February 2022

Could the Kazakh Events Happen in the West? Lessons I learned in Almaty

This narrative reflects the author’s recent experience of witnessing the bloody January 2022 upheaval in Kazakhstan. Drawing on personal observations, interviews with locals in Almaty and state media sources, it problematizes ongoing speculations over the dynamics of the unrest and power struggles within the government. Furthermore, it highlights it being another case of cutting off a whole country, including the megapolis Almaty, from the internet in the wake of a counterinsurgency operation. Given strong social grievances and centrifugal processes, the Kazakh example could be followed by Western democracies.

Could the kazakh events happen in the west? Lessons I learned in Almaty


This narrative reflects the author’s recent experience of witnessing the bloody January 2022 upheaval in Kazakhstan. Drawing on personal observations, interviews with locals in Almaty and state media sources, it problematizes ongoing speculations over the dynamics of the unrest and power struggles within the government. Furthermore, it highlights it being another case of cutting off a whole country, including the megapolis Almaty, from the internet in the wake of a counterinsurgency operation. Given strong social grievances and centrifugal processes, the Kazakh example could be followed by Western democracies.

Keywords: Kazakhstan; terrorism; authoritarianism; Authoritarian Conflict Management (ACM); Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); internet regulation; big tech; right-wing populism; insurgency; counterinsurgency; protests; social media; Nursultan Nazarbayev; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev


In this essay, I reflect on my recent experience of witnessing the bloody January upheaval in Kazakhstan. I arrived early in the morning of January 5 at Almaty airport. Twelve hours later, sitting in my apartment not far from Republic Square and the President’s residence, I read the news of the storming of the airport. I saw the gates to the President’s residence burning and spoke to people in the streets. To my knowledge, this has been the first ‘anti-terrorist’ operation in which a megapolis (Almaty, 1.7 million inhabitants) was cut off from the internet for about five days, having only patchy access to a small number of state-controlled media. (Attempts to shut down the internet by authoritarian governments, however, have been seen before, for example, during the 2011 revolution in Egypt, which included Cairo, a city of 9.5 million citizens.) Furthermore, it was the first peacekeeping mission of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in which a member state received ‘peacekeepers’ to secure critical infrastructure and re-establish public order. After the mobilization of joint military drills after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last summer, this has been the second key event bringing life to the CSTO as the main security provider in Central Asia and the post-Soviet space.

In the first part of this narrative, I analyze the dynamics of the protests and anti-terrorist operation by problematizing contemporary speculations about internal power struggles within the Kazakh state. In the second part, I elaborate on my conclusion that state control over the internet will increase in all parts of the world, and that similar events are not unlikely to happen in Western democracies. 

Part I: What Happened in Kazakhstan in January 2022? 

When the first exchange students panicked – for very good reason, since shootings took place within sight from their windows – one of their university coordinators, an authority among Central Asia area experts, irritated them by maintaining that it “won’t be a big thing” and “can’t go on for long”. This disbelief – that a ‘big thing’ like a revolution or a coup d’état could happen right now in Kazakhstan – was probably shared by most area experts, although some Twitter analysts quickly started to claim the opposite when the train of events started gaining traction. 

Just one year before, in 2021, Kazakhstan had celebrated its 30 years’ anniversary of independence, with one of the main campaign slogans being “The country of peace and stability”. During my stay as a student at a local university, I had talked to local people, among them political scientists in Almaty. None of them expected anything to change in the near future; they described the population as being rather passive and partly paralyzed by self-censorship. Almaty-based scholar Nurseit Niyazbekov pointed out the structural incentives for the “authoritarian stakeholders”, which keep the political system in place: 

