Protests in Kazakhstan: Why They Started and What Happens Next?

For the last week, massive protests have swept across the large Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.  The spark was a decision by the government to increase fuel prices in the country, which is a major fuel producer. But as my guests today explain, though the fuel price hike was the proximate cause of the protests, they are rooted in deep and widespread disaffection with Kazakhstan’s ruling class.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan has been ruled more or less by a single man, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He stepped down as president three years ago paving the way for his handpicked successor, President Tokayev.  Nazarbayev remains a key power in Kazakhstan.

The conversation you are about to hear was recorded in the afternoon of January 5th and does an excellent job providing the context to help you understand these events in Kazakhstan as they unfold.

You will hear from Dr. Erica Marat, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.  Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova, a professor at the University of Cambridge and Dr. Jen Brick Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh.

We recorded our conversation live via Twitter Spaces, and a few thousand people tuned in.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity. 

How Did The Protests in Kazakhstan Start? 


Dr. Erica Marat [00:03:14] I’d like to start with the premise that I am not from Kazakhstan, I’m from Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve been observing developments in Kazakhstan and Central Asia at large as my professional career and specifically, I specialize in security structures and former Soviet space. So, what we saw in Kazakhstan was both surprising at the scale and intensity that the events and mobilization unfolded but at the same time, for many Kazakhstan observers, this was not something entirely unexpected. The protest motives and grievances have been percolating in Kazakhstan for years now, if not for over a decade, and various poles of activism have been unfolding in western Kazakhstan—oil-rich western Kazakhstan—where the population is impoverished and unable to benefit from the energy resources of Kazakhstan, but also in urban areas. The grievances range from economic underdevelopment, inequality, corruption, kleptocracy, and how the very top of Kazakhstan—Kazakhstan’s regime—really benefits and is able to become filthy rich, really. We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars type of elites, whereas on the other hand, there is a whole range of economic grievances in rural areas, especially where people can’t afford much even daily sustenance of food and fuel. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:59] So that was the context in which the government decided to impose an apparently onerous hike in the cost of the fuel that’s used to drive cars and heat homes. 

Dr. Erica Marat [00:05:16] Yes, but this was just one random reason, and to be honest, spontaneous protests are hard to predict, specifically because in the sea of percolating grievances any kind of event, any kind of development could have sparked this fire. And it happened to be prices for fuel that first mobilized a small group of people, but then resonated with other cities—other people who share somewhat aligning grievances, economic or political, but not necessarily fuel prices so quickly this protest turned from prices for fuel to something much bigger. 

Where did the protests in Kazakhstan begin?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:07] And where did the protests begin? I mean, Kazakhstan is a vast country, and I think one thing that has surprised me as just an outside observer journalist who covers global affairs more generally was how quickly these protests seem to have spread across the country. Can you just maybe walk us through a brief timeline of where these protests began and what we know about how they spread? 

Dr. Erica Marat [00:06:35] So they started a few days ago in Mangistau, I believe, but those who are based in Kazakhstan please feel free to correct me. They stayed there for a few days, and we saw some coverage of the protests, but they really spread across the country in the last 36 to 48 hours when the people started joining because of just general broader economic grievances mostly from western Kazakhstan and then also in urban areas. I’d like to highlight also one important point that my colleagues from Kazakhstan made this morning in our conversation, that the protests in urban areas in Almaty and Nur-Sultan seem to be more disorganized and more chaotic compared to western parts of the country where my colleagues say that the labor unions and local population of workers are more accustomed to protesting and they have better experience in communicating their grievances and requirements and actually talking to local government than what we see in urban areas. They’re much more organized in that sense as well, in western Kazakhstan in rural areas. 

Why are people protesting in Kazakhstan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:10] And let me just pause quickly and note that I see Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the director general of the World Health Organization, is listening in on this. Dr. Tedros, I have invited you to become a speaker. If you have a question for any of our panelists, feel free to jump in if you’d like. What do we know about who these protests are? Is there like a discernable element of society? 

