OPINION: Kazakhstan’s elite keep most of their assets in the West, which is why Western states are not interested in the downfall of the government, or the fact that there is no legal political opposition in the country, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
In a far away land, so distant from our shores, there was a social explosion last week in Kazakhstan, the oil rich former Soviet state in central Asia.
This is important for South Africans to know as we profess to care about the plight of the poor and working class in other developing countries. In this instance, the boiling frustration of the working class exploded, only to be snuffed out days after it began.
Our trade unions and leftist movements should certainly care what lies behind this eruption, as the root causes are certainly disturbing in terms of a lack of social justice. The way in which the social protests were dealt with also sets an ominous tone for how future social protests in the region will be addressed in the future.
In the 30 years since Kazakhstan became an independent state it has been ruled by a capitalist oligarchy, and was led for most of this time by President Nursultan Nazarbayev who was replaced by his appointed successor President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019.
The country has the 12th highest proven oil reserves in the world, with 30 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, and is among the top coal suppliers in the world. Nazarbayev’s family amassed considerable wealth during his tenure, as did the elite who are some of the richest in the world, given the country’s oil wealth.
Kazakhstan’s elite keep most of their assets in the West, which is why Western states are not interested in the downfall of the government, or the fact that there is no legal political opposition in the country. Western diplomats also maintained a positive view of the government, given the lucrative opportunities for Western businesses the country provided. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan was the last to be liquidated in 2015, leaving only seven pro-government parties operating.
Given the authoritarian nature of the state, it kept a tight lid on social protests, which did erupt in 2016 and 2019 as a result of long-held grievances over the impoverishment of the workers compared to the luxurious lives led by the elite.
The country has also been ridden with corruption and a lack of political freedom which has added to the frustration. The catalyst for the latest round of protests that erupted on January 2 was the hike in fuel prices, which doubled due to the government ending state subsidies for fuel and allowing the market to dictate the price. It has been argued by the co-chairperson of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan, Aynur Kumanov, that there was a conspiracy of monopolists who benefited from exporting gas abroad, creating a shortage of it and an increase in gas prices in the local market, thereby provoking the riots.
The protests turned into the biggest in the country’s post-independence history, with protesters taking over administrative buildings, and the government unleashing a brutal crackdown with the president issuing a “shoot to kill without warning” order to his forces. People were shot on site and more than 6 000 are being detained.
The government tried to say it needed to call on outside intervention to put down the protests, claiming the protests were hijacked by local and external terrorist groups speaking foreign languages, although it offered no evidence to back up its claims.
But the real root causes of the protests were the rising cost of living over many years. It has become unmanageable for the working class which has been suffering from rising inflation, food prices, unemployment, drinking water shortages, and then the hike in fuel prices.
The west of the country has historically been a region that suffered from unemployment, and products imported there have often been two to three times more expensive than elsewhere. When the government enacted its neo-liberal reforms and privatisation most of the businesses in the west were shut down except for the oil producers. Surrounding the oil industry is a sea of poverty where there has been little, if any, attempt at development.
Oil companies began a process of optimisation last year, and an example of the cruelty of the capitalist system was when Tengiz Oil fired about 40 000 workers, and the state did nothing to stave off the layoffs or to provide a social security net. It is estimated that one oil worker supports five to 10 family members, which condemned massive numbers of people to starvation in a country with one of the most unforgiving climates, that reaches -50ºC in winter. These are the types of injustices that never reach world media headlines.
President Tokayev was so rocked by the threat posed to his rule by the protests, that he made unprecedented social concessions. He promised state regulation of gas and imported goods, and announced that fuel prices would be reduced to a level even lower than before the increase. Tokayev also announced a moratorium on rising utility bills, promised subsidised rents for housing for the poor, and the creation of a public fund to support health care and children. Despite the concessions the protests intensified, suggesting deep-rooted discontent with the system.
What the latest round of unrest has exposed is that Kazakhstan is not the beacon of stability that it was made out to be by Western diplomats, and while big powers might seek stability in the country so that they can extract its resources, there is a long way to go to bring social justice to all sections of society, and ensure that the workers reap the benefits of the massive oil income that has so far been enjoyed predominantly by the elite.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor at Independent Media.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.