This article was originally written by our comrade Hasan Refik in Turkish and published on the web site of the newspaper Gerçek, the central organ of DIP, on 9th January 2022. It has since been translated by the author himself into English. Since nothing that has gone on in between has belied the analysis presented in the article, we are publishing it here for our international comrades.
Protests begin: Enter the proletarian West
Kazakhstan’s new year took off with mass protests. While the actions that started on January 2 are a week in, it is still not possible to obtain precise information on many issues. However, the fog of war disperses by the day, and the main lines of the episode start to emerge. In these circumstances, we find it meaningful to share our impressions of the first developments and possible course without claiming any expertise in the intricacies of Kazakhstan’s politics.
The protests began on January 2 in the city of Janaozen, located in Mangystau province, in the western part of the country, where the industrial proletariat and in particular refinery workers are concentrated. The spark that started the actions was the increase in fuel prices in the region from 60 tenges to 120 tenges per liter. This hike in prices came as a direct blow to the workers commuting in their cars. In this respect, let us underline that the starting point of the protests bears great similarities with the Yellow Vests movement in France. However, since the economy of Mangystau province is based on oil itself, that is, on the production of the raw material of the fuel in question, it is clear that this hike caused even more tremendous anger among the workers, and rightfully so.
The protests turned into a de facto strike at the Tengiz oil refinery, the beating economic heart of the region, as the night of January 3 turned to the 4th. The cities of Janaozen and Aktau, with their economic life centered around this refinery and oil field, quickly became the epicenter of the action. Initially, the authorities struck an uncompromising position against the strikers. Their first statement haughtily said that “the market spoke” while arguing that the fuel price was determined in the free market and that their hands were tied.
The market had spoken, but the workers begged to differ. On January 4, when the strike started to spread like wildfire and the protests reached the big cities, the Kazakhstani bourgeoisie immediately stepped back. Not only did they get the hike back, but they also reduced the price to 50 tenge – mind you, well below the initial level of 60 tenges! It goes to show that when the workers strike, what is ostensibly unchangeable does change indeed! Moreover, the Kazakhstani government announced on January 5 that the head of the refinery in Janaozen had been arrested. But by then, the protests had already spread to other cities, and the strikes had begun to turn into a nationwide revolt.
Let us take a step back at this point and make a point about the starting point of the protest and its position within the political geography of Kazakhstan. We have just mentioned the Tengiz oil basin. More generally, oil and natural gas production make up a substantial chunk of the economy of Mangystau and neighboring Atyrau provinces. Entailing from this, the workers in these sectors constitute a decisive power in the region. Just to get a sense of the sheer size of both the refineries in question and the region’s working class, let us point out that recently, the Tengiz oil refinery in Atyrau laid off forty thousand workers at once.Hence, there exists a remarkable tradition of class struggle in the region. In 2011, oil workers struck in Janaozen - where the current protests took off - and at least 14 workers died a martyr’s death at the hands of the police during the ensuing clashes. So, we have identified the first of the actors in Kazakhstan by briefly mentioning both the current situation and its background: the proletarian West.
The Almaty and Nur-Sultan axes
Initially based in Western Kazakhstan, the protests quickly spread to big cities, especially Almaty. In Nur-Sultan, Almaty and other cities, the people took to the streets with their just demands. Thousands of people, young and old, took part in the protests. The public anger particularly targeted the offices of the ruling Nur Otan Party (which apparently functions as a coalition of 11 parties). However, significant differences emerged in the course of the protests, especially between the country’s largest city, Almaty, and the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana).
In Almaty, the protests took up arms with surprising, even suspicious, speed. As early as January 5, the videos circulating on social media -and said to be coming from Almaty- showed protesters arresting the troops. One had better take the information coming from the Western press with a grain of salt. Yet, one could not help but get the impression that at some point, the Kazakhstani government lost or at least was on the brink of losing control of the city. What was really confusing here were the videos circulating in the Russian press, showing people in seemingly random cars hand out long-barreled guns to the protestors.
