As the protests in western Kazakhstan continue, and as the Russian protesters plan for the planned December 24 march, there is growing talk on the Internets about revolution. My friend Steve LeVine, for instance, doesn’t mince a single word:
At the 20-year mark of the Soviet Union’s collapse, protests have broken out now in two of its oil-soaked constituent states — Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. In the latter, at least 15 oil workers and others died over the weekend. There is debate whether we are witnessing a spread of the Arab Spring, but I do not know why — clearly we are.
The key matter is context — Russians and Kazakhs are in the street of their own accord, but against the backdrop of wholly unpredicted upheaval in some of the world’s most compleat police states. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov probably exaggerates when he tells London’s Sunday Telegraph that he could beat Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a second-round of presidential voting next year, but his general point is accurate: No longer can it be said with certainty that Putin can defeat any opponent in a fair fight. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, others including the Russians have absorbed courage and inspiration from the Arab Street.
Those are pure politics. Kazakhstan is a different story — there we see the Arab Spring not most interestingly in the people in the street, but in the government’s reaction to them. The image is of a Kazakh officialdom palpably terrified of the post-Muhammad Al Bouazizi world, in which no petrocrat seems safe (pictured above, a Tunisian memorial raised to Bouazizi’s legacy two days ago).
I think Steve is right to be talking about the basic social contract in both countries shifting (and he is absolutely right to group them together; Kazakhstan has much more in common with Russian than the rest of the countries of Central Asia). But do events in either country constitute “revolution?” Is the Arab Spring moving east in the winter?
I don’t see it. Both Putin and Nazarbayev are facing a situation where the order they want to impose on their population is not in line with the amount of legitimacy they have, or with the violence they’re willing to inflict. It’s clear Nazarbayev is aware of the Arab Spring and is trying to avoid being caught by a rapidly snowballing protest movement; it is not clear, however, that there is actually a Spring-like movement in Kazakhstan. The oil workers, despite their large numbers, just haven’t been drawing the kind of broad, feet-on-the-street sympathy they’d need to to replicate the same mass movement we saw in, say, Tunisia. While there have been small protests in Almaty and Astana (a whole 12 people in Astana), they pale in comparison to previous protests over Chinese farmland leases, or even the housing crisis from a few years back. Unless there is some secret stash of Kazakhs waiting to protest who haven’t, but are open about wanting to protest at the right sign, I don’t see how you can say that there is an Arab Spring afoot.
The same applies to Russia. While the protests there have been massive, they’ve also been mostly confined to rich young people in the biggest cities; perhaps in that sense calling it a “‘Mink’ Revolution,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Gregory White does, is more descriptive than it’s meant to be. In Russia, you can see people angrily reacting against a social contract they feel Putin has failed to live up to, just as you can in Kazakhstan where oil workers feel the government has failed them. But as neat as it is to see them use the Internets to talk to each other, these movements haven’t coalesced into either the regime shattering apoplexy of the Libyan movement or even the grinding mass movement of Yemen. There’s just not a parallel to draw on. While the regimes of Russia and Kazakhstan certainly lack the broad social legitimacy they seemed to have a few years ago, their social contract hasn’t come close to breaking down.
As an example, Jund al-Khalifah, the nascent Kazakh Islamist movement that has planted a few bombs and released a few scary Internet videos, is trying to capitalize on the killings in Zhanaozen to mostly crickets. Much like the Arab Spring (hah!), the Islamists are not playing a role here, which is nice. But there’s no real sense that anything beyond anger — not action, but anger — is motivating the protests. Apart from calling for a normal election pledge in Russia (defeat Putin in the election), there are no social parallels to the Spring marches.
Frankly, you see stronger language from Republicans in the American Presidential primary race than you do in the streets of Moscow. While Steve is right to note that killing citizens is not a recipe for stability, it also doesn’t mean much in the long run; no one really thought the U.S. government was about to collapse when it murdered protesting students at Kent State University in 1970. Similarly, the Zheltoksan Riots twenty years ago were broken up with substantially more violence than Nazarbayev has used in Zhanaozen, but still Kazakhstan was the last state to leave the USSR.
At the end of the day — that is, Monday, December 19 — we just don’t know enough about what’s happening in the rest of Kazakhstan, and we most certainly have the whole story of what happened in Zhanaozen, to have a good idea of what’s coming next. It seems like a major event, but I don’t think it’s a catastrophic one. The protests in Russia seem like a major event, but if Putin loses a presidential election next year that’s not exactly a revolution per se, so much as the development of a normal democratic politics. There is no real chance of a similar thing happening in Kazakhstan, but also not the same public anger you see in Russia.
So let’s tamp down the revolution spring talk a bit, yes? It’s a pleasing short hand, but it’s also not a very accurate description of what we know to be happening and what we don’t know to be happening.
Image: Riot police detain an opposition supporter after he attempted to march to an office of the ruling Nur Otan party in Almaty, protesting against the government’s actions during the recent Zhanaozen clashes December 17, 2011.