“Before the resignation [of then-President Nazarbayev, T.O.] was announced, “who is going to be next?” was an obvious question bothering Western promoters of democracy, investors and the local elites and clans. While some hoped for democratic change, others hope things will remain as they are. The proponents of democratic change are too weak and unconsolidated, too afraid and too poor to expect their dreams to materialise. Opposition parties either do not exist or face constant intimidation – civil society is fragmented. Amongst those who want things to stay the same, there is a vested interest in clinging to the status quo. Western investors and key national political and economic elites alike – the authoritarian stakeholders – want to ensure their interests and assets are secure. The question of who Kazakhstan’s next president will be does not bother the general masses as much as it does the powerful elites. Trust and reverence for Nazarbayev, state propaganda extolling peace and stability, and fear of the unknown have meant no-one has a chance of stealing away the people’s support of Nazarbayev and his policies.” (Niyazbekov, 2019)

The weakness of civil society movements is still seen as a dominant feature (Anceschi, 2022). However, those Central Asia specialists have not been blind to people’s attitudes. Anti-elite sentiments and protests against the government for allegedly selling out the country to China were well-monitored, as were frictions caused by the government’s Latinization and national language campaign that has had a detrimental impact on the country’s Russian minority.   

Whilst acknowledging the lack of popular support for political movements in Kazakhstan, Marlène Laruelle (2020) indeed wrote about the potential for an Arab Spring-style revolution here, given the country’s young demography and pronounced social inequalities. Both Niyazbekov (2019) and Nargis Kassenova (2019) foresaw a power “duopoly” between the Nazarbayev clan and the new President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Like Laruelle, Kassenova noted growing grievances over social cleavages and the lack of effective government responses capable of alleviating these tensions. Furthermore, she also highlighted that if the new President did not succeed in consolidating his authority the state’s power architecture could start disintegrating, leaving no effective control levers over ensuing conflicts. “In this context, recent and ongoing protests could be precursors of more serious upheavals later” (Kassenova, 2019). 

Nevertheless, all these statements did not forecast the chain of events that took place in  January of this year, encompassing the vast country and ending up with governmental buildings on fire and Russian boots on the ground. Strikingly, in times characterized by an acute lack of information, expert analyses seemed to focus quickly on the least observable processes: the dynamics within state institutions. Putting together the scattered pieces of information released by Kazakh state media, they picked up on theories concerning internal power struggles between President Tokayev and the Nazarbayev family and their allies. Two early events gave good reason for that: first, Tokayev taking Nazarbayev’s seat as head of the Security Council, and second, Tokayev firing a Nazarbayev ally, Karim Massimov, as head of the KNB (National Security Committee, successor of the Soviet KGB) and charging him with high treason. Massimov’s arrest took place on the evening of January 5, soon after the soldiers protecting the airport in Almaty were removed – allegedly just 40 minutes before several hundred rioters stormed the airport. That night, the security services lost all control over the city of Almaty and rioters managed to set on fire the Akimat (the city administration), the President’s residence, as well as other key public buildings. By then, looters had already started breaking into shops, as protests and clashes with security services turned violent during the night of January 4 to January 5. 

Why do we need to be careful with conspiracy theories regarding power struggles 

At the time of writing, a series of decisions by the Tokayev government indicate an ongoing effort to dismantle, or at least restructure, Kazakhstan’s state power architecture and to oust Nazarbayev clan members from high positions in government and business. However, I would like to emphasize the speculative nature of most theories concerning such internal power struggles, because they lack insider knowledge and are based mostly on state media releases. Thus, I will test here their logical coherence and explore alternative explanations. 

Yes, a restructuring of power in favor of President Tokayev and to the detriment of the Narzabayev family is indeed evident at this time. Nevertheless, elementary questions of why, when, who, and how, remain unanswered because of a lack of supporting evidence. For example, one of the boldest theories circulating for some time claimed that Nazarbayev died and that immediate infighting ensued whilst the protests turned violent. Some commentators even speculated that certain groups – mainly Nazarbayev clan members in Almaty – took advantage of the chaos and steered the protests to shore up their coup d’état. Other theories maintain that criminals were released from state prisons and sent with other provocateurs to discredit ongoing peaceful protests. The arrest of KNB-chief Massimov for treason is seen as evidence for such a coup and fits well into Tokayev’s narrative of a centrally organized attack on the state. 

