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By Donnelly McCleland

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory on Monday [10 January] in defending Kazakhstan from what he described as a foreign-backed terrorist uprising, and promised leaders of other former Soviet states that a Moscow-led alliance would protect them too. Kazakhstan’s biggest city Almaty returned to near-normal on Monday after nearly a week of unrest, by far the worst violence in the 30-year independent history of what had been the most stable former Soviet state in Central Asia. Protests coincided with authorities’ decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas. (Reuters)

A week of demonstrations, violence and political upheaval

On Sunday 2 January, protests began in the western city of Zhanaozen over a near-double increase in the price of certain low-cost vehicle fuel. Zhanaozen is the city where tens of thousands of oil workers went on strike in 2011 over low wages, and essentially occupied the city for seven months before they were brutally repressed by the armed forces. This time around, the unrest spread to other cities and quickly grew into calls for an end to corruption and government reform – the same party has governed Kazakhstan since its independence from Soviet rule in 1991. While protests turned violent in the largest city, Almaty, protests in Zhanaozen and some other towns and cities remained peaceful throughout the week.

In Almaty (the former capital and Kazakhstan’s economic and cultural hub), the situation deteriorated rapidly – a presidential palace was torched, there were reports of protesters storming municipal buildings, police vehicles set on fire, armed officers out on patrol, shots fired and even explosions. But, according to an article in the New York Times (published on 7 January and updated the following day): “There is growing evidence that the mayhem in Almaty, the epicentre of this week’s turmoil, was more than just people power run amok.” Some eyewitnesses testified that at some point on Wednesday 5 January, the police presence diminished and a large crowd, “an unruly mob” appeared and surged down the main streets towards the City Hall, setting cars alight and storming government offices.  A key figure seen and heard egging on the crowd was a well-known, powerful gangster, Arman Dzhumageldiev, known as “Arman the Wild.” Two days later, the interior ministry said that its special forces unit had arrested Mr Dzhumageldiev, together with five accomplices. The interior ministry stated that Mr Dzhumageldiev was the leader of an organised criminal gang. There has been some confusion over the number of fatalities, with a much-repeated report stating that 164 had died across the country, but later this was ‘corrected’ to 44. It does appear, however, that there were fatalities on both sides – security forces and civilians. Almost 10,000 have been arrested in connection with the violent uprising.

In surprising developments in the week, the Cabinet resigned, and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev removed his 81-year-old predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev (who stepped down as president in 2019 but retained wide powers and was given the honorary title of Elbasy, or leader of the nation) as head of the powerful Security Council. Mr Tokayev also fired Mr Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish as deputy head of the main security service and purged several others close to the former president. A Russia-led alliance of six former Soviet countries, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), sent peacekeeping forces on Thursday, following Mr Tokayev’s request for support, after declaring a state of emergency.

Background to the unrest

Kazakhstan is a geopolitically strategic nation located between Russia and China while sharing borders with three other ex-Soviet republics. It is the largest economy in Central Asia, with rich hydrocarbon and metal deposits and has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment since becoming independent in 1991. It links the large and fast-growing markets of China and South Asia with those of Russia and Europe by road, rail, and a port on the Caspian Sea. It has described itself as the buckle in China’s huge ‘Belt and Road’ trade project.

According to a Reuters article (8 January): “Kazakhstan is the top global producer of uranium and this past week’s unrest prompted an 8% jump in the price of the metal that fuels nuclear power plants. It is the world’s ninth biggest oil exporter, producing some 85.7 million tonnes in 2021, and the 10th largest producer of coal. It is also the world’s second-largest miner of bitcoin after the United States. Bitcoin’s “hashrate” – the measure of the computing power of machines plugged into its network – dropped by over 10% on Wednesday after Kazakhstan’s internet was shut off, according to crypto mining firm”

For a country with large natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, and a small population, Kazakhstan could have easily ensured an equitable society. But Mr Nazarbayev chose otherwise, with only a small elite group benefiting – about a million people out of a total population of 19 million are estimated to live below the poverty line. Many analysts and Kazakhs see last week’s turmoil as the consequence of Mr Nazarbayev’s choices playing out. One of the main slogans of the past week’s protests, “Old man out,” was a reference to Mr Nazarbayev.

During communist times, Nursultan Nazarbayev served as prime minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as chairman of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. He then ruled post-Soviet Kazakhstan as the country’s first president for three decades. His authoritarian reign left a mark on the country, but he also managed to attract Western investments in the oil and gas sector and thereby generate a certain wealth for his people (primarily a small group of loyal supporters). Mr Nazarbayev also moved the capital from Almaty in the country’s south near Kyrgyzstan to the city of Astana, which was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.

