Friday, January 14, 2022

Kazakhstan’s recent troubles

Before saying anything else, my prayers go out to Kazakhstan and its people. I do have something of a personal stake in this: I love both the country and the people very much, having lived for two months in a small village in the vicinity of Almaty. I utterly hate to see unrest and violence impacting people that I care about. I hope that my Kazakh and Russian acquaintance who live there are safe, sound and well. And I pray that Kazakhstan recovers quickly and returns to a more orderly and just mode of living.

There are, however, a number of angles to the recent troubles which, well, trouble and raise questions for me. I will attempt to sketch them with some analysis here.

First of all: Kazakhstan has long been under the hand of Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose policies could be summed up in the following way. Geopolitical non-alignment and strategic multipolarity. Papering over ethnic tensions between Kazakhs, Russians and others in favour of a multi-ethnic Kazakhstani identity. Neoliberal privatisation reforms making a small handful of his cronies ridiculously wealthy while leaving everyone else poorer than they were in Soviet times. And above all: do not question the Big Bread. This model worked, with its bumps, for the three decades he was in power following independence, but the inner tensions and contradictions were all too easily noticed by astute political observers: even sympathetic pro-Nazarbaev reformists like Orazaly Sabden.

So you had a society that, struggling as all post-Soviet republics did through the economic collapse and lawless years of the 90s, emerged with its outward face fairly clean. Kazakhstan began to rise in prominence and clout, with its skilful manoeuvres between Russia, China and the United States. Investment rose. Kazakh cultural traditions regained a certain pride-of-place. But the brutal neoliberal economic policies combined with the cult of the leader left – if you will pardon the simplification, dear reader – both a material and a spiritual lacuna: a massive, almost globally-unparalleled wealth gap combined with a lack of moral direction and clarity. These lacunae can be observed most poignantly in the films of Kazakhstani director Dárejan Ómirbaev: particularly Cardiogram, The Killer and The Student.

However, there were notable shifts even during Nazarbaev’s time. I already mentioned Sabden above. His book on the moral philosophy of Abai Qunanbaiuly clearly had the imprimatur of official approval. However, the final chapter of that book was a deep, incisive critique of contemporary Kazakhstani economic policy and political culture. Dr Sabden excoriated the government for allowing Kazakhstan’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a select few, as well for abdicating completely the field of spiritual and moral renewal and leaving it open to the depredations of fundamentalist Wahhâbi Islâm. Dr Sabden advocated a ressourcement of Abai Qunanbaiuly’s moral philosophy and poetic Sufî sensibility in order to revitalise the Kazakh sense of moral purpose. (Given the prominent placement of Abai’s portrait in the key scene of Ómirbaev’s The Student, I find it likely he would agree.)

The current president, Qasım-Jomart Toqaev, came into power with populist, Bernie Sanders-style promises to redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth, end bank bailouts, and make the rich pay their fair share. And indeed, he did carry through on at least one part of his economic-populist reform platform, to eliminate consumer debt for a significant swathe of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered working class. This evidently trod on the toes of some former Nazarbaev loyalists, because the reforms didn’t seem to really go anywhere after that.

But the current protests carry, at least in some degree, the flavour of dissatisfaction at precisely these failings of the Nazarbaev years, in which Toqaev himself – having been by necessity a long-standing Nazarbaev loyalist – is viewed as complicit. The demands for higher wages, price caps on liquefied petroleum gas and basic commodities, direct representation at the local level—these are responses to the crisis in material conditions. However, the lack of spiritual direction has also infected the protests. The protesters’ demand for Kazakhstan to break ties with Russia is almost certainly exogenous to Kazakhstani popular opinion and stinks of colour-revolution tactics. In addition, at least some of the protesters seem to be guided by appeals to radical Islâm, and indeed some of the street violence (like the brutal decapitations of two policemen) seemed to follow a modus operandi that Wahhâbi groups in Central Asia have tended to follow. This would seem to lend at least some credence to the government’s claim that ‘bandits and terrorists’ had infiltrated the protest movement.

So… I’m seeing some definite strands in both the protests and the response.

Among the protests, first and most prominently: there is an economic-populist dissatisfaction with living conditions and the wealth gap. Second: there is an element that has been coopted for geopolitical purposes and mobilised against the Eurasian bloc of countries. Third: there is an element that is guided by violent fundamentalist Wahhâbism. The first strand is worthy of support. The latter two are not.

And then the response by the government. Interestingly, there seems to have been a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes between Toqaev and Nazarbaev et al. Nazarbaev was stripped of his office on the Security Council, and at least one of his Otan diehards (former PM Kárim Másimov) was detained on charges of treason. The response by CSTO countries, sending in troops to restore order in support of Toqaev, seems to indicate that the new president is getting support from Russia and the other members of the security org.

The drastic and draconian nature of the state’s response to the protests is regrettable (with over 9,000 arrests so far reported), but there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Auntie Beeb reports that Toqaev has reiterated his pledges to reform the government and redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth to its neediest citizens. If Toqaev no longer sees a need to cater to Nazarbaev’s clique now that he’s out of the picture, he may in fact be able to move forward to meet some of the justified economic demands of the protesters – but it’s still very early days as yet. In the meanwhile: prayers from the bottom of my heart to God for those who have been killed, prayers for those who have been arrested, prayers for those who have lost their homes and businesses to the looting, and prayers for Kazakhstan’s orderly public life to improve.

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