Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
One week after an unprecedented struggle by the country’s oppressed exploded onto the streets of Kazakhstan, an uneasy quiet has fallen in the commercial capital Almaty, where Kazakh state forces, backed by Russian paratroops, enforce their military grip. At least 8,000 have been arrested and detained, hundreds killed, and unknown numbers badly injured.
It was the doubling of fuel prices on the first day of 2022 which sparked the uprising that spread like wildfire.
Protests, including strike action, started in the heroic south-western city of Zhanaozen – scene of the massacre of striking oil workers ten years ago. Strikes and mass demonstrations then spread across the vast country which borders China in the East and Russia in the North.
A terrified government, that has acted for decades on behalf of national and international oligarchs and bankers, quickly reversed the fuel price rise. But the floodgates were open!
There was a mass ‘coming out’ onto the central squares of towns and cities throughout Kazakhstan with fierce battles, including armed combat, erupting in the country’s largest city and former capital, Almaty. The picture is unclear but it appears various armed groups represented conflicting factions of the ruling regime.
Workers and young people were united in their demand for an end to rule by kleptocrats and thieves, for a decent standard of living and for the ‘old man’ – former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who continues to ‘pull the strings’ of government – to go.
The country’s current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – appointed by Nazarbayev in 2019 – proceeded to dismiss his own prime minister and the whole government, made up of stooges of the ‘Father of the Nation’, Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev had ruled Kazakhstan with an iron hand even before ‘independence’ from the former Soviet Union (USSR) three decades ago. Now it remains unclear whether he himself is even still in the country or has fled to a luxurious retreat in Abu Dhabi.
Much of the detail of the events of the first week of January in Kazakhstan remain mired in accusation and counter-accusation.
Tokayev’s claims are clearly false that “20,000 bandits” from abroad and “speaking foreign languages” – sparked off the deadly clashes in Almaty. But he used this as an excuse to send heavily armed forces into the centre of the city, resulting in dozens of deaths as well as arrests and serious injuries.
A state of emergency was declared and curfews imposed. But the movement did not disperse!
As it strengthened, the president called on 5 January for help from the so-called Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This is a body set up soon after the USSR disintegrated 30 years ago, but never before mobilised.
The CSTO nations are Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus and Tajikistan as well as Russia. The entry into the country overnight from thousands of foreign, mostly Russian, troops with lorries and tanks sent shockwaves through the country. Hundreds more people were killed and injured.
Splits at the top of society and a kind of palace coup were indicated not only by Tokayev’s early removal of Nazarbayev as head of the country’s Security Council but also by his sacking, in the middle of a ‘security’ crisis, of the actual commander of the security services – Karim Masimov. Two senior officers in the army are now said to have committed suicide.
It is not clear how far the ruling clique of oligarchs wants to go and whether, fearing for their own futures, they want to ‘use the razor or the brush’. Applying more repression could lead to new explosions of anger; making concessions could increase the appetite for a movement to end the whole rotten system. But the state brutality already meted out can also stun the movement, which would take time to recover.
Putin does not want to see a popular revolt successful in his ‘backyard’. He does not want to see a Russia-friendly regime fall, just as he is trying to show his strength to the West and Nato on the borders of Ukraine.
He certainly doesn’t want Kazakhstan’s mass movement against dictatorship being emulated in Russia, where workers face many of the same problems.
How to proceed now is a predicament not only of Tokayev. It too is shared by Putin. He openly said before an online meeting on 10 January of the CSTO that his troops are in Kazakhstan to prevent revolution. The heads of the other governments participating are also understandably wary of uprisings against their own far from democratic regimes. (Two of Kyrgyzstan’s presidents have been toppled by revolts in the past 15 years.)
Discontent is growing within Russia over low incomes and deteriorating services. Support for Putin, who himself acts as a dictator, is waning. Injured or dead soldiers returning from either Ukraine or Kazakhstan would only lead to a further erosion of his popularity.
Predictably, China’s head of state, Xi Jinping, has expressed his full support for the suppression of the movement in Kazakhstan. China has big economic and political interests in the country. Its massive ‘Belt-and-Road’ initiative was launched there in 2013. But many of the viciously oppressed Uighyr population in China have sought refuge in Kazakhstan and could be ‘infected’ by the recent events.
A full-blown ‘colour revolution’ – supposed attempts by the west to bring about ‘regime change’ – seems unlikely in Kazakhstan following the dramatic events, in spite of some wealthy capitalists and western governments favouring a safer environment to carry on their international relations and lucrative investments in this mineral-rich central Asian country.
Apart from coal and oil, Kazakhstan has 40% of the world’s uranium and is the major producer of the world’s precious metals.
For now, it appears that in the face of an overwhelming clampdown, the massive protest movement in Kazakhstan is in abeyance or retreat.
The gang of Kazakhstan kleptocrats, with Nazarbayev at their head, has acquired good friends abroad, especially in the UK (see article opposite).
