On 2 January, in response to a sudden increase in gas prices, protests and blockades rose up in the oil city of Zhanaozen in the Mangistau region, western Kazakhstan. The revolt has now spread across the country, including Almaty, the largest city in the country, and Nur-Sultan, the capital. It has forced the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sack his cabinet, declare a state of emergency and rescind the rise in gas prices (for six months). Despite this, the unrest continues.
Tokayev has now branded the protesters “bandits” and “terrorists”, giving him an excuse to call in troops from the Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) alliance as a “peacekeeping” force, and has made it clear lethal force will be used to bring back order.1 Due to an internet blackout imposed by the state, it is difficult to gather exact information on the situation as it progresses. But so far dozens of protesters have been killed by the state.2
Tokayev is the hand-chosen successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Prime Minister of the Kazakh SSR and the first President of Kazakhstan, who, despite the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, has continued to rule Kazakhstan behind the scenes until now. Like other former satellites of the USSR, the now formally independent Kazakhstan has been gradually overhauling its industry from state ownership to the private sector. It remains economically and politically attached to Russia, but in accordance with its "multi-vector" foreign policy, it has remained open to investments from China, the USA and the EU. Nazarbayev has been able to secure a degree of relative social peace during the last three decades, largely financed by the country's lucrative oil, gas, coal and uranium reserves.
Since 2015 the government has been carrying out a fuel market reform, and as of the start of 2022 it has completed the transition to electronic trading for LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), removing state price caps. This was supposed to address ongoing domestic shortages of LPG (used by a majority of Kazakhs to power their cars) but instead it effectively doubled its price overnight at gas stations across the country, sparking the most serious challenge to the regime since the country’s independence.
The current wave of protests began in Zhanaozen. This is significant because it was in this city that back in December 2011 the regime sent in police to quell a series of strikes of oil workers demanding pay rises. According to official sources, at least 16 workers were killed during the suppression of these strikes, although the real tally is likely much higher. We wrote about it at the time.3 More recently, poor pay, inflation and unemployment, exacerbated by the pandemic, have led to growing labor unrest in the region, to the point where “in the first half of 2021, there were more strikes in Kazakhstan than in the entire 2018 to 2020 period.”4 No surprise then that after the current protests started, “on the night of 3 to 4 January, a wildcat strike began at the Tengiz Oil enterprises”, and has since spread to neighboring regions.5 There are videos of workers spontaneously walking out and holding mass meetings. On the international markets there are already worries how this will affect the export of oil and uranium ore. But the internet blackout makes it all the more difficult to find out what exactly is happening on the ground and how widespread these strikes really are.
What we are seeing is undoubtedly another manifestation of the global crisis of a stagnating capitalism. This crisis goes back years and involves far more than gas prices. The protests are a response to the worsening situation of the working class, all in a country where “162 persons, are worth more than $50 million, which equates to around 50% of the total wealth of the population”.6 The movement is taking on political forms and other demands are already being raised, among them “reduction of food prices, taking measures against unemployment, solution to the drinking water shortage, resignation of the government and local authorities.”7 It is hard not to see similarities with the current situation for the working class in Iran, where since June around 100,000 workers in the petrochemical industry have been on strike, in response to poor wages and conditions, the militarization of labor, an uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 which hits workers hardest, and a climate change-induced drought which has resulted in riots over water shortages. We have been covering this working-class upheaval for the second half of 2021, where the workers are demonstrating excellent leadership capacities in directing their struggle.8 The problems faced by workers in Kazakhstan are therefore not unique to their own country and are shared by workers across the world, who also share the ability and sometimes, as we see in Iran, the will, to fight back as a class.
The initial concessions by the government seem not to have worked as intended, so it has defaulted to what it knows best: brute force. In a television address to “the nation” on 7 January, Tokayev made it very clear: “Those who do not surrender will be eliminated … law enforcement and the army have been given the order by me to shoot to kill without warning.”9 Like in Belarus10 – or indeed many of the other revolts of recent years – what we are seeing here is a movement where the working class plays a key role but where it is not calling the shots. Before the movement in Belarus was drowned in repressions, we warned:
"As is usually the case, the material reasons that forced the workers into the streets are linked to the worsening economic crisis, to precarious living and working conditions. … In the absence of a communist programme that is rooted in the most conscious sectors of the proletariat (which in itself does not guarantee the class itself can overcome the disorientation which Stalinism and the post-Stalinist system have left it in) the working class is prey to the professional "consensus makers" deployed by the bourgeoisie to protect their interests. Once this is achieved, our class is faced only with open and brutal repression."11
So as always, we have to repeat: “without the revolutionary party, every revolt will exhaust itself within the system.” If the working class fails to put forward its own program and organization, other forces will surely fill the vacuum: be they liberal or nationalist. It is our job as communist militants to try to highlight examples of working class militancy as we are seeing in Kazakhstan, and to try to reach workers in Kazakhstan with a message that rejects subordinating the working class to other parties, and which calls for the working class to act independently as a class to put forward its own program. This is necessary so that in the future global struggle of our class, our class can boldly seize the moment, rather than be victim to the repression and cynical machinations of the bourgeoisie.
Solidarity to the working class of Kazakhstan and all countries!
Felix (IWG) and Dyjbas (CWO)
7 January 2022
Photo from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsNymSPAD5U
- 3Solidarity with the Kazakh Working Class!
- 82021: Iran Oil Workers' Strike
- 10Winds of Change in Belarus: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy Offer Anything for the Working Class and Strikes in Belarus Escalate as Lukashenko's Power Wavers
- 11Belarus: Between Imperialist Feuds and Class Movements