There is a significant amount of disinformation in circulation. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that Almaty forces are arming at an odd pace, especially when compared to the rest of the country. Nothing hints that this is the deed of a highly-capable political organization. The rate of armament exceeds far and wide the level that can be obtained from surrendering soldiers. In these conditions, the image of Kalashnikovs handed out from the back of the vehicles brings to mind a possible struggle between the cliques within the Kazakhstani state. Let us be crystal clear to avoid any misunderstanding: We do not think that the beginning or spread of the protests, including in Almaty, can be explained as a mere conspiracy. But rather, we are of the impression that there is a Syria-like dynamic at play. It took six months for the popular uprising to turn into a reactionary civil war in Syria, not least through foreign intervention. The same dynamic seems to be at work in Almaty, at a breakneck pace, but this dynamic may have been stillborn as of January 8, when this article was written in its original Turkish. It would not be a stretch to say that the imperialists, especially the USA, must be keeping a careful eye on Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia. In the case of an eventual Kazakhstani civil war, they might try to set up traps to increase their clout in the region. However, nothing indicates any direct role of imperialism in the events so far. At this stage, it seems much more likely that the maneuver of one of the cliques in Kazakhstan determined the course of developments in Almaty. The detention of the Kazakhstan Security Council president and former Prime Minister Karim Masimov on January 8 on the charge of “high treason” also reinforces this impression. If this dynamic progresses and a full-blown civil war breaks out between the two reactionary cliques, one must expect imperialism to intervene through one of the belligerent forces. In all likelihood, they would opt for the forces of Almaty against Tokayev, who seems to have tied his fate to Russia.
In Nur-Sultan, the capital of the country, the situation differs drastically. Although the protests did spread to Nur-Sultan, it seems that the state forces did not lose control there since the beginning of the demonstrations. State sources mention attacks by “terrorists” in the city, and images of the burning offices of the ruling Nur Otan Party circulate on the internet. However, unlike Almaty, Nur-Sultan lacked a force that could take up arms and bring certain parts of the city under its de facto control. If the government’s statements are correct and if the armed attacks carried out through some sort of guerrilla methods indeed started in Nur-Sultan, this would corroborate our tentative assessment of the Syria-like dynamic unfolding through cliques. It is possible that divisions between tribes and clans also play a role here, as we have witnessed in Kyrgyzstan before.
This gives us the other two major axes after the proletarian West: the central government of Nur-Sultan led by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and the clique or cliques in the south based in Almaty, which are still in the process of formation.
Russia, CSTO, imperialism
On January 5, when the protests began to spread all over the country, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that he did not resign and would stay in Kazakhstan. In addition, he dismissed the council of ministers, ousted Nazarbayev from the presidency of the Natioanl Security Council of th country, and, most importantly, summoned the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), led by Russia, to his country against the so-called terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan. We will return to the CSTO, but we would like to underline another part of the statement that has not received sufficient attention. Some context first. Nursultan Nazarbayev, longstanding president of the country, resigned from his duties, including the presidency, in 2019. The new president Tokayev’s position was perceived mainly as ceremonial, and pundits asserted that the actual rule of the country was in the hands of Nazarbayev. We believe that breaking Nazarbayev’s influence and consolidating his own position as a reliable partner for Russia figures among the chief reasons behind Tokayev’s moves on January 5.
As a matter of fact, when Tokayev made this statement on January 5, rumor had it that Nazarbayev and his family had left the country. From January 5, when Tokayev made his statement, to January 8, different media outlets reported that Nazarbayev had fled to Bishkek, Moscow or Abu Dhabi. Nazarbayev, on the other hand, remained silent until the 8th. Seizing the occasion, Tokayev may very well be aiming to consolidate his power in the country, first by emphasizing that he remains in the country and in charge, but also by projecting himself as Russia’s man in Kazakhstan.
