As we go to press, on Friday, Jan. 7, authorities in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main city, say they have reclaimed the streets from protesters—who staged the largest rebellion since the country became independent 30 years ago. Reportedly, most of the west of the country is effectively in a general strike. Russia has sent in some 3000 paratroopers to augment the repression; on Jan. 6, they helped reclaim the airport, which had been occupied by protesters. The president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, stated: “Whoever does not surrender will be destroyed.” He gave orders to shoot to kill; many dozens of protesters have been killed, with over 3000 detained.
Below, we reprint two articles by socialists in Kazakhstan on this crucial situation, plus a call for the release of political prisoners. The first article was translated and published on Jan. 6 by LeftEast from Zanov media in Russian.
INTERVIEW WITH AINUR KURMANOV
Today all post-Soviet mass-media and TV channels are riveted to the protests that suddenly engulfed Kazakhstan. To some they arouse hope, to others—horror and rejection. There are contradictions and different interpretations of what is happening: righteous people’s protest, clan wrangling, conspiracy of pro-Western and pro-Turkish forces or even “Islamist reaction.” But what is really happening? A Zanovo-media correspondent interviewed Ainur Kurmanov—one of the leaders of Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan.
A model republic
Kazakhstan is one of the biggest post-Soviet countries, which is only second to the Russian Federation in that system of political and economical relations, which was built after the Soviet collapse. And this is not just because Nursultan Nazarbayev was one of the architects of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). The Kazakh model of smooth transformation of former party and Soviet nomenclature into a capitalist oligarchy with “an Asian face” was seen by many as a model. Indeed, this model had superficially attractive features not only for the ruling elites in other republics, but also for the average citizen: a high economic level, the presence of formal attributes of democracy, and few restrictions on Western culture.
Large reserves of natural resources, including oil, and the industrial potential inherited from the socialist period proved a good launching pad for the young state. At the same time, the official propaganda of the Russian Federation and the CIS channels liked to set Kazakhstan as an example of preserving “the union traditions”, honoring the memory of the Great Patriotic War, the absence of nationalism, and so on.
Mass protests broke out immediately after the New Year holidays, on January 2. The reason for protests was the rise in price of liquefied gas for cars, from 60 tenge to 120 tenge per liter. The first unsanctioned demonstrations began in the west of Kazakhstan, in the Mangistau region, the heartland of large oil-producing enterprises. It is here that the notorious Zhanaozen is located, where ten years ago a workers’ strike was brutally suppressed: 15 strikers were killed and hundreds injured in Zhanaozen.
On the next day – January 3 – the protesters in the Mangistau Province added new social and political points to their initial demands: reduction of food prices, taking measures against unemployment, solution to the drinking water shortage, resignation of the government and local authorities. On this day, the protesters also began to gather in the squares and streets of Almaty, the capital city Nursultan and other cities. In a number of places, roads were blocked and protesters did not disperse even at night.
On Tuesday, January 4, protesters clashed with police. In Alma-Ata, security forces used stun grenades to disperse protesters. In turn, protesters overturned police cars. In the evening of the same day, mobile Internet, messengers and social networks stopped working.
Kazakhstani authorities tried to explain the gas price increase by the fact that its price is now determined by electronic bidding. As they say, “the market has decided”. The administration of the Mangistau Region firmly stated that everything was within the frames of the modern market economy, and the previous price was not coming back.
But on January 4, under pressure from the protesters, the government was forced to lower the price of gas in the Mangistau region to 50 tenge per liter. The President of Kazakhstan Kasim-Jomart Tokayev said that the rest of the demands of the population would be considered separately. And then on January 5, the current Cabinet of Ministers was dismissed. The director of the gas processing plant in Zhanaozen was detained.
Region of total poverty
The co-chairman of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan, Aynur Kurmanov, described the situation in the following terms:
The workers of Zhanaozen were the first to rise. An increase in the gas price served only as a trigger for the popular protests. After all, the mountain of social problems has been accumulating for years. Last fall, Kazakhstan was hit by a wave of inflation. It should be taken into account that products are imported to the Mangistau region and they have always been 2-3 times more expensive there. But on a wave of rising prices at the end of 2021, the cost of food rose even more, and substantially. We must also take into account that the West of the country is a region of solid unemployment. In the course of neoliberal reforms and privatization, most of the businesses there were shut down. The only sector that still works here are the oil producers. But for the most part, they are owned by foreign capital. Up to 70 percent of Kazakhstan oil are exported to western markets, most of the profits also go to foreign owners.
