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Qishloq Ovozi

Tuesday 4 January 2022

Police talk with demonstrators protesting fuel prices in the western Kazakh city of Oral on January 4.

When drivers in western Kazakhstan found out on New Year's Day that the cost of filling their gas tank had doubled, they got out of their cars and started protesting.

The drastic price increase in Zhanaozen for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) -- which is used by many as a cheap alternative to gas -- sparked a movement that has brought people out to demonstrate across the country in support of the Zhanaozen protesters.

Kazakhstan’s government has already taken measures to lower the price of the propane-butane mixture in Zhanaozen, but problems over inflating prices have been building in western Kazakhstan generally -- and Zhanaozen, specifically -- for months.

Zhanaozen is an oil-worker town that has grown in recent years to some 160,000 residents as part of the energy boom in Kazakhstan.

It was in that city where at least 16 demonstrators were shot dead by police on December 16, 2011, after months of strikes and protests by employees of Kazakhstan’s oil sector.

It remains one of the worst incidents of violence in Kazakhstan’s 30-year history and Kazakh authorities have been careful in dealing with workers in western Kazakhstan ever since the killings.

Protesters who demonstrated on New Year's Day said the price of one liter of LPG in Zhanaozen was some 50 tenge for much of 2021, but started rising toward the end of the year to somewhere around 79-80 tenge (about $0.19), then jumped to 120 tenge (about $0.27) on January 1, 2022.

Abbat Urisbaev is a member of the provincial "maslikhat" (council) in Mangystau, where Zhanaozen is located.

Urisbaev said the increase is painful since “90 percent of the residents of our province use [vehicles] that use liquefied gas.”

Dozens of more people came out into the streets of Zhanaozen on the afternoon of January 2, and by evening there were reportedly several hundred blocking roads and demanding an immediate reduction in the price of LPG.

Kazakhs Protest Fuel Price Hike
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A group of the protesters posted a video message to Mangystau Governor Nurlan Nogaev and President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev calling for the price to be lowered.

People in other towns in Mangystau -- Akshukyr, Shetpe, Kyzyl Tobe, Fort Shevchenko, and Tyshchybek -- posted videos of support for the protesters.

People in the towns of Kuryk and Zhetybay also demonstrated in support of those in Zhanaozen.

In the neighboring Atyrau Province, veteran activist Maks Bokaev -- who was released from prison in 2021 after being put there for his role in the 2016 protests against land reform -- also turned out on a main square in the city of Atyrau.

Residents a protest near the mayor's office in Zhanaozenb on January 3.
Residents a protest near the mayor's office in Zhanaozenb on January 3.

On January 3, several dozen Zhanaozen protesters who spent the night outside to continue the protest were joined again by hundreds of people. Many in the Caspian coastal city of Aqtau also demonstrated in support of the Zhanaozen protesters.

And some 100 people turned out in the city of Aqtobe to show their solidarity.

Some, including Nurzhan Altaev and members of his unregistered El Tiregi (National Reliance) party, demonstrated in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

The leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Zhanbolat Mamai, led several dozen supporters to a rally in Almaty, where some 20 people were reportedly detained.

Police in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and in the southern city of Shymkent gathered near city squares to prevent rallies in support of the Zhanaozen protesters.

Problems accessing the Internet were also reported in all three cities, with Telegram, WhatsApp, and Messenger being unavailable in the evening.

'We're Tired Of Fairy Tales!'

By the evening of January 3, Prime Minister Askar Mamin’s office released a statement that said all gas stations in Mangystau Province had been ordered to lower the price of LPG from 120 tenge to 85-90 tenge per liter and a government commission had been formed to look into the socioeconomic situation in the region.

Authorities have been using such tactics for many months and it was therefore not surprising that hundreds of protesters in Aqtau continued their rally at a main city square late into the evening of January 3, even setting up a large yurt to emphasis they did not intend to leave.

Nogaev, who was appointed Mangystau governor in September 2021 after serving as energy minister for two years, went to the square and repeated to the crowd Mamin’s orders on reducing the cost of LPG.

Residents protesting gas prices in Zhanaozen confront Mangystau Governor Nurlan Nogaev (right) on January 3.
Residents protesting gas prices in Zhanaozen confront Mangystau Governor Nurlan Nogaev (right) on January 3.

But the crowd chased Nogaev from the square shouting things such as “We don’t need a governor who can’t solve problems. Get out! We’re tired of fairy tales.”

That same night, dozens of people in the northwestern city of Oral demonstrated and called for LPG prices to be reduced to 50 tenge per liter. The number grew into the hundreds, and they attempted to block the road.