Russia and the CSTO responded positively to Tokayev’s call to send troops to Kazakhstan on the morning of January 6. Consequently, the CSTO (a joint security organization established in 1992, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, currently includes six former Soviet republics, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, besides Russia. This is the first such operation undertaken by the organization) began to send troops to the country. Although the information we have is limited, some elements suggest that there might be differences and tensions in the approach to the Kazakhstan issue within the CSTO. Despite the very moderate statement from Russia at the beginning of the protests, which essentially read that this was Kazakhstan’s internal business, Belarusian President Lukashenka spoke in a much harsher tone on January 6 and said that they could not lose Kazakhstan to NATO.
As stated earlier, US imperialism must be closely watching the developments in a country like Kazakhstan - of great strategic importance for Russia - looking for a window of opportunity. Kazakhstan is home to many Russian military and logistics facilities, including the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome. During the Nazarbayev period, Kazakhstan entered a process of rapprochement with the USA without disturbing its relations with Russia, and this continued with the Trump-Tokayev talks after Nazarbayev. Now, to all intents and purposes, Tokayev tied his destiny to Russia by inviting the CSTO to his country in response to the crisis he is now facing. In this case, should Kazahstan find itself in the midst of a civil war, imperialism would seek to ally itself with the anti-Tokayev camp. Or, if Tokayev and the CSTO could successfully re-establish order, imperialism might opt for a new rapprochement. But, if Kazakhstan is eventually dragged into a possible civil war, using this opportunity to open a third front after Ukraine and Syria and lead Russia into a quagmire may become more advantageous for imperialism than protecting its direct economic interests in the country. While it would be wise to keep that in mind all the time, at this stage, there is no sign that imperialism directly controls one of the actors on the ground.
Current situation and prospects
By January 7, the balance of power in the country seems to have turned in favor of the central government. The role of the CSTO agreeing to send troops to Kazakhstan in this is enormous, politically if not militarily. Although CSTO forces have reached Kazakhstan, it seems that these forces have not yet taken part in military campaigns at this stage. But it is highly possible that Tokayev, strong with Russia’s military support, consolidated his control over faltering elements within the state and military. Let us point out that the images that appeared in the press on January 5, showing that some military units came over to the side of the protestors, were not repeated after the start of the CSTO intervention, to the best of our knowledge. In other words, the fact that Tokayev got the support of the CSTO in a very short time may have ended a war of factions in the Kazakhstan army before it even started.
Accordingly, after the operations carried out by the Kazakhstan army, Tokayev stated on January 7 that order throughout the country was largely restored. Alongside this, he took a series of symbolic steps that would illustrate his control over the situation. According to these statements, national mourning will be declared for those killed in operations on January 10, and Tokayev will appoint a new Prime Minister on January 11. In other words, according to Tokayev, the ongoing conflicts, already decreasing at the moment, will come to an end as of the beginning of the week, the process of mourning will begin, and the appointment of the new government on the 11th will usher a new era.
The incoming news suggests that Tokayev will likely succeed in his plans. The Kazakhstani army has been establishing control over the whole country, including Almaty, which has become the center of conflicts. However, the fact that it is difficult to predict the maneuvers of the cliques within the state and that imperialism is on the alert, even if it is not yet on the ground, shows that we cannot completely ignore the possibility of a change in course and the emergence of a Syria-like civil war.
The only force that can break this stalemate is the working class, concentrated in Western Kazakhstan and lying at the origin of the wave of protests. Alas, the working class of Kazakhstan is entering this critical juncture without the greatest weapon it can have, namely an independent organization. However, the central government in the North is based on a mighty organization, namely the state apparatus, while the powers in the South are probably based on a mafia-supported structure. The Communist Party of Kazakhstan was banned in 2015, and the absence of an organized working-class party or union in the oil and gas basins robs the proletarian West of any chance of disrupting a possible reactionary civil war equation between the Northern and Southern reactionary cliques. At least at this stage, the fact that a force similar to the Resistance Committees that emerged from the Sudanese Revolution has not appeared in Kazakhstan reinforces this impression. Kazakhstan’s impasse should remind us once again that the working class the world over needs its own independent organization like bread and water.