Analytics on Central Asia are relevant for a young region that is still experiencing a period of its development. The section is a source of information for a wide range of readers interested in socio-political processes, issues of regional security and economic development, as well as foreign policy in the countries of Central Asia.

Protest Activity in Kazakhstan

“The coronavirus situation offers a double-edged effect on protests in Kazakhstan: at one end protest activity is limited by quarantine restrictions, and at the other, the coronacrisis may have a major delayed effect,” sociologist Kamila Kovyazina analyzes protest activity in Kazakhstan in an exclusive article for

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Belarus protests following the country’s presidential elections would naturally be of Kazakh citizens’ interest. The events have attracted widespread international attention, joining other 2020 adversities. Kazakhs, nonetheless, have their reasons. The country held presidential elections last year that was, too, followed by protests, although not that far-reaching and nationwide. This article aims to define what the protests in Kazakhstan are, determine what has and can trigger protests, as well as explain why Kazakhstan, unlike its neighbors, was able to avoid severe unrest and turmoil.

When do Kazakhs take to the streets?

In the absence of official data on rallies and peaceful assemblies, we will rely on data from the media and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR). KIBHR’s monitoring of peaceful assemblies for 2010-2018 revealed that Kazakhstan protests are fueled by socio-economic grievances, including housing issues, currency depreciation, workplace conflict, the launch of Russian Proton (environmental impact), etc.

Among the most evocative are anti-Chinese protests (2010), protests in Zhanaozen (2011), land reform protests (2016), protests of mothers with many children, and protests over the election results (2019). The most significant and highly dynamic of all were the land reform protests in 2016.

Political protests are mainly prompted by support for the arrested opposition members and demands to release political prisoners, rallies in memory of the Zhanaozen events, protests over the miscarriage of justice.

It is important to acknowledge that 40 to 60% of peaceful assemblies are impulsive, that is, they are a response to some events, decisions, reforms. Often – almost every third protest – these are single pickets. In most cases, peaceful assemblies are unauthorized, reflecting either ignorance of the permit requirement (lack of particular organizers) or conscious disregard for this norm, in part because permit from local executive bodies deemed unattainable.

There has been an overall decline in protest activity since 2010, wherein, as KIBHR scholars highlight, political protests declined the most, accounting for the abolition of political parties and public organizations vis-à-vis the current government.

This sounds reasonable as a sharp drop in the number of demonstrations in 2015 correlates with a decrease in the participation of public organizations who conduct them.

In the absence of an organizing force, Kazakhs, therefore, are willing to take to the streets only in extreme cases, such as delayed wages and eviction of housing.

Why are Kazakhs not protesting?

Another question that is central in elucidating the nature of protest activity/apathy in Kazakhstan is why Kazakhs do not protest.

There are three major reasons for this. First, as discussed above, the political landscape has changed, political parties and non-governmental organizations are practically non-functioning. Institutional structures, however, were limited way before their total extinction from the political scene. For instance, in 2010, all 159 applications from “Alga” unregistered party activists have been rejected for various reasons.

Considering the political opportunity theory, until 2019, Kazakhs were basically deprived of the right to protest. The old protest law required those wishing to hold a public gathering to apply to local executive bodies.

At the same time, there is a misperception of protests being a solely negative phenomenon. Expressing discontent in public was inevitably considered oppositional, whether the issue was political or not. Local government agencies favored rejection of peaceful assembly applications to avert complications. For the same reason, those Kazakh citizens affiliated with the state – relatives of state employees, civil servants, employees of companies filling state orders, or somehow cooperating with state agencies – seek to avoid partaking in peaceful assemblies.

Secondly, as a Central Asian journalist Joanna Lillis notes, “Solemn unrest in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Georgia, and even Russia, tickled nerves of the Kazakh government and forced it toward concessions”[1]. This was particularly pronounced in 2019 when state bodies responded to the “rallies of large families” with broad support for not just demonstrators.

The Kazakh government has been fairly successful in learning from the others’ mistakes and has sought to prevent profound discontent to ripen. Kazakhs always say that unemployment, rising prices for essential goods, and housing problems are among the most pressing challenges[2].

Given that Kazakh citizens already have an unpretentious lifestyle, these challenges are widespread and could foster a comprehensive social basis for protests. According to official statistics, Kazakh citizens spend 50% of their income on food[3]. 44% of Kazakh citizens would be unable to cover expenses in case of emergency, including illness. 85% of Kazakhstanis have no savings and no financial cushion, leading to a vulnerability in case they lose their job (going back to the unemployment issue).