There is practically no investment in the development of the region: it is an area of total poverty and poverty. And last year these enterprises began to undergo large-scale optimization. Jobs were cut, workers began to lose their salaries, bonuses, many enterprises have turned into just service companies. When in Atyrau region the company Tengiz Oil fired 40 thousand workers at once, it became the real shock for the whole Western Kazakhstan. The state did nothing to prevent such mass layoffs. And it should be understood, that one oil worker feeds 5-10 family members. Dismissal of a worker automatically condemns the whole family to starvation. There are no jobs here except for the oil sector and sectors that service its needs.
Kazakhstan has actually built a raw-material model of capitalism. The population has accumulated a lot of social problems, there is a huge social stratification. The “middle class” is ruined, the real sector is destroyed. The uneven distribution of the national product has a considerable corruption component. Neoliberal reforms have all but eliminated the social safety net. And most likely, the owners of transnational corporations calculated – 5 million people are needed for servicing the “pipe”; the whole 18+ million of Kazakh population is too much. And that’s why this revolt is anti-colonial in many ways. The causes the current protests are rooted in the workings of capitalism: price of liquefied gas really rose on electronic trades. There was a conspiracy of monopolists who benefited from exporting gas abroad, creating a shortage of it and an increase in gas prices on the domestic market. So they themselves provoked the riots. However, it should be noted that the current social explosion is directed against the whole policy of capitalist reforms that have been carried out over the last 30 years and their destructive results.
Traditions of workers’ struggle; spontaneous strike
The form of protest initially was a classic “proletarian” strike. On the night of 3 to 4 January, a wildcat strike began at the Tengiz Oil enterprises. Soon the strike spread to neighboring regions. Today, the strike movement has two main focus points – Zhanaozen and Aktau.
As conspiracy theorists write today, the unrest in Kazakhstan was carefully prepared in the West, as evidenced by the careful organization and coordination of the protesters. In Kurmanov’s words:
This is not a Maidan, although many political analysts are trying to present it this way. Where did such amazing self-organization come from? This is the experience and tradition of the workers. Strikes have been shaking the Mangistau region since 2008, and the strike movement began back in the 2000s. Even without any input from the Communist Party or other leftist groups, there were constant demands to nationalize the oil companies. The workers simply saw with their own eyes what privatization and foreign capitalist takeover was leading to. In the course of these earlier demonstrations, they gained enormous experience in struggle and solidarity. The very life in the wilderness made people stick together. It was against this background that the working class and the rest of the population came together. The protests of the workers in Zhanoazen and Aktau then set the tone for other regions of the country. Yurts and tents, which protesters began to put up in the main squares of the cities, were not at all taken from the “Euromaidan” experience: they stood in the Mangastau Region during the local strikes last year. The population itself brought water and food for the protesters.
In Kazakhstan today there is no legal opposition, the entire political field has been cleared. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan was the last to be liquidated in 2015. Only 7 pro-governmental parties remained. But there are plenty of NGOs working in the country, which actively cooperate with the authorities in promoting a pro-Western agenda. Their favorite topics: the famine of the 1930s, the rehabilitation of participants of the Basmachi movement and collaborators of World War II, and so on. NGOs also work on the development of nationalist movement, which in Kazakhstan is completely pro-government. Nationalists hold rallies against China and Russia which are sanctioned by the authorities.
According to our interlocutor, the sinister Islamists allegedly behind the recent events are also extremely weak and poorly organized in Kazakhstan. As he assured us, in fact, modern Kazakhstan is committed to building a mono-ethnic state, and nationalism is its official ideology. All reports of “pro-Soviet” Kazakhstan by the likes of Mir TV channel are a myth:
Back in 2017, a monument was erected in Kyzyl-Orda to Mustafa Chokai, the inspirer of the Turkestan legion of the Wehrmacht. Today, the state is radically revising history. The process has especially intensified after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to the USA a few years ago. The pan-Turkic movement is also becoming more and more active. More recently, i[on the initiative of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Union of Turkic States was established in Istanbul on Nov. 12, 2021. Kazakhstan’s elite keeps its main assets in the West. That’s why the imperialistic states are absolutely not interested in the downfall of the present regime; it is already completely on their side.
