The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kazakhstan’s protesters weren’t happy about government corruption. Will anything change?

Here’s what my research found

People walk past cars burned during clashes between protesters and government forces on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 7. (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

After mass unrest that kicked off the new year, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attacked his predecessor’s legacy and called for major structural reforms to improve government effectiveness. He blamed the “low level of trust” in government on a lack of meritocracy and high levels of corruption.

In light of the very public elite infighting that’s now taking place, how does corruption figure into what happened in Kazakhstan? My research suggests Kazakhstan’s leaders have tried and failed to maintain a “corruption equilibrium” — maintaining perks for top elites, such as governors, while cracking down on corruption at lower levels.

The Kazakhstan protests escalated quickly. Here’s why.

The population has heard all about corruption

Public statements about anti-corruption reforms are not new, but echo a recent shift. My analysis of major presidential addresses from 1997 to 2019 shows that since 2017, Kazakhstan’s leaders have added an emphasis on corruption and government accountability alongside long-standing issues such as economic development.

In November, Tokayev spoke of the need to “beat” officials who engage in corrupt behavior — especially in regional and local administrations. His predecessor, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, issued similar statements, particularly during his last years in office. Anti-corruption efforts have been a key component of major policy frameworks such as Kazakhstan’s “Strategy 2050.”

Alongside official messages that stress improving the rule of law and reducing corruption, the government has passed new legislation on anti-corruption and the civil service. It has introduced innovations such as “one-stop shops” to reduce opportunities for petty bribery by centralizing applications for permits and licenses.

All of these efforts sought to bolster the regime’s popularity by developing “rule of law legitimacy” without liberalizing politically. In fact, instead of liberalization, the opposite occurred. New laws cracked down on independent labor unions, repressed the media and online expression and continued restrictions on legal protests. These measures drastically narrowed the legally available space for citizens to voice their frustration.

Expectations are rising

The government’s added focus on corruption and government accountability was probably a direct response to growing grass-roots hostility toward the regime. Surveys show­­ continued confidence in the government and, to many outside the country, Kazakhstan appeared more stable than many of its neighbors. But my ethnographic research in the country’s three largest cities (Astana/Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shymkent) from 2009 to 2019 and the 104 interviews I conducted in 2015 to 2016 and in 2019 reveal growing discontent with pervasive corruption, government officials’ impunity and socioeconomic inequality.

In 2009, people predominantly lauded “Papa” Nazarbayev, I found. By 2019, interviews and unsolicited comments alike were far more likely to denigrate Kazakhstan’s first president, who stepped down in 2019 after nearly 30 years in power. As one taxi driver in the capital grumbled, Nazarbayev and high-level government elites were nothing more than “thieves.” In an Almaty cafe, another person dryly noted that, “The only thing that works in Kazakhstan is corruption!” Over the last four years, Kazakhstan witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of protests, the majority of which focused on socioeconomic conditions and political issues.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

The government tackled some forms of corruption

While anti-corruption efforts were billed as sweeping, I found evidence in official audits and during court hearings that the regime actively ignored certain types of corrupt behavior — like illegal land seizures — that were a major source of wealth for regional and local heads of government. Indeed, in one case, the anti-corruption agency ruled that a local administrative head had engaged in wide-scale corruption with respect to land sales and registration, but he did not receive any apparent punishment. Thus, while the regime appeared to be focusing on anti-corruption, consequences for corrupt behavior were selectively applied.

However, as the speed with which this year’s protests spread demonstrates, efforts by Kazakhstan’s leaders to protect perks for top elites while cracking down on lower-level corruption failed dramatically. My interviews suggest that this was in part because the main thrust of anti-corruption efforts was misplaced. In a series of confidential, street-level interviews on corruption with citizens in Almaty in 2019, I found that people viewed corruption as a major problem — but rather than attributing it to wayward regional or local officials, they placed blame squarely at the top. In a typical response, one person pointed their finger at the president directly, stating, “All [corruption], it seems to me, comes from the president, the government.” Another pointedly noted that, “It’s not that corruption is widespread in Kazakhstan…[rather] the country itself is built on corruption.”

Corruption isn’t part of the system, it is the system

In this respect Kazakhstan is not alone among personalist dictatorships, where political power remains concentrated in the hands of just one person. In these “strongman” regimes, opportunities for wealth and power generally stem from informal connections — such as family, ethnicity or clan — coupled with personal loyalty. This creates a system in which both political and economic power are heavily contingent upon individual ties to top-level elites.

In Kazakhstan, for the past three decades this has primarily meant ties to Nazarbayev. Investigative reporting has uncovered extensive luxury real estate owned by Nazarbayev’s family members, while the very richest families — 0.001 percent of the population, and just 162 people — hold around half of the country’s total wealth.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Because this system of governance depends on favoritism, it precludes equal treatment before the law. Thus, although the regime used rule of law rhetoric and sought to reduce low-level corruption, to truly tackle the kind of corruption and unequal opportunities for wealth generation that lay at the root of popular frustration, presidents Nazarbayev and Tokayev would have had to unravel the very ties that bound the regime together.

This disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and selective approach probably fed growing frustration among increasing numbers of citizens, especially as inflation made income inequality loom even larger. Then a sudden increase in fuel prices ignited those larger grievances.

Will the 2022 uprising change Tokayev’s calculus about more substantive change? In public addresses in recent days, Tokayev acknowledged the need for socioeconomic and government reforms. However, a more likely scenario is that he uses the crisis to consolidate his own power and downgrade Nazarbayev’s influence — while, like his predecessor, failing to tackle the deeper-seated issues of high-level corruption that spawned popular discontent.

Margaret Hanson is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. Her current book project, “Managing the Predatory State,” examines corruption and governance under personalist rule.

Read more:

Kazakhstan’s leaders promised middle-class comfort. Then they raised prices.

Kazakhstan called for assistance. Why did Russia dispatch troops so quickly?

Kazakhstan’s police are cracking down on protesters — as political activism keeps rising.