By the afternoon of January 4, the number of protesters in Oral had grown to some 500 and many were questioning why a commission was formed only to resolve economic problems in Mangystau and not in other provinces.

By the early evening, authorities announced the price for LPG in Mangystau would be reduced to 50 tenge per liter.

People Detained During Kazakh Fuel Protests
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But detentions of activists and people trying to demonstrate were being reported on January 4 in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Shymkent, Taraz, and other cities, while the websites KazTAG and Orda.kz -- which had been reporting on the protests -- were blocked.

There were more labor strikes in Kazakhstan in 2021 than there had been in the three previous years combined as noted in an article in The Diplomat and on the Oxus Society’s Central Asia protest tracker.

Most of the strikes in 2021 happened in Mangystau Province and many of them took place in Zhanaozen.

It was most often oil workers or employees in associated industries who went on strike, but health-care and public-transportation workers also temporarily stopped working until their demands were met.

They always sought more pay and better working conditions and while they never received all they wanted, they usually got some concessions from management or state authorities.

Some protesters have been calling for the price of LPG to be around 50 tenge per liter, but authorities initially seemed unwilling to drop the price so low.

The Kazakh Energy Ministry has already said the price of LPG is based on the commodity exchange.

“Switching to e-commerce allows the gas price to be balanced based on supply and demand,” the ministry said in a January 2 statement.

Berdibek Kartbaev, the head of Mangystau’s Department of Energy, Housing, and Communal Services, said the “previous price of some 60 tenge [per liter] won’t return…” since the cost of producing LPG was now some 70 to 85 tenge per liter and then there were additional operational and transportation costs.

Kartbaev said the average cost of one liter of LPG in Kazakhstan is currently about 110 tenge.

Olzhas Baidildinov, a freelance adviser to Kazakhstan’s Energy Ministry was even more blunt.

In an article for inbusiness.kz, Baidildinov also referred to the average price of LPG for Kazakhstan and questioned why any exceptions should be made for people in Zhanaozen.

Baidildinov said the average monthly wage in Kazakhstan was a bit more than 250,000 tenge (about $575) and claimed the “average wage in Mangystau in the third quarter of 2021 was 346,542 ($797) tenge,” while in Zhanaozen it was 505,000 tenge ($1,160).

“In Zhanaozen they are receiving twice more than the average wage in the country, but they want to pay half as much as everyone else in Kazakhstan,” Baidildinov wrote.

Cutting Across Society

During the 2021 labor strikes in Mangystau, workers were claiming they made much less than 505,000 tenge per month, in some cases less than 100,000 tenge, and many of them are at sites where toxic chemicals are present and they wanted extra pay for the hazardous conditions at their worksites.

Mangystau is also mainly desert and almost everything, including water, needs to be brought to the towns and cities in the interior, making the prices higher due to the transportation costs.

Because the current protest is not confined to a single industry or group of industries, it is already more problematic for Kazakh authorities.

There was a heavy police presence at a protest in Aqtau on January 3.
There was a heavy police presence at a protest in Aqtau on January 3.

The demand for lower LPG prices cuts across society and not only in the western parts of Kazakhstan.

And there are already signs that the economic problems that spark unrest are turning into political protests that Kazakh authorities especially want to avoid.

An early example of this was Nogaev being chased from the square in Aqtau.

Some of the protesters in Zhanaozen were calling for the people to have the right to elect their local leaders and, in July 2021 when oil workers were on strike, a group of deputies from the pro-government Nur Otan and Ak Zhol parties came to speak with the group.

They told them, “We are deputies whom you elected,” to which the striking workers replied, “You were named to your posts; the people did not elect you.”

If the price of LPG is really somewhere around 110 or 120 tenge per liter, Kazakh authorities will be hard-pressed to lower prices and with the number of labor strikes growing there are questions about how many concessions management and the government can make and what will happen when the answer to demands is finally "no."

The chairman of the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers, Akylbek Japarov (center), and Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Du Dawen (left) open a bridge on November 11 to mark the completion of part of a highway project, just one of many infrastructure ventures in the region that receive support from Beijing.

Not long after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan gained independence in late 1991, they started reminding the world that they were located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, the crossroads of civilizations for centuries.

It was a much better idea than billing themselves as the "southern flank of the former Soviet Union." Such a moniker would have made Central Asia sound like a dead-end, and for years after independence the region was exactly that.

Central Asia had deep connections to Russia, but few other places.

So regional officials invoked the reputation of the past, reminding the world of the ancient trade routes that once passed through the region and could be renewed.

Thirty years after independence, Central Asia is again becoming a Eurasian trade hub and, along with that, the competition for influence in the region is heating up once more.

