The current socioeconomic crisis in Kazakhstan has been decades in the making as people have long been discontent with the government’s economic policies and years of systemic oppression of the opposition, experts told Sputnik.
A wave of protests against a hike in gas prices across Kazakhstan led to nationwide uproar earlier this week, leading to clashes with the police, casualties, looting, and overall insecurity in the country. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency, effective until January 19, and invited the peacekeeping forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring the situation under control.
For many, these events came as a surprise, though there have been ample grounds for the emergence of a spontaneous grassroots-based protest, according to Rico Isaacs, associate professor at School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. The previous regime spent 30 years marginalizing institutional opposition in the country, preventing citizens from airing their frustrations with government policy and leaving them with no alternative but to take to streets, the expert noted.
“This has been 30 years in the making, of a regime which has consistently marginalised and suppressed opposition, and which has overseen an economic situation in which an exclusive elite (largely associated with [former President Nursultan] Nazarbayev and his family) benefit from the considerable oil, gas and mineral wealth in the country, while a broad swathe of the population struggle in the everyday lives,” Isaacs said.
For the current leader, Tokayev, there is not many options left but to try and regain control of the rapidly deteriorating situation through tougher security and military response, the expert said.
At the same time, Assel Tutumlu, assistant professor at the department of International Relations of the Near East University in North Cyprus, considers the tough military response a risky choice for already struggling Tokayev government.
“The CSTO operation is not the best choice, but all depends how exactly it will take place. If locally circumscribed and internationally represented, it may allow the regime to install order. But if civilian lives are lost, we will get a much bigger backlash than the regime has ever seen before,” Tutumlu said.
If there is no deeper political reforms, protests will continue despite the crackdowns, Tutumlu added.
Elmira Satybaldieva, senior research fellow at School of Politics and International Relations of the University of Kent, also agreed that the grassroots uprising was not shocking for those who had ve paid close attention to the past protest movements in Kazakhstan.
“The social discontent over neoliberal commodification of life has been brewing for decades, and has repeatedly expressed itself, especially in Western regions of the country. Our research shows that the dominant share (86%) of protest activity in Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2018 was always on socio-economic issues. To put it simply, the Kazakhstani elites are reaping what they have sown: the fruits of implementing 30 years of neoliberal capitalism,” she said.
Though some type of social unrest has been expected given the country’s political history and economic situation, the scale of this “country-wide collective expression of discontent” is unprecedented, Satybaldieva noted. However, the protests’ potential transformative power is currently under question given their uncoordinated nature, she remarked.