Dr. Erica Marat [00:08:37] If we speak broadly, we can say that it’s an overlap of economic grievances and political grievances. It started as an economic grievance for fuel prices, and then it turned into something bigger, into demands for changes in the political system and better representation of parliamentary representation and local government representation. In terms of forms of organization, as I said, there are better organized labor unions in western Kazakhstan than in urban areas. We do see activists from the younger generation who turned into a movement in the spring 2019, when Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down birthing the group Oyan, Qasakstan who demand political transformation of Kazakhstan but at the same time, we also see the lower middle class and working class coming to cities from neighboring provinces and becoming a more disorganized, more chaotic force. At this point, I think it’s really fair to say that it’s a leaderless protest but in the last thirty-six hours, we see some demands crystallizing on the streets and in conversations, but they’re nowhere close to being this unified force which the government can talk on. And that’s also, of course, a dilemma for the current regime that is trying to contain the protest by any means possible. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:19] There’s no like sort of discernable leadership? Is there like a coherent set of demands that has been articulated? 

Dr. Erica Marat  [00:10:26] It really depends on who you talk to. If you talk to Oyan, Qasakstan in Almaty or in Nursultan, they will have quite an elaborate list of what they want, how they want to see Kazakhstan—an open, inclusive political system with a strong parliament, if not parliamentary republic. If you talk to labor unions in western Kazakhstan, it is also a coherent set of requests for better working conditions, more fair system of employment and better economic development. I want to preface this by saying that I’m not in Kazakhstan right now, but I suspect if you talk a more random person who is not part of any larger political movement or organization than the list of demands will perhaps be on a broader range and less articulated. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:32] What has been the result, or a part of maybe the response, of the government so far? How have they responded to these protests? I know, for example, internet has been cut in much of Kazakhstan, which, I think, is unfortunately limiting the ability of people in Kazakhstan right now to participate. Though, if I am mistaken, please request to speak, I’d love to hear from you. How would you characterize the government’s response so far? 

Dr. Erica Marat  [00:12:00] So first of all, I see that Dr. Diana Kudaibergenova is now part of this conversation, so it would be great to hear from her as well. So the government, from my observations, has been making lots of mistakes, and it’s really puzzling to me how such a robust government with robust institutions that is able to understand and monitor the society—the social and political trends in society— is making the type of mistakes that we see that leaders like Yanukovych in Ukraine or Lukashenko in Belarus were making, basically underestimating the aggressiveness, or not the aggressiveness, but the determination of the protesters and choosing a forceful response by then also escalated the dynamics with the protesters. And this is a very well-known causal… 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:10] It’s part of the playbook. 

Dr. Erica Marat  [00:13:13] What I’m trying to say is that for social scientists, it’s very well known that when there is a huge protest, if the government meets those protests with a forceful response, then the protests are likely to backfire to become even bigger in scale, more radicalized. And it seems like post-Soviet autocrats just have not read this literature or not are not aware of this calculus. Nazarbayev and others have been making very similar mistakes that I saw happen in Ukraine in 2013 and 14 and in Belarus in 2020, when the forceful response just escalated and radicalized some more people into protest. 

