by: Nick Mosher
On January 2, protests erupted in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan, over increased gas prices. The Kazakhstani government recently removed its pricing cap on gas, which caused prices to double. Although protests began over high gas prices, they quickly led to a nation-wide protest over a lack of democratic governance and extreme wealth disparity in the country.
In Kazakhstan, 162 people hold over half of the wealth of the entire country. The figurehead for such inequity and corruption is former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose authoritarian rule spanned from Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 until 2019. During his time in power, Nazarbayev consolidated the country’s wealth into the hands of a small group of elites.
While the average income in Kazakhstan is less than $3,500 a year, Nazarbayev obtained an immense amount of wealth for himself and his family while president. Nazarbayev’s second daughter, Dinara Kulibayeva, has a net worth of $2.7 billion, and in 2020, a UK Unexplained Wealth Order revealed that Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, held $103 million worth of luxury real-estate in London.
Although no longer president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev—who handpicked the current president, Kassym Tokayev, as his successor—continues to wield power as the head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, a position with significant influence in Kazakhstan’s government.
To crush protests that led to the destruction of government buildings and the airport in Almaty (Kazakhstan’s largest city), President Tokayev ordered security forces to shoot to kill without warning. Additionally, at Tokayev’s request, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployed 2,500 troops to help “stabilize” the country.
President Tokayev, along with his political ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, argues that otherwise peaceful protests were hijacked by foreign-trained terrorists hoping to seize power in Kazakhstan. Although repeatedly making these claims, neither leader offered any evidence to substantiate them. Kazakh authorities reported that 225 people were killed in the unrest, 19 of whom were security forces.
Even with the president’s harsh treatment of protesters, Tokayev promised to curb the country’s widespread corruption problem. As protests were ongoing, Tokayev began his alleged anti-corruption efforts by removing former president Nazarbayev from his position as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Along with Nazarbayev, several other government officials considered to be Nazarbayev loyalists are being removed, such as Karim Massimov, head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency). Massimov, who also served as Prime Minister of Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, was removed from his position and detained on suspicion of treason. This move—while publicized as a battle to fight corruption—could instead be a power play by President Tokayev to remove any threat to his rule and stamp out remaining loyalty to his predecessor.
Although protests have led to the removal of many corrupt officials who were well engrained in government, this does not necessarily prove that Kazakhstan is moving in the right direction. Corruption is widespread throughout Nur Otan, Kazakhstan’s long-time ruling party, and President Tokayev has made promises of reform in the past which have amounted to very little actual improvement.