Economic pivot of Central Asia, strong of its mines of precious metals and its hydrocarbons, Kazakhstan is plunged in a chaos of revolutionary type. The rare images that have reached us, Wednesday, January 5, before the establishment of the state of emergency, the blocking of the Internet and mobile phones, show government buildings invaded by demonstrators in several cities of the country, trucks of the army pursued by the crowd, of the police officers assaulted. Never had the former Soviet republic known such upheavals in its thirty years of existence under the reign of the omnipotent Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The strong man of this young state, whose statue dominates the main avenues of Kazakhstan, seems to have fallen from his pedestal. Booed by the streets, the octogenarian had to give up his title of head of the security council, a sort of tailor-made super-president post, to Kassym-Jomart Tokaïev, the president he had appointed to succeed him in 2019 at the end of an electoral sham. The latter announced the news in a speech to the nation, in which he promised to respond with “Firmness” the protests that spread from the province to the main cities of the country in the space of three days.
The crisis was born precisely in the west of the country, an industrial region which illustrates the mirages of the country’s development, with on the one hand, its gas and oil production areas and on the other, its rutted roads and dilapidated state services. “The authorities invented the myth of the rich country, specifies analyst Galiya Ibragimova, specialist in Central Asia. In terms of socio-economic indicators, however, Kazakhstan is not very different from its neighbors in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, even Tajikistan. The problems are the same: unemployment, migration from the village to the city, poorly paid labor… ”
The crisis had been brewing for a year in the west of the country. Almost every month, rallies against rising prices were held in workers’ housing estates. The rise in the prices of liquefied natural gas (LNG), launched as part of a liberalization of the market, triggered the first brutal demonstrations, Sunday, January 2 in Janaozen, before spreading to the large regional city of Aktau, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, then in Almaty, the economic capital of this sparsely populated country (18 million inhabitants) but as large as five times the size of France. When the beleaguered regime announced a drastic reduction in prices, it was too late: the social revolt had taken a political turn.
After having exiled, imprisoned or bought the silence of political opponents, the regime finds itself faced with a protest without leaders with whom to establish a dialogue. “The authorities will undoubtedly be tempted by the showdown in the name of stability”, warns Galiya Ibragimova, who thinks that the army will support the government if it gives the order to shoot at the crowd. In 2011, at least 14 workers were killed during protests in Janaozen, the city where the current events started.