What information do we have from protestors on the ground in Kazakhstan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:54] So I’d like to bring Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova into the conversation. Doctor, could you just please introduce yourself briefly so we can all hear your voice and I’d love to get your perspective. What are you hearing from your friends, colleagues, contacts in Kazakhstan right now? 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:14:16] Hi and thank you for the invitation, I’m really happy to be here. My name is Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova. I’m a political sociologist here in Cambridge and I’ve been working on contentious politics and regimes in that region for a very long time. When it all erupted, I did do a sort of digital field work on protest because of Kazakh spring, since the 2019 when it erupted, I’ve been very much connected to all sorts of activists and protesters from Oyan, Qazakstan, from what Erika just mentioned and I’ve been hearing quite a lot of different perspectives. I’ve been on Telegram for the past few days just reading certain chats and just exploring different things. There was a lot of solidarity in the beginning of the protests, and I think what a lot of people, not just the regime but also experts and external forces, miss out in a way is that this protest did not emerge out of nowhere. We have this long history in Kazakhstan for the past decade, from when the first protests emerged in Zhanaozen in 2011 and they were violently repressed there were a lot of victims, and those names are still not recovered. It became a very traumatic experience for a lot of people in Kazakhstan. And then when Kazakh Spring emerged in 2019, of course it was preceded by all sorts of other protests. I would definitely identify 2014 Black Tuesday protest against the devaluation of Tenge, the local currency, the 2016 mass protest on anti-land basically—and we call them land protests because it was about not selling the land to the external forces and so on. Then definitely when Nazarbayev resigned, we see this structural change from the economic demands to more sort of political reforms with the emergence of Kazakh Spring. So, I’ve seen a lot of that happening and obviously this trauma of Zhanaozen of 2011 was brought up again by different activists, especially young activists from Oyan, Qazakstan—they kept on bringing this trauma back up. And what is really unfolding in front of us right now is all of this resentment, all of these grievances for the past 10 years. They really are bottling up and a lot of people are in solidarity with Zhanaozen because it is such a symbolic place and such a symbolic legacy for Kazakhstan and its contemporary politics in the past decade that people are really, really bringing these grievances up. But definitely, the protest is very far from homogeneous. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:44] So is it just very politically and culturally almost significant where this protest movement started. From your contacts, the people that you said you’ve been Telegramming with, is there a sense that we might soon see some coherent set of demands potentially around political reform? It seems, so far, that we’re not really seeing anything coherent yet. 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:17:13] Well, I think one coherent demand that we’ve seen since the beginning of the day today in Kazakhstan was the political reform. Of course, different people of different groups are voicing the demand differently because remember, Kazakhstan is about 14 regions that are very different from each other contextually and locally and that localities should be taken into consideration. We have three major Republican cities that are also very different. They have hosted and formed different types of movements in the past two years. Almaty has been key to that in terms of forming […] movements, which are very, very different, but nevertheless they did emerge in Almaty. The demands, for example, in the West, were from the complete resignation of the whole regime, from the president to government to parliament and so on—they didn’t just take the resignation of the cabinet— [protesters] for example, aree demanding: the gradual—not radical, not overnight—but gradual transition to a parliamentary republic like amendments to the Constitution and further democratization but very much legal and procedural and formalized not just a coup d’état or something. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:22] Yes, it’s not like revolutionary it seems as you’re explaining it. 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:18:28] Well, and it’s really funny, because I just wrote a book about…the Kazakh Spring movement and what I’m opening with is one of the respondents saying, “Well, we do want to have the spring here, but we don’t want to have the Arab Spring, we want to have the Prague Spring. And we know that the process should be taken gradually.” So that’s what the respondent says, and that’s what really defines what this particular political movement is demanding. They want the gradual democratization, but they don’t fight revolution, they think it’s a good cause, but they didn’t want the mass violence, didn’t want the looting and rioting happening as it was happening in Almaty unfortunately.

