Protests and Unrest in Kazakhstan: What Happened and What’s Next?
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Jan 20, 2022
WASHINGTON, D.C. - On January 19, the Caspian Policy Center (CPC) hosted a virtual panel discussion focused on the effects and implications of the protests and unrest in Kazakhstan and its consequences on the country and the region.
Days of protests followed an increase in fuel prices. While the protests have been subdued, the lingering effects of the two-week-long events have yet to be realized. The panel, moderated by Ambassador (ret.) Richard E. Hoagland, a senior fellow at the Caspian Policy Center and former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, sparked productive discourse among the webinar speakers on the socioeconomic issues that precipitated the nation-wide tumult and the necessary steps that President Tokayev would need to undertake to avoid a subsequent tragedy.
Efgan Nifti, Chief Executive Officer of the CPC, opened the event with welcome remarks focused on the importance of shedding light on the events in Kazakhstan as “there have been multiple narratives the wake of the events in Almaty.”
Kazakhstan witnessed its worst days of violence since it gained independence three decades ago. The speakers mentioned the distinction between the peaceful protesters that comprised a majority of those on the streets in the first days of the unrest and the violence that ensued from groups engaged in looting and vandalism. Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that the peaceful protests were hijacked by criminal groups with previous military training and promised that Kazakhstan will continue to share information on these alleged groups. The speakers agreed that civil society in Kazakhstan had proven resilient in the face of violence. The ambassador also pledged that in the next few months, the government would undergo reforms to rectify the underlying causes of the protests.
In the aftermath of the unrest, people organized at a grassroots level to deliver essentials to those most impacted by the disorder. Dr. Gavin Helf responded by saying that civil society could serve as a viable partner to Kazakhstan as long as it was met halfway by the government. Dr. Helf also warned that legitimate grievances in Kazakhstan will continued to be used as vehicles for ideological entrepreneurs.
The panelists discussed the grievances held by some Kazakhstanis towards their government, which prompted the protests. George Washington University PhD student Akbota Karibayeva made note of the growing inequality and corruption in Kazakhstan, which fueled tensions that had been building up for years. In addition, she discussed Kazakhstan’s government’s so far unsubstantiated claims that the protests were a smokescreen for an attempted coup.
President Tokayev began his tenure as president as a conservative reformer noted Mr. Almas Chukin. The speakers said that Tokayev’s reforms are a step in a positive direction for Kazakhstan and that engaging the OSCE could promote democratic reforms that would be widely received by Kazakhstani citizens.
Finally, the speakers urged the United States to take a nuanced approach to Kazakhstan, and work with the country to move forward from the events of early January. The speakers recommended more high-level visits from the United States to Kazakhstan and to avoid viewing events in Kazakhstan through an overly geopolitical lens.
Mr. Nifti closed the discussion by thanking the panelists for sharing their analysis and added that “this event represents a new opportunity perhaps to have a new contract with society.”