Riot police stand guard during a May 21 protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, against an unpopular land reform program. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

When the government of Kazakhstan announced land reforms in April, the public protests were the largest the Central Asian republic had seen in three decades. Police arrested hundreds of people, including bystanders and journalists.

But Kazakh authorities did not use violence to suppress the demonstrations.

This restraint is in sharp contrast to how other authoritarian countries respond to protests — and quite the opposite of what happened in Kazakhstan’s remote western city of Zhanaozen when a labor strike erupted in December 2011. In that incident, police shot and killed 15 people and injured dozens more when disgruntled workers demanded to be reinstated in their jobs in the local oil field. Opposition sources insist that the number of victims was actually much higher.

Here’s why violent oppression backfires

After the crackdown in Zhanaozen, the Kazakh government realized how lethal violence can energize an otherwise invisible opposition and create even greater levels of public disapproval. Low levels of state violence may be an accepted part of daily life in many post-Soviet countries. When this pattern is interrupted with tougher-than-usual means, there is a far stronger reaction from the wider population, in addition to those who sympathize with the dissenting group.

I call this interruption of typical repression patterns “transformative violence” — that watershed moment when the state crosses the line and deploys an unacceptable level of violence. Such transformative violence must be perceived as unjust, be “observable” and involve brutal physical violence. These types of extraordinary events are significant because the accompanying repression becomes an independent variable that shifts the relationship between the state and opposition forces.

What prompts mass mobilizations?

Political science research shows that a violent state crackdown can backfire. Such events can mobilize broader groups of the population to support victims of violence and to condemn government repression. For activists, the cost of mobilization decreases as more people become aware of the government’s repressive policies. A “parallel media structure” can emerge to broadcast the details of repression even more widely. Events of transformative violence generate more media coverage and greater public discontent when policing patterns are supplanted by far more extreme crackdowns on the public.

In the aftermath of Zhanaozen, the Kazakh government had to both portray itself as a strong, inclusive state — while clamping down on the online messages the opposition sought to disseminate — and alienate the insurgents for their destructive and anti-government behavior. In other words, unlike democracies that seek to win the hearts and minds of the insurgent population, authoritarian leaders are looking to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the population.

As an example, the government used an intentionally ambiguous category of “we” blog messages to convey the sense of tragedy among all Kazakhs after the worker demonstrations, but also as a way to exclude insurgent communities. The government could not merely suppress its critics because of mounting domestic and international criticism of police brutality.

When protests escalate

In my research on policing in post-Soviet states, I show that governments view protests in capital cities and large urban areas as particularly dangerous. In remote Zhanaozen, there were few bystanders to record the police atrocities. But urban areas teem with citizens carrying smartphones; bystanders are able to document and report police brutality quickly. Already, the current protests have produced memorable images, including a young woman in a bright pink shirt singing Kazakhstan’s national anthem and police hauling off an elderly woman while rounding up more-active protesters in the crowd.

In post-Soviet states, the rule of law has a firmer hold in urban areas, particularly capital cities, and society is better organized in general. This means protests can quickly morph into a struggle between the ruled and the rulers. Urban demonstrations can escalate from public protests over a single, narrow issue and perhaps evolve into an anti-government mobilization aimed at ending the political rule of a corrupt dictator. For instance, neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Ukraine in 2013 saw spontaneous demonstrations in their capitals against corrupt incumbents. These events swelled into broad anti-government riots after the state violently suppressed the protesters.

The Kazakh government clearly is wary of protests spreading to other areas and expanding in scope to include the population’s many economic grievances. President Nursultan Nazarbayev likened such unsettling protests to the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario, hinting at the threat of a divided country. The Interior Ministry inexplicably denied that any protests are even taking place, despite numerous reports online.

So looking through the prism of transformative violence helps show why the Kazakh state has to hold back on using physical violence against those waging public demonstrations. Kazakh authorities must navigate between acceptable levels of violence and the potential for a destabilizing popular backlash. The perspective also highlights how use of violence in authoritarian countries is a calculated process intended to respond to groups that regime holders previously regarded as relatively benign. In that way, both the victims of police violence and their sympathizers from the broader population shape how the state deploys coercion against the broader population.

Erica Marat is an assistant professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. Follow her on Twitter @Ericamarat.