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Protests in Kazakhstan: From Tariffs to Transition of Power

There’s no official statistics regarding the number of protests in Kazakhstan. Therefore, the only source of information is publications in the media and data provided by non-governmental organisations.


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On September 19, at the OSCE human dimension implementation meeting, a representative of the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan, Azamat Sargazin, reported that the country had faced over 750 protests with over 25 thousand participants.

“Moreover, more than 86 per cent of these protests were held spontaneously, without any authorisation from local executive bodies. However, less than 3 per cent of the total number of participants was brought to administrative responsibility by court,” he said (as cited from Azattyk).  

However, the General Prosecutor’s Office does not provide open data about the exact number of protests held in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR) publishes annual reports regarding the monitoring of the rights of Kazakhstanis to peaceful assembly, yet their data cannot be deemed comprehensive.

Anti-China protests of 2010

At the end of 2009 and in 2010, Kazakhstan faced first anti-China protests. The protests followed the statement by the then President Nursultan Nazarbayev about the interest of China in the lease of millions of hectares of rural lands in border areas.

In January and February 2010, protests were held in Almaty and Aktobe, whose participants said that China’s expansion threatened Kazakhstan.

In February, nearly 500 people took part in Kokshetau against the tariff escalation. In April, Atyrau-based activist Maks Bokaev and nearly a dozen of his fellows held the protest “For clean air in Atyrau” against the construction of an aromatic hydrocarbon plant, which, in their opinion, could cause significant damage to the ecology in the region.

Also, this year the workers of the Ust-Kamenogorsk-based Pervomaisky mechanical plant held a protest. They demanded to protect their plant from the bank that threatened to sell off the plant assets towards loan repayment.

The majority of requests for protests in 2010 were political in nature. In particular, activists of the non-registered party Alga filed 159 applications against the adoption of the law “On the leader of the nation”. All of them were rejected.

Zhanaozen events

Back in 2011, the number of protests in Kazakhstan increased dramatically. Almost 100 protests were held in the first six month of the year.

This activity was mainly caused by the election period – the presidential election was held on April 3 in Kazakhstan. More than a half of protests were dedicated to political issues. Moreover, mass actions were organised by Nur Otan party in support of the then incumbent head of state.

At the same time, many protests were organised by the opposition who called for sitting out the election. Officers of the KIBHR recorded over 20 of such protests.

In addition to political demands, the protesters raised other claims. However, according to experts, many protests were held because it was more likely to have many issues solved during the election campaign. The election boycott was often used to exert some pressure on the country’s authorities.

In 2011, anti-China protests continued. Rakhat Aliev, former son-in-law of the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, added fuel to the fire when he said the government was going to lease out 1 million hectares of land to China.

In addition to Almaty, the leaders by the number of protests were western regions, Aktau and Uralsk. In the second half of the year, all political issues fell by the wayside. More social and economic demands were made.

One of the most mass protests was the protests of oil workers in the west of Kazakhstan. The workers demanded the pay rise and expressed their discontent with the low level of development of Mangistau region. The conflict turned into a political one on December 14 only, when the message demanding the removal of president was published.

On December 16, 1.5 thousand oil workers took part in the protest in Zhanaozen. The protest turned into mass disorders. According to official data, 16 people died in clashes with the police in Zhanozen and in neighbouring village of Shetpe.

On the threshold of the election campaign, police officers tried not to detain the protesters. The situation changed after the Zhanaozen events. 100 people were arrested on suspicion of disorders in Zhanaozen. In Aktau, 150 oil workers of Karazhanbas who took part in the action in support of Zhanaozen workers were detained.

The trial of a part of those detained during the Zhanaozen events was held in 2012 in Aktau. 13 people were sentenced to 3 to 7 years in prison. 21 people either received a suspended sentence or were released by pardon. Three people were found not guilty.