Russia

Russia has exerted the strongest foreign influence in Central Asia since the early 19th century and it has continued to do so in the years following independence.

Many people in Central Asia still speak Russian, Russian TV is still available in many places in Central Asia, and millions of labor migrants have been going to Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed to send essential remittances that not only help families back home but help sustain the economies of some Central Asian countries.

But inside Central Asia it is China that has been winning friends by spending large amounts of money the Russian government does not have to fund a range of mainly infrastructure projects in a region that irredentists still consider to be Russia’s backyard.

But Moscow has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and is seen by many, including some governments in Central Asia, as the guarantor of security in the region.

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan presented the Kremlin with an opportunity to reassure Central Asian governments of Russian military and security help and strengthen Russian influence in these countries.

In the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan, The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has stepped up its activities with member states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The CSTO conducted military exercises in Kyrgyzstan in early September, and in Tajikistan in the second half of October in which Kazakh troops also took part.

A Russian serviceman takes part in CSTO joint military drills on September 9 at a training area in Balykchi, some 200 kilometers from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek,
A Russian serviceman takes part in CSTO joint military drills on September 9 at a training area in Balykchi, some 200 kilometers from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek,

Uzbekistan used to be in the CSTO but is not currently, and though Tashkent has resisted the Kremlin’s calls for it to rejoin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev did attend the virtual CSTO summit on August 23.

In early July 2021, with the withdrawal of foreign forces in Afghanistan well under way, Uzbek and Russian forces conducted military exercises in Uzbekistan, and Russian units with Tajik troops in Tajikistan just days before the Taliban took control in Kabul in mid-August.

Russian support during these times of "security anxiety" because of the changing situation in Afghanistan might ease concerns about spillover into Central Asia in the form of its people belonging to militant groups operating in Afghanistan.

But that support will not be given for nothing. The Central Asian states have been anxious to stand on their own two feet, but now they find themselves leaning again on former colonial master Russia for security assurances.

China

China was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the Central Asian countries, establishing diplomatic ties with all five states in the first week of January 1992.

Thirty years later it would be difficult to imagine Central Asia without Chinese investment.

China has become one of the leading, if not the leading trading partner for every Central Asian country and many of the biggest projects carried out in the last 20 years, particularly infrastructure projects, would not have been possible without financial backing from Beijing.

Simply put, China has been willing to put money into Central Asia that no other party has been willing or able to.

The value of China to the Central Asian states is being seen again as the pandemic slows the global economy and China has returned to be one of the few countries able to spend money in the region.

But not as much money as a decade or more ago.

Then-Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left), Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (second from left), late Uzbek President Islam Karimov (second from right), and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao attend an opening ceremony in 2009 to launch a pipeline that runs from Turkmenistan through neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang in western China.
Then-Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left), Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (second from left), late Uzbek President Islam Karimov (second from right), and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao attend an opening ceremony in 2009 to launch a pipeline that runs from Turkmenistan through neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang in western China.

The great projects China wanted built in Central Asia are almost all completed, the only notable exceptions being Line D of the natural-gas pipeline network running from gas fields in Turkmenistan through Central Asia to China, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project.

China does not need to spend billions of dollars on projects in Central Asia any longer. Tens of millions of dollars are enough to keep Central Asia hooked on Chinese financing.

It is not much money for China, but it is for Central Asia, particularly for the poorer countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Those three countries have fallen into a debt trap with China that has seen Tajikistan, for example, pay off some of what it owes by granting mining concessions to Chinese firms.

As the Chinese money flowing into Central Asia has decreased, the attitude of the local populations has been turning against China.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fueled by concerns about Beijing’s intentions.

Maps and schoolbooks in China showing large sections of Central Asia as being part of China’s historic lands do not ease Central Asian concerns, even when Chinese officials say they are simple mistakes.

But the same mistakes have been happening for decades now.

Beijing’s brutal treatment of Muslims -- Uyghurs mainly but also ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz --- in China’s western Xinjiang region is also stirring anger and resentment in Central Asia.

Kazakh police detain a woman holding a picket outside Beijng's consulate in Almaty calling for the release of relatives in the Chinese province of Xinjiang on November 8.
Kazakh police detain a woman holding a picket outside Beijng's consulate in Almaty calling for the release of relatives in the Chinese province of Xinjiang on November 8.

On November 2, the Central Asia Barometer group released the findings of its polls in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan asking people who they thought would be the first to help their countries in a time of need.

In Kazakhstan, only 4.9 percent of respondents thought China would be the best able to help with economic and other problems.

In Uzbekistan, only 2.6 percent of the respondents thought China would come to Tashkent's aid.

