Soviet statue graveyard, Semey, Kazakhstan, 2004. Photo and illustration Ivan Sigal.

Soviet statue graveyard, Semey, Kazakhstan, 2004. Photo and illustration © Ivan Sigal.

When Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, it inherited an extremely diverse nation, rich natural resources, and the potential of becoming a key player in Central Asia among the giants of Russia and China. It also inherited a system of political clientelism, a tradition of censorship and a gap between rural and urban lifestyles, as well as between average citizens and elites. Kazakhstan’s December 1986 Zheltoksan protests, one of the first significant public protests of the Soviet glasnost era, gave Kazakhstan’s political elite an early education in civil unrest, and a determination to resist similar, future developments as an independent state.

Three decades later, Kazakhstan has turned into a moderately wealthy, multiethnic country that maintains strong connections with Russia, Europe and China. It is also a hub for transit between China and Russia as well as Europe, a major exporter of natural gas and oil, and displays massive inequities in wealth, with significant elite corruption. But any transition to a democratic society never really began, as authoritarian rule has remained in place since Kazakhstan’s first election in 1991, in which Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared alone on the presidential ballot. Nazarbayev allowed or encouraged a cult of personality to develop, even after he stepped down as president in March 2019.

Oil and other extractive industries have financed the wealth of urban elites, and contributed to the opening of the country to foreign influence, with a significant presence not only of Russia and China, but India, Europe, North America, East Asia, and the Middle East. Kazakhstan’s populace has been exposed to postcolonial trends, a search for a national identity, a rediscovery of Muslim roots, and tolerance for greater diversity, yet old governance patterns have favored increased censorship, elimination of political opposition, discreditation of independent civil society and labor organizations. All of this has resulted into a yawning gap between cities and villages, Russian and Kazakh-speakers, and in general those close to power and the others.

The main reasons for the January 2022 violence are to be found in the lack of redistribution of resources, the unwillingness of authorities, local or national, to acknowledge genuine criticism, and the general corruption and arrogance of state structures and the elites they protect. 

The results are tragic: state violence has caused civilian deaths, destruction of private business, and a likely diminishment of sovereignty, with Moscow stepping in as a guarantor of stability, a path likely to quell potential pluralistic political development.

Stories about Kazakhstan’s illusory stability has cracked