Shift in focus

After the disorders in Zhanaozen, the number of protests gradually declined. To some extent, it was caused by severe crackdown on mass protests and detention of participants

The topics of protests changed, too. The number of political demands declined sharply. In 2014 and 2015, according to the KIBHR’s analysis, there were no political protests. Economic and social issue came to the fore.

If in 2012-2013, economic issues were of concern in 70 per cent of protests, afterwards the ratio changed – in 2017, 78 per cent of protests were dedicated to social issues.

In 2015, primary topics were housing problems and home mortgage issues.

In 2016, due to the election to the mazhilis of parliament, political topics again appeared in the rhetoric of protesters. 15.5 per cent of protests were dedicated to political demands.

However, land reform was the main topic. 19 protests were held against it. One of the main fears of Kazakhstanis was the possibility of China’s expansion. In 2017, the protest against the marriages between Kazakhstani women and Chinese men was held in Astana in front of the dating agency. Afterwards, it emerged that Sinophobia was used as black PR.

In September 2017, another conflict with the involvement of foreigners took place – a conflict occurred among workers who built the Abu Dhabi Plaza skyscraper in Nur-Sultan. The participants were Kazakhstan specialists and their colleagues from India. The subsequent spontaneous protest ended up with the detention of eight people.

At the same year, protests against unfair court judgements were the most frequent. There were eight protests of this kind.

In 2018, political and social protests were held most often – there was equal number of such protests. Moreover, social protests were held against unfair court judgements, while political protests were held by supporters of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which is deemed extremist one in Kazakhstan and was created by fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. The agenda of the latter was the demand to release political prisoners.

Another trend was that protests were organised more by groups of activists or individuals, not by opposition parties. It was because the authorities cleaned up the political ground in the country.

Some opposition parties ceased to exist, some parties failed to be registered or were terminated by court judgement. As a result, citizens started protesting spontaneously.

The number of protests organised without clearly defined central office increased from 47 per cent in 2016 to 49 per cent in 2017, according to KIBHR. To some extent, this is due to the digitalisation, which development is one of the priorities of the national policy, and to the rise of popularity of social media. 

Transition of power

The year of 2019 can be called a critical moment for Kazakhstan. After the tragic death of five girls in fire in the residential area of Nur-Sultan, mothers of many children took out to the streets of the city demanding improvements in the social sphere.

This March, the president of the country Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned and proposed the speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev instead. The transition of power caused sharp burst of political activity.

In autumn 2019, anti-China moods became hot topics among people. The initiators were the residents of Zhanaozen, who protested against the implementation of 55 joint Kazakhstan-China projects.

Photo: CABAR.asia

In the first 10 months of 2019, Kazakhstan faced nearly 100 protests. In some cases, the authorities permitted protests themselves. Moreover, in the majority of cases, the police don’t detain the participants of unauthorised protests.

Now it is already clear that 2019 will break the record by the number of protests. Almaty and Nur-Sultan have the most active citizens. The capital of Kazakhstan was renamed in March 2019, which caused a wave of protest that took out to the streets of towns.

There is no exact data about the number of detained during protests this year. However, the protests held in June 9 to 13 demonstrate the scope of protests. In four days, police officers detained nearly four thousand people in Kazakhstan, who took part in unauthorised protests. Interior minister Yerlan Turgumbaev said about it.

On June 12, the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, said the new law would be adopted to give people an opportunity to hold protests without hindrance.

On October 14, the telegram channel “House of Cards” reported that the draft law on protests appeared on the internet

This draft law written by the members of the Public Council of Almaty is going to be reviewed by the National Council of Public Trust established by the new president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. The draft proposed by Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of KIBHR, was used as a guide.

However, lawyers criticise the draft law for blatant errors. In particular, professor of the Caspian Public University, Roman Podoprigora, said the most important thing did not change: the authorised body that receives the notice of protest. According to him, one can hardly expect that akimats would change their policy of issuing authorisations for protests.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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