Addressing these issues, the government takes various measures: the “Enbek” employment program, a ladder of housing affordability[4]; price monitoring for essential goods, and regulatory pressure on retail facilities to guard against price escalation.

The country’s youth policy follows the same pattern, aiming primarily at the preventive solution of all potentially acute challenges for young people and their parents, accordingly. Young people around the world, as a rule, are the driving force behind protests, and in some countries, it was unemployed youth who gave a rise to the revolution[5]. In Kazakhstan, young people are perceived as a risk group and a potential threat, with pursued “policy of appeasement”.

The system of state orders, for example, works in that field. Besides, there are separate subprograms for young people and young families in both housing and employment programs. Hence, the tradeoff of protest involvement is that Kazakh citizens prefer not to protest.

Third, Kazakhs retain a certain level of trust in the State. In case of violation of their rights, Kazakhs first seek the legal solutions. This involves appeals to government agencies, to the court, to the Nur Otan party, and calling the attention of mass and social media.

The latter is becoming a powerful instrument of influence on government decisions, while not entailing radical measures. This is often the last possible way to fight for visibility and justice. Using social media, Kazakhs appeal to akims, ministers, and the president. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev is present on Twitter and Instagram to track high-profile social issues and voice his decisions.

What has happened in 2019?

In spite of all of the above, there has been an increase in the number of peaceful assemblies in 2019. According to, Kazakhstanis partook in nearly 100 rallies and demonstrations last year[6]. Besides, 2019 leads in the number of arrests amidst protests.

The Chatham House report “Kazakhstan: tested by transition” states that the early transition, becoming a window of political opportunities, gave impetus to rising protest moods[7]. The statement is rightful, as it was the second Kazakh president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev that ordered reforming the protest law, although the final version of the law is still criticized.

We need to acknowledge that while the transition fueled protest moods, preconditions were formed for a rather long time before. And social media contributed mightily in this.

A subject to the major public discussion in 2017 was the case of Maksat Usenov that later labeled the “Usenovshina” phenomenon, which means impunity and injustice. In 2018, the case of a boy from Abai and the murder of Denis Ten have caused a growing lack of public confidence in the law enforcement and judicial systems. The Interior Ministry Reform movement has received broad support, but so far only online. There could have been, however, a greater number of demonstrations in 2018. Activist Alnur Ilyashev could hold a peaceful rally only after 36 applications[8]. Thus, the demand for justice increased in 2018, yet still balanced by economic factors. Kazakhstan was recovering from the 2015-2016 recession; social well-being gradually improved.

However, five girls from the Siter family were killed in February 2019, left alone at home with both parents at work. A makeshift shelter, unsuitable for long-term living and in disrepair, was their home. Although mothers with many children have been the most active in civic response, the living conditions of the family caused the outrage of many Kazakhs. Many realized that they themselves live in a similar environment, obliged to survive, and work flat out. “Demonstrations of families with many children” played their part, “breaking down the fear barrier,” especially since the government was willing to compromise.

Meanwhile, the new civic movement “Oyan, Kazakhstan!” has emerged and intensified, which, in turn, steadily shattered the fear of peaceful demonstrations. Summer and autumn of 2019 were marked by “walks”[9] of activists and a series of single pickets[10]. The protestors urged for political reforms, the release of political prisoners, and the review of unfair trials. A flash mob for the release of Mukhtar Dzhakishev has spread to the Internet. Crowds of sympathizers gathered outside the court to support civic activist Serikzhan Bilash, who raised the issue of persecution of ethnic Kazakhs in China.

Demands for broader political changes have yet to receive widespread awareness and support, also because they have not been articulated in a language the majority in Kazakhstan could understand. Political reforms per se do not possess great value for them; they should entail tangible benefits. As discussed above, many citizens live below the poverty line, not having an opportunity or time to reflect on the events; and this hinders the promotion of civic awareness.

But 2020 has enhanced social tensions and anxiety relating to the deteriorating living standards. At the beginning of the year, a requirement to register cars imported from the EAEU countries has unexpectedly met a repulse. Car owners from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia have organized a series of protests: car registration involves several fees that exceed the cost of cars, which are the main source of income.