Yet, it is without a doubt that authentic protests, which started in early January 2022 in the country’s western provinces, were caused by public grievances over the rise of fuel prices, especially liquefied petroleum gas for vehicles and not by an elite conspiracy. This complaint was reiterated by my interviewees in Almaty in the following days; they added to their list of complaints the rise of prices for daily products such as bread, as well as their anger over the corrupt elites. These initially peaceful protests spread across the whole country and turned violent late in the evening of January 4. Thus, the bold theory of Nazarbayev’s death seemed improbable from the beginning, as it would have meant the unlikely coincidence of his death with unanticipated country-wide mass protests.

Did Nazarbayev voluntarily give up his seat as Head of the National Security Council – or was he forcibly ousted? 

What is undeniable, however, is Tokayev’s sudden power takeover with Nazarbayev’s departure from the National Security Council. Yet how and by whom this decision was made is unclear. Tokayev himself merely announced that he had taken over the Security Council’s chairmanship (President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2022a; 2022b), propping speculations he had ‘fired’ Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev’s spokesperson, however, later stated that the former President had made this decision himself to support Tokayev and that Nazarbayev was now in Astana – and had not traveled to Geneva, as speculated on social media (Tengrinews.kz, 2022; TASS, 2022). 

There is a good reason why this narrative of Nazarbayev giving up his Security Council seat ‘voluntarily’ might be given credence to: it was in the interest of Nazarbayev and of his powerful family to get out of the line of fire as soon as possible. Addressing him directly, the protestors shouted “Shal ket!”, Kazakh for “Old man, leave!”. It, therefore, became obvious that the popular immunity of Elbasy (“Leader of the Nation”) and his affiliates crumbled heavily. Giving up his seat on the National Security Council and handing over the delicate responsibility of dealing with the ongoing upheaval seemed a plausible option for Nazarbayev. Under these circumstances, any public appearance by Nazarbayev or personal authorization of security forces to quell the protests would only have fueled public rage against him. 

The structural problem: Tokayev and the stakeholders of authoritarianism

Regarding Tokayev’s motivation, we should not merely follow the theory that he consolidates his power against Nazarbayev, but also with Nazarbayev. It should not be forgotten that Tokayev himself has been viewed as loyal to Nazarbayev and being his hand-picked successor in 2019. In 2021, Nazarbayev also handed over the chairmanship of the Assembly of the People to Tokayev. Thus, Tokayev’s coming to power and wealth is neatly connected to Nazarbayev’s rule over the past 30 years. 

The argument here is not that personal loyalty drives Tokayev’s actions but that structural factors do. On one hand, he needs to please public opinion and pacify social unrest to save the state from collapsing. In this situation, Tokayev and Nazarbayev have a joint interest in removing the name Nazarbayev from operative tasks and shielding it from public anger. Handing over the last ingredients of power to Tokayev thus might just have come earlier than planned. On the other hand, Tokayev cannot lustrate the whole government. First of all, a sweeping campaign against corruption and Nazarbayev would soon raise the question, to whom he actually owes his presidency and how wealthy he is himself. A first investigative report on his son’s lucrative connections already surfaced amid the unrest (Radio Azattyq, 2022). Secondly, Tokayev probably still needs to co-opt these elites to keep the state and business running. 

In this light, his January 11 speech to the Kazakh Parliament was not as much a blow against Nazarbayev as some read into it. He said: “Thanks to the First President – Elbasy [“Leader of the Nation”, T.O.] – emerged a group of very profitable companies and a class of wealthy people on an international level. I think the time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systemic and regulatory level” (President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2022e). Instead of an all-out attack on Nazarbayev, one can read into this subtle and careful wording the balancing act Tokayev pursues between public opinion and regime stability. 

Following this structuralist approach, we should be cautious with the idea that the escalations from January 4 onwards are to be explained by a coup within state institutions. Of course, discontent and rivalries breaking out are probable in a foundational crisis. It may well be that, for example, KNB-head Massimov acted out of line or even against Tokayev, causing his dismissal and arrest. But questions remain: Was Massimov personally responsible for the removal of soldiers from Almaty airport? Were the forces removed because the security apparatus was overwhelmed by the developing situation? Did Massimov act against the president – or did he serve as a scapegoat?  