But perhaps not everything is so unambiguous with the geopolitical priorities of Kazakhstan? It seems that its leadership all the same tends to conduct notorious multi-vector policy, maneuvering between Russia, the West, China and Turkey. But one condition suits all foreign partners here – the local “loyal” legislation allows foreign companies to take the profits out of the country. However, if possible, none of the global players will stop at changing the government into an even more obedient one. And, of course, the liberal opposition will try to establish and is already establishing its control over the mass protest movement.
Nazarbayev’s resignation as president to head the Security Council was motivated by the desire to create the appearance of democracy, including to the West. In reality, he maintains full control over all the branches of power and only increased his power while at the same time completely avoiding responsibility. President Tokayev is a decorative figure, a pawn within the ruling family. Undoubtedly, the current protests can lead to some factions attempting a palace coup or similar actions. You can’t reduce everything to conspiracy theories. You shouldn’t idealize the current protest movement either. Yes, it is a grassroots social movement, with a pioneering role for workers, supported by the unemployed and other social groups. But there are very different forces at work in it, especially as workers do not have their own party, class trade unions, a clear program that fully meets their interests. The existing left-wing groups in Kazakhstan are more like circles and cannot seriously influence the course of events. Oligarchic and outside forces will try to appropriate and or at least use this movement for their own purposes. If it wins, the redistribution of property and open confrontation between various groups of the bourgeoisie, a “war of all against all,” will begin. But, in any case, the workers will be able to win certain freedoms and get new opportunities, including the creation of their own parties and independent trade unions, which will facilitate their struggle for their rights in the future.
Kazakhstan’s armed forces try to confront the protesters
P.S. After the article was published, it became known that in Almaty and some other cities there are heavy clashes, the protestors have seized many key infrastructure buildings in Almaty and other cities. Under pressure from the protests, President Tokayev made unprecedented social concessions – he promised state regulation of gas, gasoline and socially important goods, a moratorium on raising utility bills, subsidized rents for housing for the poor, and the creation of a public fund to support health care and children. Protesters also demanded a return to the 1993 Constitution and a government made up of people outside the system. And they still demand lower food prices and a reduction of the retirement age to 58-60, higher wages, pensions, child benefits, and so on.
Liberal opposition activists hastened to declare that it is they who coordinate the movement.
By the evening of January 5, it was reported that Nursultan Nazarbayev was no longer the chairman of the SB. President Tokayev took his place and stated his intention to act “as tough as possible. At the same time, it was promised that “consistent political reforms” would soon be carried out.
Later on that day Takayev called for a “peace-keeping” (in fact, police) operation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization countries (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) to suppress the protests, which the Kazakh were now declaring an attempt of intervention from outside. By the morning of January 6, CSTO council had approved of the request and there are already reports of Russian troops in Kazakhstan.
Ainur Kurmanov is today a leader of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan. Previously, Kurmanov was chair of Talmas (“Tireless”), a public association for the support of workers’ social initiative, and a militant of Socialist Resistance (the CWI section).
Statement of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan
In Kazakhstan, there is now a real popular uprising. From the very beginning the protests were of a social and class nature, as the doubling of the price of liquefied gas on the stock exchange was only the last straw in the overflowing cup of patience. After all, the protests began in Zhanaozen on the initiative of oil workers, which became a kind of political headquarters for the entire protest movement.
The dynamics of this movement are indicative as it started as a social protest, but then it began to expand, and the labour collectives used the meetings to put forward their demands for a wage increase of 100%, the cancellation of the results of optimisation, the improvement of labour conditions and freedom of trade union activity. As a result, as early as 3 January the entire Mangistau region was gripped by a general strike, which spilled over into the neighbouring Atyrau region.
As early as 4 January, oil workers at Tengizchevroil, where American companies have a 75% stake, went on strike. It was there that in December last year 40,000 workers were laid off and a new round of layoffs was planned. They were supported later in the day by oil workers of Aktobe and West Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda regions.
Moreover, in the evening of the same day, strikes of miners of ArmelorMittal Temirtau in Karaganda region and of copper smelters and miners of Kazakhmys corporation began what is essentially a general strike in the whole extractive industry of the country. There were also demands for higher wages, lowering of the retirement age, the right to trade unions and strikes.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, open-ended strikes already started in Atyrau, Uralsk, Aktyubinsk, Kyzyl-Orda, Taraz, Taldykorgan, Turkestan, Shymkent, Ekibastuz, in towns of Almaty region and in Almaty itself, where barricading of streets during the night of 4-5 January led to the open clash of demonstrators with the police, as a result of which the city administration was temporarily seized. This gave Kassym-Jomart Tokayev grounds for declaring a state of emergency.