What do the protestors in Kazakhstan want?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:08] So for context, for those who are not as familiar, essentially Kazakhstan is a one-party state. And for my potentially uninformed reading of the situation one immediate implication of this protest movement seems to have been what appears to be like a public cleavage between the former regime and the current president. Is that a fair assessment? 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:19:33] Well, partially, but because there are a lot of people who hope that President Tokayev would be a bit more attentive and sort of listening to the demands because that’s what he promised in the summer of 2019, when the political protest were emerging quite a lot in Astana and Almaty, with the Kazakh spring, he did promise this paradigm of the listening states…. There are still some hopes that, you know, maybe President Tokayev will be different from the previous regime, but he is definitely the product of that same regime so I’m being very skeptical. Whoever comes from that regime, they still play by the same rules, unfortunately in my assessment and my evaluation. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:15] So Dr. Erica Marat, in her comments, put what’s happening right now in Kazakhstan in a broader context of certain events in post-Soviet states in recent years, including Belarus and Ukraine, which of course, begs the question, how will Moscow or how has Moscow responded? What do we know so far, Diana, about how Russia has responded to these protests in Kazakhstan? 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:20:45] Well, I’ve been just reading quite unfortunate tweets from some of the Russia Today leaders like Margarita Simonyan, who are obviously following the usual card basically, you know, bring back the Russian language as the official language, which is kind of what is happening in Kazakhstan, so the response is unfortunately going to be the tipping point. Are they going to try to play by the similar card of sort of what I call ethnic law by protecting specific Russian speaking communities which is very, very different—Kazakhstan is not Ukraine. We have very different and distinct ethnic relations that are very contextual. But unfortunately, that’s what we’ve been seeing from the journalists with whom I spoke with from Russia, even the independent ones. They do seem to talk on that idea of sort of like, Is this it’s pro-Western, anti-Russian movement in any sort? Is there any threat for Russian-speaking populations? So obviously that’s the kind of atmosphere in Russian society, Russian’s fear, if you want to put it that way. Kremlin still seems to be worried but there’s no official line yet coming from there so it’s really hard to define I would say what I’m seeing from Margarita Simonyan seems very unfortunate with what is going on.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:10] Yeah, I have seen reporting in English language press that Russian press is, sort of, framing this as like a Western plot. Jen, I’d love to bring you in to the conversation. Could you please just introduce yourself and respond to anything you’ve heard from our previous two speakers? 

Dr. Jen Brick Murtazashvili [00:22:32] Thanks, I’m Jen Brick Murtazashvili. I am a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and I run a center called the Center for Governance and Markets here at Pitt, and I’ve been working on the region for about twenty-five years and my focus is on this intersection between governance and security. One of the things I really look at is local governance issues, and that is actually one of the issues that we haven’t really touched on. Both Diana and Erica, who’ve both written really fabulous books—I’d encourage everyone here to take a look at—that are really highly relevant to what’s happening right now. Diana just had this book come out last year toward nationalizing regimes that is very, very important on these identity issues and what’s driving a lot of these topics. In terms of governance issues, I think looking at one of the reasons in terms of what these protesters want, we can actually look to what the government has promised them over the past several years, especially since Tokayev became president. He has laid out a reform agenda and one of the questions I think I have is this gap between what he has promised and what he’s delivered. We’re beginning to see a lot of the demands of citizens coalesce around the issues that he has actually said he would deliver to people. One of these was decentralization, a decentralized selection, local elections, people having the right to elect their local officials, which they don’t currently have. And so when we see that these protests begin in western Kazakhstan—where Diana laid out quite eloquently the reasons and history of protest in that region—the fact that this is a region that produces the country’s energy and it is a poor region, and the fact that these protests came from the increased the price spikes that we saw that are affecting the poor oil producing regions of the country tells you something, right? So, it’s more expensive to live in these places, it’s more difficult to transport goods in and out of these more remote areas and so the fact that these protests began here, I think, tells us something about the nature of the relationship between the center and the provinces. As Diana mentioned, these are very highly contextualized issues but one of the things that Tokayev has promised over the years is greater autonomy. This has been a consistent promise made by presidents, both by Nazarbayev and by Tokayev about governance reform and it’s been always on the top of their agenda—going to make government work more effectively, more efficiently for people. And we clearly see that those leaders haven’t delivered on those promises. That, I think, was the trigger, those protests over fuel prices was the trigger. But the underlying issue, I think that most of society is facing, is this increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the kleptocracy really that you see at the upper levels that was really the insult to people was these gas price spikes in a country that has vast amounts of energy. 

