Kazakhstan’s governing model has been showing signs of strain in recent years, but these protests raise questions about whether the system that President Nazarbayev built can meet the country’s current challenges. The protests started over opposition to land reform proposals, but they now reflect growing anger at popular exclusion from governance, elite entitlement and pervasive corruption. This backlash is similar to protest sentiment elsewhere in Europe, Eurasia and North America where people increasingly feel that their countries’ long-standing political and economic systems are corrupt and benefit only the wealthy. In Kazakhstan, however, the fragility of the political system, protracted economic decline, and the lack of formal mechanisms for the population to influence public policy exacerbate the situation.
Why now? Kazakhstan’s economy is contracting due to low energy prices and several external factors, including the slowdown in the Russian and Chinese economies and disarray in the European Union. Foreign Direct Investment has declined steeply and the currency devaluation halved many Kazakhs’ purchasing power. This economic malaise undermines the social contract in which Kazakhs were promised improved living standards in exchange for an extremely limited say in how they were governed. The state now has difficulty holding up its end of the bargain.
The government’s tight control over media exacerbated the protests, which were fueled by rumors and alarmist social media reports that Astana was preparing to sell land to wealthy Chinese investors. Popular outrage over this prospect is worrying evidence that xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise. Astana has since scrapped the reforms and established a new land commission, while the police have largely refrained from using violence. Yet these positive steps are undermined by the continued detention of some activists, while the government’s ham-fisted efforts to discredit the protestors damage its own credibility. Dissent most likely will continue, although the exact form it will take is not yet clear.