Protests in Kazakhstan: 5 clues to understand what’s going on

7 January, 2022

Army troops join the crackdown on protests in Kazakhstan last Wednesday.
Army troops join the crackdown on protests in Kazakhstan last Wednesday.

The crackdown on protests in Kazakhstan has become internationalized: Russian paratroopers and Armenian, Tajik and Kyrgyz troops under CSTO mandate have entered the country to tackle demonstrators. Russian agencies speak of a joint action to confront “terrorists” and “bandits”, American ones of an attempt by Putin to “expand his influence”. Both render invisible the reality: from last Sunday to today, the Kazakh state has collapsed in the face of a mass strike that spread throughout the country, but which nevertheless is far from the level of workers’ self-organization that we have seen in Iran.

Table of Contents

What happened?

https://en.communia.blog/files/2022/01/kazajistan.mp4
Oil workers on wildcat strike, start of protests in Kazakhstan.

Neither foiled coup attempt, nor Russian invasion: repression of a mass strike.

The chronology of the protests in Kazakhstan speaks for itself. Last Sunday, January 2, mass protests broke out in Zhanaozen after the government doubled gas prices. After the first attempts at repression, workers erected barricades throughout the city.

On the night of January 3 to 4 a wildcat strike began in the oil companies in Tengiz. Soon the strike spread to neighboring regions. At present, the strike movement has two main foci: Zhanaozen and Aktau, two of the main centers of the extractive industries.

Protests in Kazakhstan. Trucks of strikers arrive in Almaty.

Trucks with oil workers arrived to Almaty on January 4 and thousands joined the protest by occupying the city center and protesting in front of the city hall.

Protests in Kazakhstan. Mass rally in front of Almaty city hall.

President Tokayev announced a state of emergency in the regions and on the morning of January 5 accepted the resignation of the government and proposed to replace the 100% price hike with a 50% hike. In the afternoon he announced that he had replaced his mentor, former dictator Nazarbayev as head of the country’s Security Council. After acknowledging that the protests had spread to more than half of the country, he announced that dozens of “rioters” had been “liquidated” and their identities were being identified.

Protests in Kazakhstan. Almaty city hall in flames after the assault by protesters.

Despite the crackdown, demonstrators continued to protest in front of Almaty city hall, overpowering police forces (see video). The building ended up in flames and rallies focused on the State Attorney General’s Office and the President’s official residence.

Also in Aktobe, the other major insurrectional hotspot, the local government building was stormed, unsuccessfully, by workers. The protests in Kazakhstan were far from exhausted.

Paratroopers of the presidential airborne unit, the president’s praetorians, “sweeping” the streets of Almaty and increasing the violence of the repression against the protests in Kazakhstan.

The crackdown continued with mass killings and arrests throughout the night. In Almaty, protesters erected barricades, and several instances of security forces being disarmed were videotaped. In the face of resistance, police in several cities across the country either disbanded or joined the protests.

To deal with the collapse to which the protests in Kazakhstan had brought the state, Tokayev launched paratroopers against the demonstrators and asked the heads of the CSTO states to send troops to overcome the “terrorist threat,” calling the demonstrators he had tried to calm down shortly before “international terrorist gangs.”

Who are the protesters?

Oil workers’ assembly last Monday in the early stages of the protests in Kazakhstan.

Neither international terrorists nor angry citizens: workers in struggle.

The protests in Kazakhstan are taking place in a broader context than the one being portrayed in the press. As we highlighted in our annual summary of struggles, one of the most significant developments of 2021 was that from Kazakhstan to the Donbass via Georgia, workers rehearsed forms of assertion as a class.

It is no coincidence that now one of the epicenters and the starting point of the protests in Kazakhstan is Zhanaozen. The wave of strikes in Zhanaozen in July was a reference throughout Central Asia. The movement, which, as we noted at the time, tended to develop into a mass strike despite trade union obstacles, has since then kept adding sectors and connecting workforces, maintaining a constant tension that has so far prevented an open brutal crackdown.

Read also: Strikes return to Zhanaozen ten years after the massacre, 7/21/2021 

But their influence has gone far beyond local. In Kazakhstan there were more strikes in the first half of 2021 than in the previous three years combined, mostly centered in Mangystau and Zhanaozen.

In November, when an accident at the Karaganda mines pushed the mood of the miners toward a new big strike like the one in 2017, the unions jumped in to slash any attempt at a response. And practically at the same time the strike broke out at the Mangystaumunaigaz gas plants in the Zhanaozen region. The Zhanaozen reference turned the frustration of the miners into the ferment of a wildcat strike (=aside from the unions) that now broke out.

It is this accumulation and confluence of struggles bypassing the unions one by one – though not all – which explains the rapid mobilization from day one, when the government launched the gas price hike for domestic consumption and transport.

https://en.communia.blog/files/2022/01/mineros.mp4
Zhezkazgan miners in front of the local government building in Karaganda on Thursday.

For instance, since the 2nd, the miners of Zhezkazgan in Karaganda, real epicenter of the wildcat strikes, have been demonstrating in front of the government building for a lowering of the retirement age, against inflation and for freedom of protest. Until the 5th, at the height of the state’s breakdown, the local political representatives did not even deign to receive the workers’ demands.

To warm themselves, the demonstrators lit a bonfire and locals brought them food and tea. The miners tell RFE/RL that the demonstration is peaceful. Police are monitoring the situation but are not arresting anyone. As of 3:00 p.m. on January 6, about 300 people are near the akimat building. According to one of the participants of the action, there were many more demonstrators last night, and new participants are joining today.