Will the protests in Kazakhstan become more violent?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:01] Jen, as I said earlier, as a relatively uninformed outside observer—I’m a journalist, I’m a generalist, I have seen through covering international affairs since 2003 that government proposals to increase fuel prices more often than not lead to protests no matter where you are in the world, this is like a truism that I’ve seen throughout my career as a journalist. But again, I was very surprised to see just how swiftly these protests moved across a very geographically vast country. Now we have reports of protesters in key government buildings and there was apparently an incident at the airport earlier, the details of which are unclear. Based on your sort of analysis of the security situation right now, how concerned are you that this may reach a violent tipping point? As I think Erica said earlier, turn into that moment in which the government uses sort of overwhelmingly violent repression to suppress this dissent?

Dr. Jen Brick Murtazashvili [00:27:03] So, you know, this is a really good question, and I think it’s one that we are all asking ourselves right now. And I think this is really the key question as we’re seeing the security services in different cities, especially the police forces, resign. We’ve seen a lot of them stand down and join the protesters. It’s unclear because of the lack of internet access, how widespread that is but we’re seeing it definitely happen in certain cities around the country. The question is we know that President Tokayev has asked for the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or the Russian-backed security organization, and Tokayev is saying these are terrorists, that Kazakhstan is suffering from a terrorist attack and under Article Four, when a country faces grave threat, CSTO can send in troops to help bolster the regime. So, this is really quite unprecedented. Now, it’s not clear at all if Russia will step in. So basically, Tokayev is throwing away Kazakhstan’s sovereignty by asking Russian troops to come in and put down these protests by labeling them terrorists. Now, I’m not sure it’s necessarily in Russia’s interest to step into this. Of course, Russia wants influence here, but does Russia want to send its troops in and engage in sort of hand-to-hand combat as we’re seeing play out throughout many of these parts of Kazakhstan? I’m not entirely sure Russia’s involved in a lot of military conflicts right now. Does it want to have one inside of Kazakhstan? I think this is a big question. I’d be curious to hear what Erika and Diana have to say about that. Of course, these protests seem very surprising to us because many of us haven’t been paying attention to what’s been going on in Kazakhstan. But there have been these protests happening, especially since 2019, all over the country. And in fact, there is this report I just shared earlier today that covers when the government shut down public squares throughout the country in December because it feared protests and Diana has documented these protests very well over the past several years—these things have been occurring. It’s just that these cascades are always surprising. What triggers this kind of thing always surprises us in any single context but the fact that it took over so quickly, that’s just sort of the nature of the beast. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:29:34] So I am going to open this up to questions in just a moment. I do have one last question for me to each of the speakers, and that is this—we’ll start with Diana and then go to Erica and then back to you, Jen—in the coming days or weeks, even, is there any sort of inflection point that will suggest to you how this situation might unfold? Are there any sort of key decisions that may be made either by the government, by protesters, by members of the international community that will influence and will suggest to you the trajectory of this situation? 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:30:18] I think the major thing right now is really what’s going to happen with the CSTO because they have their own procedure to follow and mechanisms of approval and so on and so forth. For me, that will be one of the major things to watch. But also, as I mentioned, it would be great to see the regime of the government, the president, ready for the dialogue with certain groups of protesters, definitely those who are self-organized. And here, basically what I’m trying to say is that we need to separate different forces. I’m not saying that the regime should be talking to the rioters, but if they can talk to certain people who have the legitimacy among the protesters who are self-organizing and not rioting and looting, I think for me that would be like a turning point to see that the situation could be could be peacefully resolved in some way, at least with the protesters, because just cracking it down would not lead to long term perspectives and long term decisions and solutions.

Can reform happen in Kazakhstan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:31:20] Dr. Diana, my one question on the CSTO question is if that clause is invoked, could you foresee a situation in which Russia militarily intervenes on behalf of the regime in Almaty? 

Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova [00:31:41] I’m not a huge fan of prognoses or making certain predictions. I’m really working with something I have in hand, so I wouldn’t make a prediction. I’m sorry. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:31:50] Fair enough. Fair enough. OK, Erica, over to you, in the coming days or weeks, are there any key decision points or inflection points that will suggest to you how this might unfold? 