The ‘boring’ scenario: the regime was simply overwhelmed by the dynamic of events

The timing of events and the interdependency of elite networks, who sit in the same shaky boat, also question any other speculations of serious attempts to overthrow Tokayev. As Niyazbekov analyzed in 2019, the “authoritarian stakeholders” are interested in maintaining the status quo. And as we established above, the event of mass protests mobilizing across the country came as a surprise and escalated abruptly. If there had been actual plans in place for such an event, the respective group needed to be backed by security services (e.g. Massimov) and act swiftly by taking control of the capital, where the government resides, not Almaty. Instead, it appeared that the security forces lost control over Almaty on January 5, leaving the streets to rioters and looters (whom locals suspected to be unfortunate young Kazakhs coming from the suburbs). Kazakh interviewees close to state agencies previously told me that the Kazakh forces are rather weak and unfit for serious combat compared, for example, to those of the less wealthy Uzbekistan.  

The government’s lack of control was also indicated by two embarrassing incidents. The first was the case of a Kyrgyz jazz pianist who was arrested and presented as a ‘foreign terrorist’ to the media. In this video, with bruises and scratches all over his face, he said he had been paid to participate in the protests alongside other foreign citizens from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. His real identity was soon revealed in Kyrgyz media. After his return to Kyrgyzstan, the pianist stated that the Kazakh forces did not believe his truthful statements (that he was a well-known musician visiting Almaty) but only accepted the fake story (Imanaliyeva, 2022). The second incident happened shortly after order was re-established. Amidst the 10,000 arrests across the country, reports spread detailing the misconduct of police officers, who ‘confiscated’ personal belongings without legal grounds and illegally searched passengers’ mobile phones for videos of the protests. Upon finding such videos, the police officers blackmailed their owners by threatening to arrest them (Alkhabayev, 2022; Khabar 24, 2022b). 

Thus, investigations into the questions of when and why did the protests turn violent and took control of Almaty will need to analyze the actual strength of local forces and test the following two hypotheses: a) security forces were directed by conspirators trying to overthrow the government; or b) the unrests in Almaty overwhelmed local and national authorities and events unfolded their own dynamic. Given the chaotic character of the events, it appears that it was not in the interest of any elite groups to fuel the very insurgency that threatened them all, especially the Nazarbayev clan. 

But which narrative did the government come up with? Tokayev and his administration spoke of a well-planned coup conducted by “terrorists and bandits”  under a centralized command, including international groups “who went through serious training abroad”, who planned to first take Almaty and then seize control of the capital (President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2022b; 2022c; Khabar 24, 2022a). In his virtual meeting with the President of the European Council, Tokayev claimed the presence of foreign fighters, “mainly from Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, and also from the Middle East” (President of the Republic of Kazakhstan 2022d). Although this narrative contends to have identified the culprits and their conspiracy, the Kazakh government did not provide any specific details or evidence. Thus, it is fair to assume that it was deliberately constructed in such a vague fashion only to delegitimize any further participation in protests, distract from the failure of the security apparatus, and – probably the main issue – to justify both legally and politically the President’s appeal to the CSTO.      

This all provides the basis for a comparably ‘boring’ narrative: 