There seems little or no support for figures like the exiled oligarch, Mukhtar Ablyazov, inside the country if he decides to further his own interests. As a convicted fraudster, he can hardly pose as a champion of ‘clean capitalism’. There is no such thing!
The Augean stables full of state thieves and autocrats can be cleansed only by mass, organised movements of workers. This is undoubtedly the conclusion to be drawn from the as yet unresolved heroic struggle against the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.
A handful of oligarchs in Kazakhstan (162 people!) own the bulk of the country’s wealth while the majority of the country’s population lives in poverty. It has been seen that increases in basic costs of living such as the price of fuel can provoke a massive movement. Organising opposition at local, regional and national level is now vital.
At the height of the protest movement, democratically elected committees of workers, youth, and poor people at local, regional and national level were vitally needed to pursue the struggle now begun.
An assembly of democratically elected representatives was needed to make thoroughly democratic decisions on the form of government to replace today’s dictatorship with a workers’ government.
Appeals to soldiers and other forces of the state was necessary – Kazakh as well as foreign – for them to come over to the side of the workers. During the recent events, there were reports that police and soldiers went over to the side of the workers. They need encouragement to build their own unions and structures of control, and appeal to their former partners in crime to come over to the side of the revolution.
Kazakh socialist speaks to the CWI on the tense situation now prevailing in the country
According to Kazakhstan’s ambassador in London, replying to protest letters on 8 January, ‘peaceful demonstrations were continuing across the country’. But a worker-socialist in the city of Astana exclaimed over the phone (when connections were at least temporarily re-established): “They’re bluffing! There’s still a state of emergency in the country and shoot-to-kill orders are still in force. How can peaceful demonstrations be continuing?
“But we will do our best now to ensure discussions are speeded up on building a workers’ alternative – trade unions independent of the state and a workers’ party fighting for genuine socialism”, he continued.
“We have seen a people’s ‘bundt’ (gathering). We were not able to build and link up elected struggle committees in time.
“Now we have to demand an end to the emergency and the democratic rights – to meet, discuss, and organise… These events are just the beginning. Nothing has been resolved. We must work out the next steps to be taken in building the struggle for a socialist alternative.”
Many of today’s young fighters – in the workplaces and on the streets – know nothing of the period when Stalin and his successors ruled over the vast Soviet Union. It was called socialist but it was nothing of the sort. Attempts anywhere to establish genuine workers’ democracy were crushed.
30 years ago what was called the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ was dissolved. Today, socialists can only welcome a new era of revolutionary struggle opening up in Central Asia. Workers have flexed their muscles and felt their power to strike panic into the hearts of the rulers.
Regroup and plan
The task now is to draw up a balance sheet of the last weeks and to explain what genuine socialism is and how it can be won. New mass struggle will inevitably be back on the agenda in Kazakhstan, and eventually a fight to the finish – to overthrow dictatorship and capitalism and establish socialism across this vast country.
Then, the task would be to spread the struggle to neighbouring countries, establish a confederation of Central Asian states and spread the socialist revolution to Russia, China and beyond.
Kazakhstan’s elite and the British establishment
Back in 2011, former Labour PM Tony Blair (recently knighted) was paid $13 million by Kazakhstan’s then dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to act as a ‘consultant’, ie to whitewash the regime, following the massacre by armed forces of up to 100 (officially 14) striking oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen.
Well before this massacre, the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International were instrumental in establishing Campaign Kazakhstan, to support Kazakhstan workers’ struggles internationally.
Another British establishment figure profiting from Kazakhstan’s rotten dictatorship was Prince Andrew, a former UK government trade envoy, who is facing a civil trial on sexual abuse charges in the US.
In 2007, Kazakh energy tycoon Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of Nazarbayev, paid Prince Andrew £15 million for his marital home of Sunninghill Park, some £3 million more than the asking price. Around the same time, the Duke of York’s office tried to secure a Crown Estate property near Kensington Palace for Kulibayev.
Former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, convicted of perjury in 1999, wrote two grovelling books about Nazarbayev, omitting any reference to the dictator’s repressive policies.
Aitken travelled around the country on a plane belonging to Sir Richard Evans, the former head of BAE Systems, who in 2006 was appointed chair of the board of Samruk, a Kazakhstan state holding company.
Aitken has denied any money was exchanged, but leaked documents in the Pandora Papers suggest he was paid £166,000.
The City of London, with its light-touch financial regulations, is notorious for attracting the dodgy wealth of oligarchs from former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan’s ruling class owns at least £530 million of luxury property in London and the southeast, according to a recent report by think tank Chatham House. Some £330 million of that property portfolio is owned by the extended Nazarbayev family.
This includes £80 million of property in London owned by Nurali Aliyev, the grandson of Nazarbayev, and Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest daughter of Nazarbayev and a Kazakhstan parliamentarian.
In 2020, the UK National Crime Agency lost an attempt in the High Court to impose an Unexplained Wealth Order on them.