Russia topped both those polls with 54.3 percent in Kazakhstan and 53.9 percent in Uzbekistan.

Turkey

Turkey has stepped up its activities with Central Asia in recent years, one recent example being the creation of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) in Istanbul on November 12.

The OTS members are Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, with Turkmenistan and Hungary as observer nations.

Turkey is a natural ally for the four Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

After those countries became independent, Ankara was possibly the most desirable partner for them, not only because of cultural and linguistic affinities they all shared but also because of Turkey’s role in international politics as a NATO member with strong ties to Europe and, more generally, the West.

Turkish President Turgut Ozal was a proponent of pan-Turkism.

The late Turkish President Turgut Ozal in the early 1990s.
The late Turkish President Turgut Ozal in the early 1990s.

Ozal toured Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in April 1993 and Turkic brotherhood was part of his message.

It was a message that resonated well, and some form of Turkic-based cooperation has existed ever since with the OTS being only the latest, albeit most significant, evolution of this cooperation.

But Ozal died shortly after returning from his Central Asian trip and Turkey was in no position to invest the amounts of money the Central Asians needed. As a consequence, Ankara’s role has remained constant, but could never compare with Russia and China’s influence in the region.

Recently, Turkey has elevated its role in global politics, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resurgent policy having the country flexing its muscles in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan.

Erdogan has stood up to Russia over Syria and even to China over Beijing’s appalling campaign against Turkic-speaking Muslims in Xinjiang.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (second from right), Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (second from left) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) speak at a meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States in Baku in 2019.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (second from right), Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (second from left) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) speak at a meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States in Baku in 2019.

With Central Asia becoming ever more dependent on China and Russia for money and security, the timing of Turkey’s rise on the global stage could not be better for the four Turkic-speaking countries in the region.

Friendship with Turkey gives those four Central Asian states another strong partner to help balance relations with Russia and China and the cultural and linguistic ties make Turkey a more attractive partner to most Central Asians.

The Islamic South

Central Asia is the northern frontier of the Islamic world, and Central Asian leaders have mixed feelings about this. Being part of the Islamic world separates the region from former colonial master Russia, and that was important for the Central Asian leaders in the early period after independence.

But the leaders themselves, who had all been members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, did not know much about Islam and it was not long before they realized the power of the religion to unite their people was as much of a danger to them -- if not more so -- than Russia moving to reclaim control of its former territory.

Not surprisingly, all the Central Asian leaders opted for secular forms of government.

But from the beginning, these leaders were confronted by a competing model of governance in Iran where a theocracy had already maintained control for 12 years.

Iran was easy to keep at arms’ length. Only Tajikistan had strong connections -- cultural and linguistic -- with Iran and Iranians are mainly Shi'a Muslims while most Central Asians are Sunni.

When the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, another model of theocratic governance appeared on Central Asia’s southern doorstep, but the Taliban were a Sunni group, although with an extremely strict interpretation of Islam.

One of the fears with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s was that they could present an alternative model of governance to the increasingly corrupt regimes riddled with nepotism and cronyism that were developing in Central Asia.

The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan means that once again there are two theocracies bordering Central Asia.

The Central Asian governments have taken an entirely different and friendlier policy toward the Taliban now than they did in the late 1990s, the last time the Taliban was in power.

But a statement from Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s office during the CSTO summit in Dushanbe on September 16, 2021, indicates that the concerns of the late 1990s are still present today.

Japarov said the “formation of a theocratic state in our region will undoubtedly negatively affect the current situation in the member countries” of the CSTO.

Japarov could easily have replaced “members of the CSTO” with “Central Asian states.”

The people of Central Asia are increasingly more religious.

Neither the Iranian nor Taliban models of Islamic rule are very appealing to the huge majority of people in Central Asia, but the idea that a country could be ruled using Shari'a law is attractive to some.

Stand Together Or Fall Separately

After 30 years of independence, Central Asia has emerged from more than 100 years of isolation.

The leaders in the region have said they do not want it to become an arena for big power competition but being at the crossroads of Eurasia, the five countries inevitably are caught up in the push and pull of various -- and sometimes conflicting -- interests, influences, and ideas.

But, as they begin their fourth decade of independence, there seems to finally be a realization among them that some form of regional solidarity is the best solution to many of their challenges.

One sign of this is the summits of Central Asian leaders that were not held for nearly 20 years but were recently renewed and have taken place three times since 2018.

Even the frequency of bilateral meetings of Central Asian leaders has increased.

This new spirit of cooperation could be the five countries’ best insurance of maintaining their sovereignty as they deal with the disparate big-country influences that surround and penetrate their region.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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