Since the start of the new year, riots have spread throughout Kazakhstan. In the former capital of Almaty, the airport has been taken over and the mayor’s office stormed. Dozens of security forces and civilians have been killed in violent clashes while hundreds have been wounded. Is this Kazakhstan’s Tiananmen Square moment, in which the government is shaken to its roots but survives? Or will it be like the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in which a pro-Russian ruler was overthrown by the mob?
The main cause of the uprising is not dissimilar to Tiananmen Square. It is not a demand for democracy, which some inept journalists at the BBC and CNN ascribed as the main cause of China’s urban uprising in 1989. In China it was the rise of food prices, the classic cause of urban revolt; in Kazakhstan, it has been rising liquid petroleum gas prices. This is the car fuel of choice for 80 per cent of Kazakhs. Just as China before Tiananmen had moved food to market pricing, Kazakhstan had done likewise to liquid petroleum gas. As a result, prices have doubled in just a few weeks.
Not surprisingly, fuel riots have morphed into a broader protest movement. There are complaints of government corruption, authoritarianism, a lack of democracy, unhappiness about Kazakhstan’s inaction regarding China’s treatment of the Uighurs, resentment about Chinese immigration and investment, particularly the purchase of agricultural leases.
As ever, radical students and internet savvy millennials have played their part. No urban uprising would be complete without the bolshy utopian pontifications of a privileged elite. Trouble was already afoot last November. After a Harry Potter-themed autumn ball at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School of Chemistry and Biology, a student threw himself out of his parent’s 11th floor apartment. He had been censored by authorities for cross-dressing. Almaty students protested by wearing skirts to class. A graduate posted an Instagram call for students to rise up and fight ‘gender stereotypes and break the system’. Kazakhstan has been taken offline for the time being.
Some of the protestor’s complaints are fully justified. The Kazakh legislature is largely a fig leaf for what is in essence a dictatorship. Corruption is endemic. The wealth of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s family, the ex-Soviet stooge who ruled Kazakhstan for 29 years until 2021, is likely to be in the tens of billions. Their identified international property purchases alone amount to $785 million (£580 million). This includes a vast wedding cake confection of a mansion that is Nazarbayev’s lair on the shores of Lake Geneva.
In London, his daughter owns a stretch Baker Street, a huge office block that embraces the former fictional home of Sherlock Holmes. The family has fingers in every corner of the Kazakh economy.
But despite the corruption, president Nazarbayev delivered wealth to his people. Kazakhstan, a country the size of the whole of western Europe, is resource rich. It has been well managed. An official in the Ministry of Finance once admitted to me that: 'The Swedish model is too socialist for us'. Income and capital gains taxes are an enviable flat rate ten per cent. The country has built up a $60 billion (£45 billion) sovereign wealth fund. Since 1995, GDP per capita has risen from $2,000 (£1,500) to $27,000 (£20,000) — putting it on a par with Greece and Poland.
Unlike Ukraine, whose political stability and independence was undermined by Russia, the US and the EU, Kazakhstan’s neighbours, China and Russia, are expected to be rock solid. Russia sees Kazakhstan, a member of its Collective Security Treaty Organisation, as an important geopolitical partner. China is Kazakhstan’s most important trading partner. Kazakh gas accounts for five per cent of energy-hungry China’s needs; a 1,200-mile pipeline through Kazakhstan links China with Central Asia’s gas behemoth Turkmenistan. Stability suits both Russia and China.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Sinophile and fluent mandarin speaker, has asserted that his country 'should not become a territory for the global anti-China front'. Predictably protesters have been described as ‘international terrorists’.
As long as Kazakhstan’s military remains loyal, a brutal crackdown and a reversal of the fuel price hikes will likely to see the government survive. Political change will be internal. President Tokayev has turned on his mentor. Former president Nazarbayev has been removed as head of the security council as protestors chant ‘old man leave’ at the 81-year-old. After several years of an internal struggle, this will surely hasten the final transfer of power.
So, Tiananmen or Maidan. My money is on Tiananmen.