other major industries – gas, the mines, construction, etc. Kazakhstan’s economic growth in the last 40 years has been based on neoliberalism and extractivism. Capitalist agencies rate it a ‘market economy’ on the basis of currency convertibility, wage ‘flexibility’, openness to foreign investment, and lack of government regulation.
Aynur Kurmanov of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan explains what this means:
Neoliberal reforms have all but eliminated the social safety net. And most likely, the owners of transnational corporations calculated five million people are needed for servicing ‘the pipe’ – the whole 18+ million of the Kazakh population is too much. And that’s why this revolt is anti-colonial in many ways.
This is a new kind of colonialism, where transnational corporations operating across continents and in dozens of separate countries, buy up local resources, exploit local labour, and appropriate most of the profit. Governments like the Kazakh dictatorship head up corrupt crony-capitalist client regimes and stuff their pockets. They serve only themselves and the corporations.
As one Zhanaozen protestor put it:
Nazarbayev [the former dictator] and his family have monopolised all sectors, from banking to roads to gas. These protests are about corruption. It all started with the increase in gas prices, but the real cause of the protests is poor living conditions of people, high prices, joblessness, corruption.
This new kind of colonialism is layered on earlier kinds. Russian imperial expansion during the 19th century saw the Central Asian states absorbed into an expanding Tsarist empire. Russian occupation stimulated the emergence of a Kazakh national movement and a strong development of a distinctive Kazakh cultural identity.
The region then enjoyed a brief period of freedom under Bolshevik rule before its autonomy was rescinded by Stalin and the various Central Asia states became part of a new Soviet empire. Stalinism meant a purge of intellectuals and nationalists, forced collectivisation of agriculture, and a famine in which millions perished.
After the war, in the 1950s and 1960s, traditional pasturelands were turned into grain-growing prairies, the extractive industries were massively expanded, and there was a surge in Russian immigration. By 1959, Kazakhs were a minority in their own country, just 30% of the population as against 43% Russian.
Kazakhstan was also used as a testing-site for atomic bombs, with hundreds of detonations by 1989. This was not the only ecological devastation. The Aral Sea has largely dried up as a result of water-extraction to feed state-capitalist agriculture under Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
From party-state bureaucracy to capitalist oligarchy
Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet republics to break away during the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-91. The old party-state apparatchiks – the bureaucratic ruling class imposed by Russian imperialism – then simply reinvented themselves as capitalist oligarchs.
Nursultan Nazarbeyev ruled from 1991 to 2019, not only accumulating vast personal wealth at the summit of Kazakhstan’s mountain of corruption, but creating a Stalinist-type cult of the personality around himself. He even had the capital moved and renamed after him (it is called Nur-Sultan).
There was no democracy. In the 2005 presidential ‘election’, the dictator got 90% of the votes. In 2011, he got 96%. In 2015, 98%. Opposition parties and trade unions were hamstrung by state repression. Police brutality and torture were routine.
Sensing the mood, Nazarbeyev stepped back in 2019, to be replaced by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The new dictator attempted a very limited liberalisation – easing restrictions on parties and protests – but this has been far too minimal to make any difference. Now, facing a popular revolution, the concessions are coming thick and fast.
Tokayev has asked Nazarbeyev to absent himself, has sacked all his ministers, has rescinded the fuel price rise, and is talking about freezing utility bills, subsidising rents, and increasing funding for health and childcare.
But this is an attempt to reduce the size of the protests so they can be more easily smashed. The real face of the regime is leaden. It imposed a mobile-phone and internet blackout, and then unleashed a police attack on the crowds using stun grenades. But the workers fought back, torching police cars, tearing down statues, and wrecking public buildings.
The dictator then gave the order to ‘open fire with lethal’ force against those he called ‘bandits and terrorists’. It appears that dozens of people have since been killed, hundreds injured, and thousands detained – but also that police and soldiers have gone over to the protestors in some places, and that there have been gun battles in the streets of some cities.
This risk of the regime losing control of its own repressive apparatus appears to have been what triggered Putin’s intervention. It has certainly given renewed confidence to the regime. The dictator has now ordered the police and army ‘to shoot to kill without warning’.
The way ahead
Kazakhstan is an economically developed country. It is heavily industrialised and urbanised. A large majority of the people are working class. Most are ethnic Kazakhs (69%) and most are Muslims (72%). The polarisation between a corrupt, brutal, self-serving elite of party hacks and capitalist oligarchs on the one hand and the mass of ordinary working-class Kazakhs is extreme.
The core of the working class is concentrated in heavy extractive industries with a tradition of struggle. As well as experience of class exploitation and state repression, there is a long history of national oppression by Russia – which will find echoes in the arrival of Putin’s troops today – and, of course, hatred of the new class of corrupt capitalist oligarchs who control the state and of the transnational corporations which are plundering the country’s resources and impoverishing its people.
With the industrial working class at the heart of the movement, not only are there mass strikes and mass demonstrations, but a network of committees and assemblies is beginning to form. This, potentially, is a critical development.
Other political forces are manoeuvring to gain control of the movement – liberals, nationalists, and Islamists. Kazakh socialists – organised mainly in the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan – are aware of the dangers. They are familiar from countless other revolutionary uprisings in the neoliberal era.
If the regime is unable to crush the protests, the danger remains that the anodyne politics of the more liberal sections of the ruling class will become dominant and the movement will be reduced to some sort of pro-democracy struggle, achieving, at best, the replacement of an authoritarian regime by a parliamentary one. All experience suggests this would change little of substance. The rule of the corporations would continue.
If, on the other hand, the network of committees and assemblies becomes a nationwide alternative power structure, a form of mass participatory democracy from below, the Kazakh Revolution could become transformative.
But the immediate danger is the violent destruction of the popular movement by the armed thugs of the dictatorship and their Russian allies. Socialists outside Kazakhstan should be doing everything they can to build a movement in solidarity with the Kazakh working class in this supreme moment of revolutionary opportunity.
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