Dr. Erica Marat [00:32:03] So if I were at the top of Kazakhstan’s political structure, I would definitely promise deep political changes: constitutional reform, parliamentary elections, elected officials in local government, something really big and promise a different type of political system and kind of rework the contract was the society on what Kazakhstan really is and who it represents. But on the point of CSTO, I do want to be alarmist. Even though CSTO has never really intervened in any conflicts—it’s basically a defunct organization that does nothing but annual drills, military drills, with its member states—it never really responded to any conflicts or solve the security crisis on its member states territories. It does remind me of the situation in Ukraine in 2013 and 14, when Russia used the political chaos in Ukraine to take over Ukraine’s territories, Crimea and Donbas. In Kazakhstan this could be the worst-case scenario that Russian troops, frankly, or security structures, will be in parts of Kazakhstan, especially northern Kazakhstan. And it’s not an expensive affair, but it’s going to be when… in Russia. And again, I know it is extremely speculative and extremely dangerous to make predictions like this, but we can’t rule out this kind of scenario just like we couldn’t rule out those kinds of scenarios back into the beginning of 2014. So, this is quite dangerous for Kazakhstan right now. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:33:50] And Jen, maybe just picking up on that, right now, do you foresee—despite it obviously being hard to predict the future—is a more likely outcome right now, that kind of Russian intervention, worst case scenario that Erika mentioned, or perhaps that the regime adopts some of these demands on political reforms? Otherwise, again, is that same question of what you’ll be looking towards in the next coming days to see how this might shake out. 

Dr. Jen Brick Murtazashvili [00:34:18] Well, I think looking at those kinds of reforms, that would be the rational thing for this regime to do if it wants to survive. And this is where the choice that Tokayev is making about calling in the CSTO really speaks to his weakness because it is avoiding engaging with some of the demands of the protesters to carry forth on the reform promises that he has already made in the past, right? So if he were to do some of the things that he said he was going to do—we’re not talking about some of the reforms, like creating a parliamentary system that are a much bigger issue— but if he were just to carry out some of the reforms he promised in the past, I think he could ameliorate many of the concerns that the protesters have, at least in the short term. But by escalating this and turning to Russia, he’s really upped the ante and told us that his playbook is going to be to crackdown, that when he’s calling these protesters terrorists, this is a signal that he’s going to use coercive force. This is inviting the kind of worst-case scenario that Erika has just outlined by getting Russia involved in this conflict. I know how Russia deals with northern Kazakhstan, a territory that it’s sort of always claimed. Russia is still grappling with the fact that Central Asia, the five Central Asian republics, are no longer part of the Soviet Union, but especially northern Kazakhstan, where this ethnic Russian population resides. So, there’s ways, both directly and indirectly, that Russia can have much, much stronger influence in those areas. But this is, to me, very, very worrisome because it shows us that Tokayev isn’t really serious about negotiating politically, that he’s relying on his security forces, and he sees this as a security problem. And as long as he sees it in those terms, what we’re going to have to watch out for is how the security forces themselves respond to the call to use force against the people, against the people of Kazakhstan. Are they going to execute on this president’s demand? And I think if we look at President Tokayev versus Nazarbayev, I think to many people, in the security forces included, Tokayev looks relatively weak compared to their former leader. It was only this morning that Nazarbayev, the former president who was the inaugural first president of Kazakhstan, stepped down as the national security adviser. So Tokayev, for the first time, finds himself running this agency and then having the security forces have allegiance to him. I’m not sure. I think this is a question that we should really watch out for. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:37:06] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to our three panelists. I think this conversation does a great job of setting the context you need to understand events in Kazakhstan as they unfold in the coming days and weeks. Huge thank you to our panelists and to the several thousand people who listened to this as it was being recorded live via Twitter spaces on January 5th. And, finally, this conversation was produced in partnership through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The views and opinions expressed in this conversation belongs solely to those of us who expressed them. All right, we’ll see you next time. Bye!