Common assumption that Kazakstan’s long-suffering people will never grow restive may be wrong.
Kazakstan’s population has generally been the least turbulent of any of the Central Asian nations over the last two decades, but analysts say public attitudes are changing due to worsening economic conditions, the prevalence of corruption, and the emergence of scattered protests.
Although people are not yet ready to take to the streets and are still largely supportive of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, it is becoming clear that their tolerance has its limits.
The authorities used to be able to play to a genuine, widespread aversion to instability – the fear that any sudden change was likely to be for the worse. Over the last year or so, however, many people have abandoned that conservative outlook and taken to the streets in defence of their rights.
Analysts interviewed by IWPR point to a combination of political, economic and social factors that have changed people’s expectations, and lowered their level of tolerance. As one analyst put it, the Kazak leadership’s traditional mantra that “as long as there’s peace and stability, the rest can come after” no longer holds water.
Kazakstan has the strongest-performing economy in Central Asia because of its oil revenues, which have helped the country achieve broad economic growth and higher personal incomes while its southern neighbours have become impoverished.
Tolgonay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Fund for Democracy Development, notes that only two or three per cent of the population find it hard to afford basic food items – a low figure compared with other regional states.
However, opinion polls conducted by Umbetalieva’s organisation, in which respondents were quizzed about what came top on their list of worries, suggest that things are changing.
“We’ve been doing research over the last five years, and food and utilities price rises and the unemployment level have been cited every time,” she said, noting that the change dated from 2007 ,when the effects of global economic crisis first hit Kazakstan.
Prior to 2007, people were mainly worried about security threats related to the emergence of Islamic militant groups in Central Asia, and about societal changes such as the perceived erosion in moral values.
Maxim Kaznacheev, head of the domestic politics department at the Institute for Political Solutions in Almaty, said people were increasingly unhappy about the government’s failure to rein in inflation.
“The problem is that the ongoing price rises on basic foodstuffs and utilities hit the less well-off sections of the population,” he said, noting that this category, which includes pensioners, students and the self-employed, accounts for a substantial proportion of people in Kazakstan, who are reliant on state support.
The worsening economic situation has also dealt a blow to owners of small- and medium-size businesses, in other words the emerging middle class. Kaznacheev says many are considering closing down, which would leave their employees without work.
He said that while the government had placed support for smaller businesses at the centre of its anti-crisis programme, this had not had the desired effect as much of the funding was either channelled to well-connected businesspeople or simply squandered.
He says these business owners might follow the tendency of other disgruntled population groups that have organised themselves into protest movements, for example oil workers and small-time shareholders left with nothing when the construction companies they invested their savings in went bankrupt.
“Overall, social tensions are on the increase. There is a sense of [an imminent] second wave of crisis,” he concluded.
ANGER AT CORRUPTION
Apart from resentment of economic policies, the all-pervasive presence of corruption in Kazakstan is another major cause for complaint. In difficult times like this, the culture of bribery has a particularly stifling effect on business and on ordinary people’s lives.
Analysts say this issue – unlike many others – transcends local concerns and provokes similar levels of frustration in every part of the country.
According to Umbetalieva, even the simplest things cannot be done without paying a bribe these days.
“Previously, a bribe was needed to solve a difficult problem. But now it takes a bribe even to get one’s child a place on a nursery waiting list,” she said.
The same applies to the allocation of public contracts, where the winner of a tender is often required to pay a proportion to the official who made it possible. Officials in charge of delivering free public services often create bureaucratic obstacles to force people to pay bribes for them.
“There’s an impression that they do it on purpose so that they’ll be offered a bribe,” Umbetalieva said.
All this fuels a sense of injustice and powerlessness that is shared by people all across Kazakstan. Umbetalieva said interviews that her organisition carried out for a research project showed uniform results – “Whether in the north, the south or in the western regions, people were saying they’d had enough.”
Anti-corruption campaigns by government have failed to bring real change as they are often misused as “an instrument to pressure or to dismiss someone”, she added.
Adil Kaukenov, head of Quorum.kz, a news analysis website, said corruption had crept into every corner of life, but was not yet a focal point for public protests.
“Although irritated by it, the public has learned to live with it,” he said.
LOCAL PROTESTS, REGIONAL DIFFERENCES
One factor that has prevented localised protests growing into something larger is the fact that Kazakstan is a huge country in which people in one area may face quite different problems to those in another.
“Social and economic differences between the regions effectively play a stabilising role, as each province has its own issues, and the problems in other parts of the country are of little concern to it,” Kaukenov said. “Although each social group has its own pressing problems, these have not risen to the critical level where all sections of society would be ready to unite in large-scale protests.”
Taking the wave of oil-industry strikes in western Kazakstan as an example, Kaukenov said they had sparked few expressions of popular support in other parts of the country.
“Large-scale unrest is possible only if it takes place in Almaty or Astana, in any other case, it is a localised event and does not influence the overall situation in the country,” he said.
A recent opinion poll conducted in July by the Almaty-based Institute for Political Solutions confirms this view. Of the 2,300 respondents in 14 regions, the capital Astana and the financial centre Almaty, one-third believed the strike action was justified, and the rest either felt untouched by the issue, or that oil-sector employees had no business going on strike as they were the best-paid workers in the country. (For more on the strikes, see Kazakstan’s Unhappy Oil Workers)
Almaty-based economist Galina Nakhmanovich said direct wage comparisons were unfair, given that prices in western Kazakstan were also higher, and the harsh climate there made it harder to live off farming than, say in the warmer south of the country.
Umbetalieva said southern Kazakstan continued to be the poorest part of the country, and although protest have traditionally been muted there, they are gradually becoming louder.
People in northern regions along the border with Russia feel close to that country, and somewhat alienated from the rest of Kazakstan, according to Umbetalieva, who said, they “do not feel that life in Kazakstan concerns them”.
Aiman Jusupova, head of Kazakstan Institute for Socioeconomic Information and Prognosis, said that when people were asked which institution they trusted, President Nazarbaev still comes out on top – but that support is falling.
PEOPLE MORE WILLING TO STAND UP AND PROTEST
While unhappiness with the government is still fragmented and differs in focus from region to region, many analysts say the idea that people in Kazakstan will put up with anything is no longer a given.
“I realise that people now [feel] they have nothing to lose – what’s the point of having security and stability if they can’t live like a normal person?” Umbetalieva said.
As Kaukenov noted, one of the triggers for anger to turn into open protest comes when people feel no one is listening to their concerns.
“I’ve witnessed a lot of cases where people have defended their point of view robustly, with no fear of clashing with the police or of other consequences,” he said, citing the example of car owners who gathered nationwide support when they fought plans to ban the use of imported right-hand drive vehicles.
Umbetalieva said what was new about this defiance was that it was being articulated by people of some influence and authority in their own communities, like teachers and the elderly. She said the people she had come across had a clear vision of the need to challenge the way things were, even though they were fully aware of the consequences.
“It was clear to them that in order to change the situation, they would have to stand up until the end,” she said.
AUTHORITIES FAILING TO RESPOND
Nakhmanovich said that the authorities were compounding the problem by failing to address people’s concerns, offer solutions, and generally prevent things getting out of hand. Once again, this was demonstrated during the oil-industry protests, where the government could have attempted to clarify disputed issues and to mediate with the oil companies to find workable compromises.
That did not happen. “I was struck that no one from the top leadership went there; they didn’t listen to people,” Nakhmanovich said.
Instead, the official response – harassing strikers and jailing union activists – merely served to turn an industrial dispute into a political protest. Left unaddressed, the trouble in the oil sector could lead to wider unrest in western regions of Kazakstan, she said.