In the Karaganda region, as in other regions, the Internet does not work, there are problems with cellular communication. Most operators report that only emergency calls are possible.

What are the workers fighting for?

A striking worker in Zhanaozen rejects the “needs of profit” argument offered by the regional president (right).

Neither anti-Russian “Euromaidan” nor “fight against corruption”, the basic needs of workers are the driving force behind the protests in Kazakhstan.

The trigger that has finally driven the strikes and protests in Kazakhstan to converge was the rise in the price of gas.

The extractive operations are in the middle of the desert and all goods are imported. The rise in gas for transportation means a general rise in prices and a loss of purchasing power that was already stretched to the limit by low wages.

Gas prices, which we also produce, have skyrocketed. Everything depends on gas. If gas becomes more expensive, everything becomes more expensive.

Ordinary people already earn very little, and the situation will get worse. Let them reduce the price of gas to 50-60 tenge. Or raise our salaries to 200 thousand tenge. Otherwise, we will not survive when everything becomes more expensive.

The authorities say that there is not enough gas, that the plant built 50 years ago is worn out, outdated. And what have they done for 30 years?”

A worker, picked up by RFE

Plant managers, unionists and the local president tried to “explain” to the workers why they “needed” to raise prices (see video). The usual argument: the company would otherwise go into losses and jobs would be lost, that workers had to put up with it and hope for a better future. The workers responded that spinning “fairy tales” was not a solution to the problems, and politicians, trade unionists and managers left without persuading anyone. The workers had learned their lesson from previos struggles.

Last year these companies began to be optimized on a large scale. Jobs were cut, workers began to lose their salaries, bonuses, many companies have become simple service companies.

When in the Atirau region the Tengiz Oil company laid off 40 thousand workers at once, it became a real shock for the whole western Kazakhstan. The state did nothing to prevent these massive layoffs. And it must be understood that an oil worker feeds 5-10 members of his family. The dismissal of one worker automatically condemns the whole family to starvation.

There are no jobs here, except in the oil sector and in the sectors that serve their needs.

Ainor Kurmanov

Are the protests in Kazakhstan really a revolution?

Almaty last Tuesday

The protests in Kazakhstan have not reached a revolution, it is a mass strike which has not yet become self-organized.

What we are witnessing is not a revolution, but a mass strike which has not yet come to fruition, but which has nevertheless been enough to collapse the repressive apparatus of the Kazakh state.

Except in some companies of Zhanaozen, the struggles have converged but the assemblies and the committees elected by them have not. As a whole, the struggle is still far from the level of workers’ self-organization that we have seen in Iran.

The result is that the workers have discovered their own strength and appeared as a determining political subject at the national level… but they do not have the capacity to organize the power that has been left vacant.

This organizational weakness of the protests in Kazakhstan cannot but become a programmatic weakness. We saw it in Aktau last night. Union leaders took the lead in the protests with the acquiescence of the repressive forces and the regional government, reaffirmed the basic demands they opposed until recently, and called for maintaining order. Very symbolically, they planted a national flag – symbol of the interest confronted by the workers – as soon as they could.

Unions sow the path to defeat, as everywhere, but at the end of it there is something worse than a new cut to basic needs. Reinforced by Russian paratroopers and encouraged by the prospect of 2,500 Tajik and Kyrgyz troops promised to him immediately by the CSTO, President Tokayev has ordered the army to “shoot to kill” against the “20,000 bandits” he says are protesting in Almaty.

Why are the countries of the Russian area of influence sending troops then?

Russian paratroopers embark to suppress protests in Kazakhstan.

The ruling classes recognize and unite in the face of their enemy, while still hedging against their competitors in the face of a power vacuum.

The regional ruling classes were clear from the very beginning what lay beneath the protests in Kazakhstan. They know how to recognize the class enemy as soon as they see it on the move. Ten years ago they did not hesitate to repress strikers bloodily in Zhanaozen.

Nor do the European and Anglo-Saxon agencies and governments have any doubts. This time there is no support and messages as in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia… or every time a bourgeois faction does something that could annoy Russian imperialism.

The “sacred union” between the factions of the bourgeoisie occurs automatically every time the proletariat enters the scene. Even between imperialist rivals. Suffice it to recall Berlin in 1953 or Budapest in 1956. In this case, when in addition Chevron is one of the oil companies directly affected by the strikes in Tengiz, nothing else could be expected.

But neither do they stop competing with each other nor do they stop trying to take advantage, even if it is only symbolic or propagandistic, of what in reality is a setback for all of them. Significantly, the English-language press and its echoes in other languages, despite not taking the issue to the front pages, have tried to play up the protests in Kazakhstan as a revolt “against corruption and inequality” that could also have repercussions in Russia itself.

Putin knows full well that he need not fear intervention by his imperialist rivals, nor will he suffer further economic reprisals for launching his elite troops against the protests in Kazakhstan. But it rightly fears, like other governments in the region, the economic costs and political risks of a power vacuum.

Its primary objective is to nip in the bud any possible revolutionary evolution of the protests in Kazakhstan. But there is more. Against its imperialist rivals it wants to show Russia’s ability to “maintain order” in its direct sphere of influence. And vis-à-vis the allied governments in Central Asia and the Caucasus, to send the signal that it is capable of keeping them in power in case they face a class mobilization like the one driving the protests in Kazakhstan….

…which is true, but only half true, because the key does not depend on him, but on the development of workers’ self-organization. One step beyond where the workers have gone so far and the assurances of the ruling class would dissipate.

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