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Kazakhstan - 2022 Uprising - Background

Russia and Kazakhstan have the largest continuous land border on planet earth. About one-quarter of the population of Kazakhstan is ethnic Russians, with most of the rest being Kazakh nationals who are Muslims, who resent the Orthodox-Christian Russian minority.

Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections of 10 January 2021 were a missed opportunity to demonstrate the efficient implementation of political reforms and its modernisation process since the last elections, while long-standing recommendations from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on several issues remained unaddressed, including those related to fundamental freedoms, the impartiality of election administration, eligibility to vote and stand for elections, voter registration, the media and the publication of election results. According to the preliminary findings of the OSCE/ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the legal framework in Kazakhstan was not yet conducive to holding elections in line with international standards.

A worrying deterioration in the general situation of human rights and a crackdown on civil society organisations in Kazakhstan was noted in early 2021, with harsh restrictions imposed on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Civil society and human rights organisations working in Kazakhstan have been subjected to increasing pressure and penalisation by the country’s authorities, which hindered reform efforts and limit the essential work of civil society.

Kazakhstan ranks 157th in the World Press Freedom Index. The state control over the freedom of speech in modernising and moves on online space seeking to censor and control the internet. Bloggers, opinion makers and social media users are being silenced with long-term prison sentences and confinement to psychiatric clinics. Corruption among ruling elite prevails. The country ranks 94th in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, and further impedes the human rights, social justice and socio-economic development. Prices for almost everything went up in 2021, sparking the largest number of worker protests and strikes in Kazakhstan in more than 20 years.

The economy of these southwestern regions of the country is closely tied to oil and gas, and this is not the first time unrest has erupted in the area. Aktau, located on shores of the Caspian and the capital of Mangystau Oblast, was only settled in 1961 and shows signs of its youth. The city's streets are not named, and camels still roam free on the road between the airport and the city. However, new construction projects are visible throughout the city. Property prices are not far below those in Astana and Almaty. Expats crowd bars with names like "Guns and Roses" and "The Shamrock." Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia have all already opened consulates in the city. In 2011, Zhanaozen saw a mass demonstration of people engaged in the sector that escalated into deadly protests and claimed 15 lives and left hundreds injured. Now, the very same region is seeing mass protests again, with the calls to lower gas prices evolving into political demands such as introducing elections for the heads of the nation's regions and cities and the return of the 1993 Constitution.

There were more labor strikes in Kazakhstan in 2021 than there had been in the three previous years combined as noted in an article in The Diplomat and on the Oxus Society’s Central Asia protest tracker. Most of the strikes in 2021 happened in Mangystau Province and many of them took place in Zhanaozen. It was most often oil workers or employees in associated industries who went on strike, but health-care and public-transportation workers also temporarily stopped working until their demands were met. They always sought more pay and better working conditions and while they never received all they wanted, they usually got some concessions from management or state authorities.

In July 2021, when oil workers were on strike, a group of deputies from the pro-government Nur Otan and Ak Zhol parties came to speak with the group. They told them, “We are deputies whom you elected,” to which the striking workers replied, “You were named to your posts; the people did not elect you.”

The opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK or DCK), which the Kazakhstani government had banned as an extremist group, called for demonstrations on December 16, 2021, at 12:00 p.m. to demand the resignation of Kazakhstan’s government, including First President Nazarbayev and President Tokayev, as well as freedom for all political prisoners.

On 01 January 2022, prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is used to power many vehicles and had been kept cheaper than gasoline, roughly doubled as the government concluded a shift away from price controls. LPG is a term used to describe two Natural Gas Liquids: propane and butane, or a mix of the two. It is different from Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), a natural gas (primarily methane) that has been liquefied for ease of storing and transporting.

The price caps had forced producers to operate at a deficit. The cost of producing LPG was now some 70 to 85 tenge per liter and then there were additional operational and transportation costs. In Kazakhstan, liquefied gas is a popular choice of motor fuel, and remote regions without central gasification heavily rely on it. The spike in prices did not come out of nowhere; it was the result of a sweeping reform launched back in 2019, when Nur-Sultan began a transition to electronic trade in LPG. The amount of LPG traded that way had gradually increased over the past three years.

The doubling of fuel prices in Zhanaozen was just the trigger for the built-up desperation that Kazakhs feel after years of government corruption, bad economic conditions in a country rich in natural resources, and the absence of free and fair elections. People in Kazakhstan had finally had enough of their authoritarian government's unfulfilled promises and lip service to real reform.

One of the most prominent on the ever-growing list of demands by protesters was debt relief for those who had taken out hard-currency loans just before the government allowed the national currency -- the tenge -- to depreciate and lose half of its value. Added to that was bad inflation that occurred when the tenge fell from 182 to $1 to 340 tenge to $1 at the end of 2015, affecting nearly every Kazakh and adding to the number of people who came out to protest in spring 2016. The government withdrew the land-reform proposal, worked with banks to lessen the burden on debt holders, and increased wages and social benefits. But those changes only partially addressed people's problems.

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Page last modified: 21-03-2022 10:29:20 ZULU