  1. In contrast to previous ‘color revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space, the unexpected protests were ignited by economic hardship and carried out by the less educated, middle-aged class of Kazakh men – not by student groups and an intelligentsia demanding democracy. The crisis started in the region of Mangystau with peaceful protests against gas prices and spilled over into more general protests against high prices and corrupt elites across the vast country.
  2. The government came under pressure (evidenced by the swift decisions to reinstate the previously abolished regulatory limit on gas prices) and was overwhelmed by the unexpected scope of the protests. A variety of groups, with different agendas, took to the streets and probably included radicalized men, nationalists, criminals, and Islamists.
  3. These protests turned violent (who bears responsibility for that, and the exact details of involved groups still need to be established) and government forces were overwhelmed by the violent pushback by large numbers of rioters, termed ‘terrorists’ by the government. A full-fledged shutdown of the internet was imposed.
  4. The state’s loss of control was quickly exploited by looters and criminals. Rioters set government buildings on fire and stormed the airport. At this time, the people on the streets were young and middle-aged, ethnically Kazakh men with a low level of education but high potential of aggression, some of them armed. Most citizens in Almaty thus feared both the government forces and the rioters, hiding out instead of participating in peaceful protests.
  5. In this situation of chaos and lawlessness, President Tokayev (who had also become the Head of the Security Council) reached out to the CSTO for support. This decision entailed the politically embarrassing admission that the Kazakh government was not capable of maintaining the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Inviting CSTO ‘peacekeepers’ to secure critical infrastructure, while Kazakh national forces conducted the ‘anti-terrorist operation’, therefore was the political ultima ratio
  6. The opaque narrative provided by Tokayev, using the terms ‘bandits’, ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’ interchangeably, seemed to take a one-size-fits-it-all approach: first, it legitimized an anti-terrorist operation with a ‘shoot to kill’ order; then, it delegitimized any further participation in the protests; and finally and most importantly, it deployed the claim of international terrorism to provide the political and legal justification for a CSTO intervention.
  7. The removal of Nazarbayev allies from leading positions in the country is rather the byproduct of a balancing act between public pressure and accommodating authoritarian stakeholders – and not the cause of the unrest and subsequent loss of control by the state. So far, the First President’s allies are indeed losing prominent positions – but they are not being legally persecuted. The ‘new’ government consists pretty much of old faces (Sorbello, 2022b).

The difference between the Kazakh insurgency and the ‘color revolutions’

Some remarks concerning the nature of the protests are now necessary to explain the dynamics of these recent events. Although the underlying causes (rising prices, anger against corrupt elites and their lip service to reforms) were probably common to the vast majority of the population, the protests did not turn into peaceful marches of men and women, walking down the streets day after day, as it had been the case in Minsk (Belarus) or Khabarovsk (Russia) in 2020. Of course, to blame are probably the Kazakh forces that made indiscriminate use of force and tear gas. But as we know from previous revolutions, such as those in Minsk 2020, Maidan 2014 or the Prague Spring of 1968, the broader population usually displays solidarity with peaceful protesters (often students) when these are knocked down with unjustified violence. But in Almaty, nothing like that happened. In street battles, rioters robbed weapons from the security forces and weapon stores, looted shops, and set cars (including firefighter trucks and ambulances) and public buildings on fire. The word of irregulars shooting sharp spread rapidly. Hence, people were afraid of both state forces and the rioters. Instead of showing solidarity with the insurgents and victims of governmental repression, people hid in their apartments and only went out for short trips to the small corner shops. A Russian I met on the street was afraid of speaking English in public, as it could raise suspicion. It needs to be noted that the Russian minority (about 20% of the population) remained absent from the streets. I myself, a foreigner who spoke Russian instead of Kazakh, was attacked physically by a Kazakh nationalist.     

The Kazakh insurgency of January 2022 showed once again that popular dissatisfaction and socio-economic hardship can escalate beyond state control in unforeseen circumstances. This case is worrisome for those in power in neighboring autocracies, above all in Russia and China. It also shows that it is not necessarily Western-style democracy movements these regimes have to fear, but an even worse prospect: popular anger without any political ideology that is unleashed against state forces and is followed by anarchy. 

Part II: Social mobilization, the Internet and counterinsurgency: Implications for the West

In this last section, we turn our attention to a striking feature of the Kazakh unrest: the government’s full-out blockage of the internet for several days. The internet is the central medium of modern mass communication, and especially authoritarian states are taking back control over it within their borders. The Russian government managed to install filters on the ‘Runet’ and successfully forced Google to remove access to Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” app. China’s great firewall has been known for blocking and controlling political content for years. And in Kazakhstan, it had already been a well-established practice to disrupt local internet traffic when small protests took place. In America and Europe, meanwhile, digital companies are getting increasingly under pressure for reasons related to data protection, tax evasion, monopolizing markets, and ‘hate speech’. All these cases already show that Big Tech will not easily reshape the state-centrism of international relations (as argued by Ian Bremmer, 2021). And the recent events in Kazakhstan are just another lesson for Western democracies.

