The tragic events of January 2022 once again revealed how the republics that emerged from the collapse of the USSR are still a long way from stability. Kazakhstan is not an exception, just one more example. There are, however, big differences in the way the ruling elites react to protests, ranging from attempts to consolidate power through repression to introducing some reforms, even if these can sometimes be a fig leaf masking a tight grip on power. The fact that Kazakhstan’s leadership called a referendum for June 2022 can be interpreted either way. But one thing seems clear: if the reforms fail, the country will certainly not be able to return to peace.
Protests erupted on January 2 in the oil- and gas-producing regions, which should be rich but are in fact among the poorest in the country. Initially, the demands were purely economic. The immediate reason was the increase, after the government removed price controls, in the price of petroleum, which is very important in Kazakhstan as fuel for transport. However, that was only the trigger amidst general discontent.
The protests broke out spontaneously, and then, as is almost always the case in such situations, there were several attempts to exploit them for political ends. It is still not yet clear which of the competing elites was the first to try to exploit them; Islamist groups also tried to become involved. The main group involved, however, were the so-called mambets, young people from rural backgrounds who have moved to the big cities in search of better living conditions. Muslim extremists also mostly come from this social group, and in this Kazakhstan does not differ from many other countries.