It should be noted that these demonstrations in Almaty were mainly composed of unemployed youth and internal migrants, living in the suburbs of the megalopolis and working in temporary or low-paid jobs. And attempts to placate them with promises to reduce gas price to 50 tenge, separately for the Mangistau region and Almaty have not satisfied anyone.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s decision to dismiss the government, and then to dismiss Nursultan Nazarbayev, the chairman of the Security Council, did not stop the protests either, as mass protest rallies began on 5 January in those regional centres of Northern and Eastern Kazakhstan, where there were none before – in Petropavlovsk, Pavlodar, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk. At the same time, in Aktobe, Taldykorgan, Shymkent and Almaty, attempts were made to take the buildings of regional administrations by storm.
In Zhanaozen itself, the workers formulated new demands in their indefinite rally – the resignation of the current president and all Nazarbayev officials, the restoration of the 1993 Constitution and the related freedoms to create parties and trade unions, the release of political prisoners and the end of repression. The Council of Aksakals [Elders] was established as an informal governing body.
In this way, demands and slogans were transmitted to the entire movement, which are now used in various cities and regions, and the struggle was given a political content. There are also attempts on the ground to create committees and councils to coordinate the struggle.
At the same time, troops were brought to Almaty, Aktau and Zhanaozen. While in the Mangistau region, all passed peacefully, and the soldiers refused to disperse demonstrators, in the southern capital skirmishes began, and during the night of January 5 to 6 special forces were brought in to cleanse by force the airport and the neighbourhoods occupied by the insurgents. According to various reports, dozens of demonstrators have been killed.
In this situation there is a danger that all protests and strikes will be violently suppressed and the country must be completely paralysed by a general strike. It is therefore urgent to form united action committees along territorial and industrial lines to offer organized resistance to the military-police terror.
In this connection we also need the support of the entire international workers’ and communist movement and left-wing associations, with the aim of organising a major campaign in the world.
The socialist movement in Kazakhstan demands:
• An immediate cessation of hostilities against its people and the withdrawal of troops from the cities!
• The immediate resignation of all Nazarbayev officials, including President Tokayev!
• Release of all political prisoners and detainees!
• Ensuring the right to form their own trade unions, political parties, and to hold strikes and meetings!
• Legalisation of the activities of the banned Communist Party of Kazakhstan and the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan!
• We call on all workers and employees of the country to implement in practice the demand of the murdered oil workers of Zhanaozen—to nationalize, under the control of labour collectives, all extractive and large-scale industry in the country!
Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov / AP
For a democratic and socialist Kazakhstan!
Stop the intervention, release the detainees
Mass protests have been going on in Kazakhstan for several days. The detonator of the uprising was the rise in prices for liquefied gas, but it is obvious that the contradictions, which eventually led to a social explosion, accumulated in Kazakhstan for years. At the moment, the protesters are forming their own self-governing bodies, in some cities administrative buildings and offices of law enforcement agencies have been taken by storm.
Despite the fact that the country’s nominal president, Kosym-Zharmat Tokayev, tried to calm the people down by freezing gas prices and the resignation of the government, the protests only intensified and entered a new phase, which speaks of deep-rooted discontent with authoritarian-bureaucratic capitalism in Kazakhstan.
The vanguard of the protest is the working class, and we are convinced that only it will be able to bring to the end the democratic transformations, without which the struggle for freedom, democracy and socialism is impossible. Only the working people and all the progressive forces of Kazakhstan will be able to bring the revolution to the end, without looking back at the lulling speeches of the government and not handing over the fate of the protest into the hands of “democratic” opposition politicians.
We stand in solidarity with the insurgent people of Kazakhstan, demanding:
- Immediately release all detained protesters and political prisoners.
- Stop the military intervention of the CSTO member states.
We call on the Kazakh left to participate in the protests and defense of Kazakhstan against military incursion. Introduce a socialist agenda into the program of the insurgent people of Kazakhstan and build their own independent political organization.
The statement was signed by:
- Russian socialist movement,
- Executive Committee of the movement “Labor Russia”,
- Altleft.org website editorial office,
- Interregional Coalition of Left Forces “Left Bloc”,
- Marxist tendency.