The coronavirus situation offers a double-edged effect on protests in Kazakhstan: at one end protest activity is limited by quarantine restrictions, and at the other, the coronacrisis may have a major delayed effect. International organizations and Kazakh experts project the deteriorating welfare of Kazakh citizens, increase in the number of unemployed, and rising prices. And while the state is already seeking to address the challenges, this time coping with protest moods and grievances might necessitate major reforms in all state systems and areas of life.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Лиллис, Д. Казахстан: испытание «транзитом власти». Доклад Chatham House. 2019 //URL:

[2]  Рост цен и безработица: решение каких проблем казахстанцы ждут от акиматов. Sputnik Казахстана. 2018. //URL:

[3]  Потребление в РК: оптимистичная статистика или сигналы SOS? Аналитическая группа “Кипр”. 2019 //URL:

[4] Вааль, Т. «Лестницу доступности жилья» внедрят для казахстанцев. 2019//URL:

[5] Джумет, К. Почему люди протестуют? Разъяснения участия в египетских восстаниях 2011 и 2013 гг. [Why do people protest? Explaining participation in the 2011 and 2013 Egyptian uprisings]. 2015 //URL:

[6] Митинги в Казахстане: от тарифов до транзита власти. 2019 //URL:

[7] Казахстан: испытание «транзитом власти». Доклад Chatham House. 2019 //URL:

[8] Алматинский активист добился разрешения на митинг с 36-й попытки. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL:

[9] Движение «Oyan, Qazaqstan» провело акцию SERUEN в городах Казахстана. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL:

[10] Жоямерген, О. В Нур-Султане группа граждан проводит серию одиночных пикетов. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL:

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Eldos Abakhanov

Deputy Chairperson of the "Kazakhstan Association of Environmental Organizations"

Kanatbek Abdiev

Independent Researcher, Master in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College of London

Marufjon Abdujaborov

Chief Specialist at the Strategic Research Center Under the President of Tajikistan. Participant of School of Analytics (Dushanbe)

Rashid Ghani Abdullo

Independent expert

Rustam Azizi

Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Studies under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan

Ainura Akmatalieva

Expert on Foreign Policy of Central Asian States, Candidate of Political Sciences, Associate Professor at KRSU (Bishkek)

Iskander Akylbayaev

Researcher of KazISS, the Department of Foreign Policy and International Security

Guldastasho Alibakhshev

Researcher at the Center of Sociological Research "Zerkalo", School of Analytics participant (Dushanbe)

Bakhtiyor Alimdjanov

Independent researcher, Ph.D in History (Tashkent)

Dimash Alzhanov

Political scientist, member of "Oyan, Kazakhstan" movement (Almaty).

Nailya Almukhamedova

Director General of the Parasat System Research Institute; participant of the School of Analytics (Astana)

Anna Alshanskaya

Researcher, participant of the School of Analytics (Nur-Sultan)

Farkhod Aminjonov

Ph.D., senior researcher at the Eurasian Research Institute

Aydar Amrebayev

Head of the Center for Political Science and International Studies

Mahram Anvarzod

Islamic scholar

Hamidjon Arifov

PhD. in geological-mineralogical sciences, Tajik Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams, Lead Researcher at the Tajik Institute of Water Issues, Hydropower and Ecology

Zarema Askarova

Independent expert

Indira Aslanova

Expert on religious studies

Slyamzhar Akhmedzharov

Researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, participant of School of Analytics

Anvar Babayev

PhD in Economics, Head Analyst and Director of the Population Migration Section of the Tajik Academy of Science’s Institute of Economics and Demographics

Erzhan Bagdatov

Executive Director of the Center of Media Technologies

Erkin Baydarov

Leading researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan

Sheradil Baktygulov

Independent expert

Serik Beysembayev


Nazik Beishenaly

President, Union of Cooperatives of Kyrgyzstan

Nurbek Bekmurzaev

Independent researcher, participant of School of Analytics (Bishkek)

Danil Bekturganov

President of the Public Foundation "Civil Expertise"

Denis Berdakov

Political scientist

Gulmira Birzhanova

Lawyer, expert in the field of national and international media law, Kazakhstan

Valentin Bogatyrev

Head of the analytical consortium "Perspective"

Merali Bodurshozoda

Konstantin Bondarenko


Anton Bugaenko

Sinologist, chief expert of the Chinese and Asian studies program at the Institute of World Economics and Politics (Kazakhstan)

Yuriy Buluktayev

Political scientist, Сhief researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Religious Studies of the National Academy of Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Almaty)

Muslimbek Buriev

Political scientist, participant of School of Analytics (Dushanbe)

Rustam Burnashev

Political scientist

Muazama Burkhanova

Head of the environmental organization Dastgiri Center, Tajikistan; Independent Environmental Impact Assessment Specialist

Mereke Gabdualiev

Сonstitutional lawyer, director of the public foundation “Institute for the Development of Constitutionalism and Democracy”

Alexander Galiyev

Editor of

Makhmud Giyosov

Political scientist (Dushanbe)