Possible reasons for the deadly uprising

There are numerous possible reasons for the recent upheavals in Kazakhstan – often regarded as a pillar of political and economic stability in an unstable region. It could very well have been a massive public uproar over decades-long inequalities (i.e., the final straw that broke the camel’s back). Or, as some have hypothesised, it could have been an elitist power struggle – Mr Nazarbayev and his supporters could just not let go of power, and Mr Tokayev and his supporters were no longer content to play second fiddle to Mr Nazarbayev. Or, as Mr Tokayev alluded to in his claim that Almaty was attacked by a group of 20,000 “bandits and terrorists”, it could have been an external plot to destabilise the nation. It may even have included elements of all of the above. The exact reasons remain elusive, and the extent of the violence and destruction shocked just about everyone, including the government and its critics.

An uncertain future

Mr Tokayev has said that the large-scale counter-terrorism operation would soon end, along with the CSTO mission that he said numbered 2,030 troops and 250 pieces of military hardware. A former Kazakh prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, told Reuters that Mr Tokayev would have to move fast to consolidate his grip after appearing to break with Mr Nazarbayev. Authors Hamid Alizadeh and Jorge Martin maintain in their article for The Marxist (7 January): “It would be incorrect to present Kazakhstan as a country dominated by Russia. The Kazakhstani regime of Nazarbayev spent 30 years playing a game of balancing between Russia, the US, China, and even Turkey, playing each power against each other in order to get the best deal for itself. In fact, it is not Russia, but the US, owing to the investments of Chevron and ExxonMobil, that ranks first among the foreign investors in Kazakhstan. Chevron itself is the largest investor in Kazakhstan.” Due to this intricate interconnectedness, numerous major nations have a vested interest in Kazakhstan and its future and will be closely watching developments over the coming weeks and months.


A majority of Kazakhs identify as non-denominational Muslims (52.3% according to the Joshua Project), while Christianity is professed by an estimated 14.81% (though some earlier reports from a 2009 census claim as many as 26%) – the majority of whom are affiliated with Russian Orthodox. While some profess that to be Kazakh is to be Muslim, there is irrefutable evidence (including recent archaeological discoveries in 2016 of Nestorian crosses on Christian burial sites dating from AD 1162) that Christianity has been in the region for centuries, however, it had not taken hold among ethnic Kazakhs since those ancient days of the Nestorian Church. But there has been growth in recent years, especially since the fall of Communism in 1991. In the decade after the collapse of the USSR’s 70-year-old Communist system, the number of ethnic Kazakh Christians grew from fewer than 10 to more than 6,000. And it has continued to grow. Typically, Kazakh evangelicals will use the phrase “follower of the Messiah” instead of Christian, which Kazakhs still link with imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.

Over 73% of the population are still considered ‘unreached’ with the gospel (Joshua Project) and Operation World categorise 32% of the population as ‘unevangelised’. According to Open Doors: “Persecution in Kazakhstan hasn’t changed much over the years. Legislation dating back to September 2011 restricts the ability to worship freely. Kazakhstan’s government has steadily increased its control over religious expression in the country, which means increased surveillance, raids on church meetings and arrests. It uses the threat of militant Islam to restrict more freedoms.” As with many other Muslim-majority nations, believers from a Muslim background generally face the heaviest persecution, from the government, their families, and communities.

A prominent Kazakh pastor said to Christianity Today (after the archaeological findings in 2016): “It proves that Christianity was present here in Kazakhstan before Islam. It is a door opening for evangelism and talking about Jesus. History tells me what my fathers believed, as we as a nation consider what we should believe. God is going to use this and open doors.”

Eric Mock of the Slavic Gospel Association (SGA) said, after the recent violence: “SGA works with several faithful local churches. We support a seminary and Bible Institute there, as well as working with missionary pastors. We help churches minister to over 2,700 orphaned children. In all of the 25 regions of Kazakhstan, we are involved in helping the churches there. Our hearts are broken that they’re going through this chaos.” He went on to say: “Pray that the love of Christians in Kazakhstan would point many to Jesus. I’ve seen the witness of these churches during the COVID-19 pandemic. They responded immediately by reaching out to many people that were distant from God. They wanted people to find their hope and contentment in Christ. And so now in these difficult days, the Lord has positioned his Church.”

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For the Kazakhstan government to act righteously on behalf of all its citizens
  • For freedom from historic spiritual bondages and a mighty move of the Lord’s Spirit through the nation
  • For the Church to be a vessel in reaching many, who are far off, with the gospel of truth and hope



Image: REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev