We have entered unknown territory in Kazakhstan and there's a fork in the road ahead. One way leads to serious and sincere social and domestic political reform and the other way to greater authoritarian rule.
It appears hundreds of people were taken into custody on May 21 as police moved to prevent demonstrations in many of Kazakhstan's major cities. The authorities had already detained dozens of activists and opposition figures in the days leading up to the planned May 21 rallies. It has already been the most visible sign of public discontent in Kazakhstan in some two decades.
How did it come to this? How did we end up seeing images of young and old, across Central Asia's most prosperous country, being led away to vans by police?
Officials in Kazakhstan take the line publicly that this sudden wave of popular dissatisfaction is the result of the land-privatization plan announced a couple of months ago. It proved extremely unpopular and sparked protests at the end of April. Kazakh authorities would prefer to keep tensions focused on this single issue, one that they've already worked to defuse by postponing the land-privatization plan.
But there always was more at stake than just land privatization.
Kazakhstan has done well in the 21st century, mainly because of revenues from oil, the country's biggest export. Those revenues helped raise the standard of living in the country.
That has of course been eroded with the drop in the price of oil on world markets and caused Kazakhstan's national currency, the tenge, to lose almost half its value since July 2015.
Many Reasons For Discontent
Encouraged during the good economic times, many people in Kazakhstan took out dollar-based loans. Many of them were part of an emerging middle class in Kazakhstan. These people, numbering in the tens of thousands at least but by some estimates approaching 1 million, are now facing extremely difficult times making payments on those loans. Factor in the family members of these debt holders and there could be well over 1 million people affected by the current mortgage crisis.
Kazakhstan's population is some 17.67 million, according to February 2016 data from the Ministry of National Economy.
The authorities did move to head off employment problems. Wage arrears were the most common reason for protests in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s. There have not been many reports about wage arrears in Kazakhstan lately. But in an effort to prevent salaries going unpaid and at the same time avoid mass unemployment, many enterprises have moved workers from full-time to part-time employment. This has been especially true in the oil sector but for all those affected the result is smaller paychecks.
There are also the "Oralmans," ethnic Kazakhs who were invited to come back to Kazakhstan in the wake of 1991 independence in order to boost the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the country. As of February 2016, there were 957,772 Oralmans in Kazakhstan.
Part of the deal was that the Oralmans were supposed to receive land. Most have but not all and there have been reports over the years, particularly in Almaty Province, of Oralmans being evicted from land they had settled and built homes on, without any official documentation.
The Oralmans have also been moved around as Kazakhstan's government tries to balance the ethnic composition of the country's regions. Many Oralmans settled in southern Kazakhstan in areas near the border with Uzbekistan, where they boosted the ratio of ethnic Kazakhs to ethnic Uzbeks.
Since the events in eastern Ukraine involving Russia-backed separatists started, Kazakh authorities have been attempting to move Oralmans from the south to the far northern areas of Kazakhstan, along the Russian border, to boost the ethnic ratio of Kazakhs to Russians. The climate along the border with Russian Siberia is a big change from the moderate temperatures of southern Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan's western provinces are where the oil comes from, where most of Kazakhstan's money comes from. But the area is neglected, while most of the money generated from the region's hydrocarbon riches is spent in eastern Kazakhstan, in Almaty or Astana, or places outside Kazakhstan. Western Kazakhstan is sparsely inhabited and so has little representation in the government.
Media in Kazakhstan regularly report on the opposition figures, independent journalists, bloggers, and civil activists who are taken into custody and put on trial. Even if people do not agree with what these perceived government opponents are espousing, they can still see the process and the government's attempts to silence these people. No one knows the injustices of Kazakhstan's system better than the people living there.
Media also report on the members of Nazarbaev's family and the president's close friends regularly making their way onto lists of the world's richest people. When you're getting poorer this becomes a much bigger issue.
It has become easier to question government policies recently as well.
Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakh officials, particularly President Nursultan Nazarbaev, have said and continue to say the EEU is a guarantee for Kazakhstan's economic future. But trade with other EEU member countries has dropped by about one-third since the organization was created in 2015. Kazakhstan's trade with Russia and Belarus was already falling when those three formed the EEU predecessor organization, the CIS Customs Union.
Media in Kazakhstan report on this falling trade, and government officials repeating the EEU is vital for the country's future.
EXPO-2017 in Astana is supposed to be a showcase for Kazakhstan but multimillion-dollar corruption scandals have plagued the project in recent months. As a consequence, money that was originally saved to ease the sort of hard economic times Kazakhstan is now experiencing has been siphoned off to pay for EXPO.
There is also President Nazarbaev's admission in August 2015 that the National Bank had "burned" through some $28 billion to defend the tenge rate in 2014 and 2015. Nazarbaev's comments preceded the decline in the tenge rate, which, despite the government spending such a huge sum of money, fell precipitously.
No One Else To Blame
Those are just some of the elements likely playing a role in the current situation in Kazakhstan. There is one more thing worth mentioning. Inevitably there are comparisons of Kazakhstan's situation to similar situations in other countries, notably Russia and the neighboring Central Asian states. There is at least one large difference.
Russia blames "the West" for many of its current problems and many people in Russia are willing to accept this. They've heard it before and many continue to readily believe it.
Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan would blame banned Islamic groups for causing trouble and the authorities would find members of some group, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, or individual local Islamic leaders known for eschewing state-sponsored Islam and blame them, which in turn would be cause for harsh crackdowns.
Despite the attempts of some Kazakh media to cast blame on "outside forces," there really are not any outside forces interested in seeing instability in Kazakhstan. That is unless one is willing to believe Russia could stage a scenario like eastern Ukraine in Kazakhstan. That certainly would not be a theory Kazakhstan's state media would report.
So Kazakhstan's problems were created in Kazakhstan and most people there seem to appreciate this.
That said, it is extremely unlikely Kazakhstan is on the edge of a revolution. Giant neighbors Russia and China have a huge interest in ensuring Kazakhstan's government is not ousted.
All the same, is also seems unlikely that the Kazakhstan that has existed with little change for the last approximately 15 years can survive this upheaval. Something has to change for the government to maintain control.