Gulyaev Sergey

General Director of PF "Decenta"

Anna Gusarova

Director of the Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies (Almaty)

Zoir Davlatov

Independent expert

Nurali Davlatov


Nazima Davletova

Editor-in-chief of "Interview" media project, online edition of

Zarina Dadabayeva

Doctor of Political Science, Professor at Russian State Humanitarian University, Leading scientific worker at the Post-Soviet Studies Research Center, Institute of Economics, Russian Academy of Sciences

Emil Djuraev

Political scientist, Associate Professor of the OSCE Academy (Bishkek)

Salamat Dzhybykeev

International Relations Specialist (Bishkek)

Svetlana Dzardanova

Political scientist, coordinator of Research and Training of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek

Sergey Domnin

Chief editor of “Expert Kazakhstan” magazine

Asel Doolotkeldieva

Ph.D., political scientist

Roza Duisheeva

Candidate of Political Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department of International Relations and Social Sciences of the International Kuwait University; participant of the School of Analytics (Bishkek)

Berikbol Dukeyev

Political scientist, PhD researcher at the Australian National University.

Bakhtier Ergashev

Director of the Center for Political Initiatives "Māno"

Sarvar Jalolov

International Relations Specialist (Tashkent)

Zamira Zholdaskyzy

Analyst at the Center for the Development of Labor Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, participant of School of Analytics (Nur-Sultan)

Zaynab Dost

Independent expert

Galiya Ibragimova

Independent expert

Tamerlan Ibraimov

Director of the Center for Political and Legal Studies

Timur Idrisov

Independent Expert (Tajikistan)

Ruslan Izimov

Sinologist, head of the "Eurasian Studies Program" of the Institute for World Economics and Politics under the Foundation of First President of the Kazakhstan, director of the Center for China Studies in Central Asia "Synopsys"

Alisher Ilkhamov

Independent Researcher (London)

Muratbek Imanaliev

Sinologist, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs and ex-secretary of the SCO (Kyrgyzstan)

Fabio Indeo

Specialist in geopolitics in Central Asia

Zamira Isakova

Master in Politics and Security at the OSCE Academy, Regional Coordinator of Saferworld Programs in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan)

Kosimsho Iskandarov

Head of Conflict Resolution and Regional Research Center in association with the Academy of Sciences

Chyngyz Israyilov

Lecturer of the Department of International Relations, Osh State University, Project Coordinator of Saferworld

Aizhan Kakenova

Researcher in the field of gender inequality and minority rights, Master of Arts, School of Humanities and Social Sciences Nazarbayev University (Nur-Sultan)

Amina Kalmamatova intern

Lesya Karataeva

Ph.D. is Chief Researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Nuriddin Karshiboyev

Chairman of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan

Yerlan Kassym

Specialist in energy policy, green economy and alternative energy. Government and Public Relations adviser at Royal Dutch Shell in Kazakhstan (Nur-Sultan)

Ekaterina Kasymova

Independent expert

Adil Kaukenov

Sinologist, political scientist

Kamila Kovyazina

Sociologist, researcher in public policy (Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan)

Turonbek Kozokov intern

Galina Kolodzinskaia

Expert on Religion, Politics, and Security in Central Asia (Bishkek)

Iskandar Qonunov

Political scientist

Alla Kuvatova

Sociologist, PhD

Kodir Kuliev

Anti-Corruption and Human Rights Expert (Tashkent)

Zaynidin Kurmanov

Professor of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University

Aidarkhan Kusainov

Financial analyst and general director of the Almagest Management and Strategy Consulting Company

Konstantin Larionov

Researcher, analyst (Bishkek)

Oleg Limanov

Expert (Uzbekistan)

Manuchehra Madjonova

Senior Economic Consultant of Secretariat of the Consultative Council on Improvement of Investment Climate under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan

Nazik Mamedova

Independent researcher, participant of School of analytics (Bishkek)

Talgat Mamyrayimov

Independent expert

Marinin Sergey

Independent Analyst (Kazakhstan)

Dilmira Matyakubova

Independent researcher (Tashkent)

Askar Mashayev

Political commentator (Almaty)

Takhir Mirdzhaparov

Chairman of the Republican Association of Foster Families of the Chuvash Republic, Director of the Nadezhda Charitable Fund for the Support of Orphans

Michael Petrushkov

Chairman of the Business Development Center of the Republic of Tajikistan

Kairat Moldashev

Professor - Researcher of the Narxoz University (Almaty)

Atay Moldobaev

Head of “Prudent Solutions” Analytical Department

Anton Morozov

Ph.D., political scientist

Alibek Mukambaev

President of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives "Eurasia", political scientist (Kyrgyzstan)

Parviz Mullodjanov

Ph.D. political scientist, политолог, orientalist and independent researcher from Tajikistan

Anar Musabaeva

Independent political analyst (Bishkek)

Aigerim Mussabalinova

An expert in the field of civil law of the Republic of Kazakhstan and international law on the protection of the rights of children and women.

