At the beginning of January, Kazakhstan was the scene of violent demonstrations and riots following the removal of restrictions on the price of gas, a major resource for the economic life of the country and the daily lives of the population. The increase in the price of gas was added to the increase in the price of food and many basic commodities, generating immense anger.
A working class under attack but very fragile
Faced with this considerable deterioration in living conditions, the working class was initially in the forefront. In many industrial, mining and gas workers’ centres, strikes broke out to demand wage increases. The social response spread like wildfire throughout the country, with massive demonstrations that immediately confronted the forces of repression, seeing a number of police agents switch sides and join the demonstrators.
The reality of working class discontent in Kazakhstan is not new: already in 2011, in Zhanaozen, a region rich in oil resources, fourteen workers were killed during the repression of a demonstration during a strike against working conditions and low wages. The movement then spread to the large city of Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, before spreading to the rest of the country.
In recent weeks, the repression has been even more ferocious. Dozens, if not hundreds, of demonstrators have been shot by the forces of order. The Kazakh government, headed by President Tokayev, has not been too fussy about calling in the Russian army to quell the ‘terrorist’ rebellion, openly announcing that he had “given the order to shoot to kill without warning”.
Workers are therefore present in this deteriorating social situation. But have they been able, in this confrontation with the authorities, to develop their struggle on a real class terrain, as an autonomous force? Is the violence in the street the expression of the struggle of the working class or that of a popular violence, of a general discontent of the population in which the working class is diluted?
Very quickly, the initial demands against inflation were diverted towards democratic demands, against corruption, against the regime in power, with anti-Tokayev riots in most of the country’s big cities. This popular revolt, in which the workers were mixed up with the petty-bourgeoisie (businesses choking with inflation, anti-Tokayev self-employed, etc.), was very easily used in a conflict between Kazakh bourgeois cliques; in other words, they were used by the clan around former president Nazarbayev.
In spite of the very real workers’ strikes, the proletariat of this country has no major experience of autonomous struggle. It is permanently subjected to a dictatorial iron fist and strong democratic, nationalist and sometimes religious illusions. It has easily allowed itself to be dragged onto a bourgeois terrain where it cannot defend its own class interests, its own demands; where it can only be drowned, used, subjected to bourgeois interests which are totally foreign to it.
Bourgeois rivalries at the heart of the chaos
In Kazakhstan, the denunciation by the authorities of international “terrorists” or “bandits” ready to commit all kinds of acts of violence during the demonstrations did not hide the internal rivalries raging within the bourgeoisie and which the proletariat is still paying for with its blood today. Former president Nazarbayev, who resigned in 2019 but still effectively kept control, particularly of its repressive forces such as the National Security Committee (NSC), clearly used and manipulated the demonstrations to react to the ambitions of the new president Tokayev, who wants to increase his influence in the country and to emancipate himself from the Nazarbayev clan that had installed him in power.
Nazarbayev mobilised his supporters within the police and the army, his ‘private army’, to undermine Tokayev's power. This is how police officers were ordered to allow chaos to develop, to the point that some of them even joined the ranks of the demonstrators in an attempt to weaken the opposing camp, which also explains the assaults on government buildings or the Almaty airport. President Tokayev's clique obviously reacted: the director of the NSC was sacked, arrested and imprisoned, and Karim Massimov, who was very close to Nazarbayev, a former prime minister and former head of the intelligence services, was arrested on suspicion of high treason. This is the clear confirmation of an internal battle within the bourgeoisie where all tricks are allowed, where the workers serve as cannon fodder for the opposing cliques.
In concrete terms, we are far from a situation where the forces of bourgeois repression are about to collapse, opening the way for the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist state! On the contrary, it is nothing more or less than the ambitions of one bourgeois clan against another! Today, even if the Tokayev clan has been able to regain control of the situation on a heap of corpses, summary executions, thousands of wounded and multiple arrests, nothing has been substantially settled, neither in Kazakhstan nor in the whole region where imperialist tensions are multiple and growing.
Kazakhstan remains an imperialist issue
In this situation of political decomposition, Tokayev had no other choice than to ask for help from outside, particularly from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a cover for Russian imperialism, which is aiming to renew its former domination and which reacted immediately by sending equipment and a contingent of 3,000 men to support the repression. The CSTO, for its part, sent only a hundred men, an expression of the mistrust of the other states towards this ‘partnership’' with Moscow. By intervening directly, and moreover at the request of Tokayev, Russian imperialism is not hiding its will to defend its influence over the areas that used to be part of the USSR, whereas since the fall of the USSR most of these zones have been, as in Kazakhstan, the object of a “strategic partnership” with the United States. They are also strongly coveted by Turkey (a member of NATO), and above all, more recently, by China.
China welcomed this repression and the restoration of Kazakh order! Beijing needs the Kazakh regime as an important link in its international investment programme in the “New Silk Road”, and therefore needs social calm, even if it means being on the same wavelength as Moscow for the moment. Beijing also needs the Kazakh regime’s support, at least implicitly, for its repressive policy towards the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
As for the European Union (EU) and the United States, supposedly “very bruised by the fact that there have been so many victims”, they each call for a “peaceful resolution” of this crisis, condemning the violence in a token and hypocritical manner. The reason why the major “democratic” powers are reacting so platonically is that Kazakhstan does not appear to be a priority target of US imperialist ambitions. Moreover, within the EU there are major divisions over the attitude to be adopted towards Russia.
In the end, rival imperialist interests are in the DNA of this rotting capitalism, the priority for all these barbaric sharks, all preparing their weapons for the next episodes of confrontation: they all have their share of responsibility for the massacres and are directly the major source of the ongoing chaos.
The working class has nothing to gain from the conflict between bourgeois gangs
If the working class in Kazakhstan has tried to express its anger, because of the weakness of its consciousness, its lack of experience, it has not been able to resist, let alone represent an obstacle to the struggles for influence and the confrontations between rival cliques within the Kazakh bourgeoisie, as well as to the rivalries between all the imperialist sharks, be they Russian, Turkish, Chinese, European or American. Despite the savage repression and bloodshed, workers’ anger has obviously not disappeared and new episodes of protest in the face of the crisis and repression are to be expected.
But in the current state of things, despite the important strike movements, these moments of direct confrontation with the forces of repression are not a springboard for the development of autonomous struggle and the defence of working class interests. On the contrary, it has everything to lose in such a quagmire where its economic demands are sterilised by the democratic, nationalist demands used by bourgeois factions who are prepared to do whatever is necessary to look after their interests. These democratic illusions are, moreover, a trap that will not go away, given that the national opposition forces with a “democratic” face are still in the process of formation and are seeking visibility and credibility for the future, as is the case in Belarus.
The Kazakh working class alone is, unfortunately, very exposed and vulnerable to this kind of ideological pressure. Even if it doesn't have the strength at the moment, the proletariat of the central countries, that has a proven experience of such nationalist and democratic mystifications, can show the way towards workers fighting on a terrain favourable to calling capitalist exploitation into question, and to rejecting slogans that have no other logic than the conservation of social order. The future of the workers’ struggles, which are again beginning to appear all over the world, depends on the vital impulse of the class struggle in the central countries.
 This 'partnership' involves Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia