By Lili Bayer
Nearly 30 years ago, in December 1986, several thousand young Kazakhs took to the streets in protest over the appointment of an ethnic Russian, Gennady Kolbin, as new head of the then-Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic’s branch of the Communist Party. The protests spread to several towns before Soviet security forces violently cracked down on the demonstrators. The 1986 protests in Kazakhstan are remembered today by outsiders as a relatively minor episode in the lead up to the momentous fall of the Soviet Union five years later. And yet, it was these demonstrations that were among the first signals that a significant change was underway in the Soviet Union.
Large-scale protests in Central Asia today are relatively rare. Most of the region’s regimes use a variety of tools, from crackdowns to patronage networks, to prevent potential unrest. Nevertheless, Central Asia is slowly destabilizing. The region is at the crossroads of several interrelated crises. To the north, Russia is experiencing significant financial challenges. To the east, China’s economy is slowing down. In the south, Afghanistan remains highly unstable, while in the west, the Middle East is rife with civil wars and growing rivalries. Central Asia is reeling from the impact of surrounding crises: the region’s exposure to Russia and China, as well a heavy reliance on commodity exports, have caused currencies to plunge, remittances to drop and Central Asian migrants to return home from abroad, jobless.
Kazakhstan, a major energy exporter with strong economic ties to both China and Russia, is thus facing a perfect storm. Low oil prices have led to government budget cuts, while exports fell 42.4 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the National Bank of Kazakhstan. The International Monetary Fund’s latest projections indicate that the country’s economy will grow by merely 0.1 percent in 2016. And yet, despite deteriorating economic conditions over the past months, there were very few instances of significant public unrest in Kazakhstan.
On April 24, however, a protest took place in the western city of Atyrau, and demonstrations quickly spread over the following days to several other cities, including Kyzylorda and Zhanaozen in the south, Aktau in the west, Aktobe in the north and Semey in the east. The protesters’ grievances center on an amendment to Kazakhstan’s Land Code, which, when it comes into effect in July, will allow the state to sell land to joint ventures that will be allowed to rent out the land to foreigners for up to 25 years, a change from the current period of 10 years. Protesters have reportedly been employing anti-Chinese slogans and expressing concerns that the new law will allow China to take control of Kazakh agricultural lands.
On the surface, these protests may appear minor: estimates for the total number of protesters range from hundreds to merely a few thousand. Nevertheless, there are several indicators that we should take these protests seriously. First, the geographic spread of the protests shows that there is relatively widespread discontent and that individuals across the country are watching developments in other areas. Second, the protesters’ grievances mix economic and nationalist concerns, thus potentially boosting their ability to appeal to a wider public.
Most important, Kazakhstan’s regime appears to feel threatened by these protests. Some protesters have been arrested, while there are reports of protesters clashing with riot police and some local authorities warning individuals not to demonstrate. Significantly, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev publicly warned that protest organizers will be punished. In a speech on May 1, he said Ukraine was an example of a country where “there is no unity” and as a result “no tasks are solved.” The regime is thus attempting to crack down on protesters while appealing to the public to opt for stability, but the leadership’s fierce public reaction to the demonstrations shows insecurity and fear of unrest.
In our net assessment of Central Asia, we wrote that as Eurasia’s interconnected crises intensify, we will be watching for indicators of growing public unrest and regime weaknesses. Kazakhstan’s leadership may fear protests, but these demonstrations are unlikely to destabilize the regime. They are, in a way, reminiscent of the December 1986 protests: today’s demonstrations may not bring about change on their own, but they signal that large systemic shifts are underway in the region. Central Asia is surrounded by crises, and Kazakhstan’s protests indicate that the region is unraveling as well.