Marat Musuraliev

Economist, Deputy Director of Smart Business Solutions Central Asia

Elmira Nogoibayeva

Head of the Analytical Center "Policy Asia"

Zhaslan Nurbaev

Associate Professor at Gumilyov Eurasian National University, participant of the School of Analytics (Nur-Sultan)

Aslan Nurzhanov

Project Manager at Eurasian center for people management, participant of School of Analytics (Nur-Sultan)

Dinara Nurusheva


Diana Okremova

Director of the “Legal Media Centre” Public Foundation

Edil Osmonbetov

Political scientist

Dinara Oshurahunova

Human rights activist, member of the international parliamentary monitoring network (Bishkek)

Lidiya Parkhomchik

Senior Researcher, Eurasian Research Institute

Bakhrom Radjabov

Political economist, PhD (Tashkent)

Anastasiya Reshetnyak

Senior Researcher of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies

Sherali Rizoyon

Political Scientist (Dushanbe)

Gulzada Rysbekova

Independent Researcher in International Relations (Bishkek)

Jaksylyk Sabitov

PhD, Eurasian National University

Maral Sagynalieva

Independent researcher, participant of School of analytics (Bishkek)

Sanjar Saidov

Political scientist, PhD (Tashkent)

Rauf Salahodjaev

Economist, Senior Researcher at International Westminster University (Tashkent)

Sardor Salim

Political Scientist (Tashkent)

Farrukh Salimov

PhD in History, Head of Diplomacy and Foreign Policy Department of Tajik National University

Yuriy Sarukhanyan

International Relations Specialist. Participant of the School of Analysts (Tashkent).

Rafael Sattarov

Political scientist

Aiym Saurambayeva

Lawyer in International Law, Master of Human Rights and Democratization (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Petr Svoik

Political scientist

Inga Sikorskaia

Program director of the School of peacemaking and media technology in Central Asia

Olga Simakova

Public Fund "Center for Social and Political Studies ‘Strategy’"

Doriyush Soliev

Independent Analyst (Dushanbe)

Klara Soronkulova

Lawyer, former judge of the Constitutional Chamber of KR Supreme Court

Rustami Sukhrob

International Relations Specialist (Tajikistan): Phd candidate, Ural Federal University, Department of Theory and History of International Relations

Konstantin Syroejkin

PhD., leading Kazakhstani Sinologist

Alisher Taksanov

Independent expert

Azamat Temirkulov

Associate Professor, Doctor of Political Sciences (Bishkek)

Anuar Temirov

Analyst, participant of the's school of analysts (Nur-Sultan)

Baurzhan Tolegenov

Political commentator (Nur-Sultan)

Medet Tyulegenov

Head of the Department of “International and Comparative Politics”, AUCA

Akram Umarov

Independent expert (Uzbekistan), researcher at the international academic project GCRF COMPASS

Arsen Usenov

Political scientist (Bishkek)

Esen Usubaliev

Head of the analytical center "Prudent Solutions", specialist in international relations

Farkhod Tolipov

Political scientist, the director of the non-governmental scientific and educational institution "Bilim Carvoni" (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

Komron Khidoyatzoda

Editor of diplomatic messenger "MISSION"

Yevgeniy Khon


Khursand Khurramov

Political scientist

Andrey Chebotaryov

Director оf Centre for Contemporary Research «Alternativa» (Kazakhstan)

Ajar Chekirova

PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois in Chicago

Irina Chernykh

Chief Researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Doctor of History, Professor

Sherzod Shamiev

Graduate of the OSCE Academy, researcher at the Z-Analytics (Tajikistan)

Bahrom Sharipov

PhD in Economics

Iskender Sharsheev

Economist, Executive Director of the Association of Foreign Investors (Bishkek)

Eratov Iskender

Independent expert

Chinara Esengul

Senior Advisor for the conflicts prevention, UNDP

Guly Yuldasheva

Dilmurad Yusupov

PhD student at the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, participant of School of Analytics (Tashkent)

Yuliy Yusupov

Economist, director of Center for Economic Development (Tashkent)

Ildar Yakubov

Candidate of Political Sciences (Tashkent)