Why? Because we have been witnessing the rise of populism and popular unrest in democratic countries as well. In France, the Yellow Vests protests wreaked havoc in Paris in 2018. In the US, some analysts described the 2021 storming of the Capitol as domestic terrorism. In Germany, the new government struggles with the narrative of ‘a divided country’, and points to the fact that those who have been taking to the streets for years – either against the so-called Islamification of the West or to oppose pandemic-related measures – are only a small minority. But this minority mobilizes via the same social media and messengers as do the people in Belarus and other autocracies. In the summer of 2020 – well before the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC – a mix of anti-lockdown protestors, neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists almost managed to break into the Bundestag, the German Parliament. As the first nights of protests turned violent in Almaty, notorious German Telegram groups called for emulating the Kazakh events in Germany. 

In light of such developments, calls for censoring such activists and regulating the freedom of expression throughout the internet are becoming louder. Most prominent has been the case of former US President Donald Trump, who got kicked out by Twitter and Facebook. Strikingly, to turn our attention back to authoritarian systems, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny criticized this step at that time for being the very same method that the Russian regime uses against him (Dambach, 2021). Of course, there is a difference between state agencies that encroach on individual liberties and private companies that enforce their codes of conduct for their services. But these trends are all part of the same global processes in which social groups reassert political power by regulating the discourses facilitated by modern mass media. In Germany, the push for control over social media platforms increased recently, after death threats on Telegram received public attention. The German government even considered blocking the messenger, if the Dubai-based company continued refusing regulatory co-operation (Stark and Wefing, 2022). Finally, though defined differently by governments of various political systems, the issues of ‘national security’ and ‘state of emergency’ provide the core for governmental control over critical infrastructure and mediums of communication, including internet shutdowns (Vargas-Leon, 2016). 

The militarization of the police

Consider the following hypothetical scenario. What if the National Rally (formerly Front National) comes close to winning national elections in France but is stopped only marginally by another coalition? What if the myth of a stolen or even falsified election takes traction, as it did after Joseph Biden won the Presidential elections in the US? What if the same narratives about corrupt anti-democratic elites become internalized as they are in Kazakhstan or other autocracies? In parts of Western societies, such sentiments already simmer. It does not matter whether these narratives are objectively right or wrong – only whether they exist and to which effect. 

And here comes in a worrisome detail I am afraid of seeing all over the world: the increasing militarization of the police. The use of violence by police and anti-riot forces is by no means a new phenomenon. The technological sophistication, and its psychological effect, however, have increased. Not only in authoritarian countries, but also in democracies the police forces are gearing up with semi-automatic rifles, heavy suits, and black facemasks all of which makes them appear less human. When the Black Lives Matter protests turned violent after the killing of George Floyd, we could see US police pushing the crowds with bulldozers and army-style vehicles. Similar in Germany, when one takes a look at police standoffs with neo-Nazi groups or the so-called Antifa. The deployment of all this heavy equipment is officially justified by narratives pointing to the increasing violence the police allegedly faces. The G20 summit in Hamburg 2017, when left-wing extremists wreaked havoc and looted the city, is another such example. But after all, one may still argue that the buildup of the state’s executive forces makes them appear more dangerous and less human, thus increasing the potential violence against them and the frustration on the side of protesters.  


Potential for public unrest in France and Germany

Now imagine that protests escalate and turn violent in France. Probably, the French police and military are stronger than those of  Kazakhstan. But radicalized groups may manage to acquire some weapons, be it stolen or self-made devices. The threat of ‘terrorist attacks’ is there. Fake news spread, causing panic. Rioting groups may organize via social media and attack public infrastructure, including airports and energy plants. Maybe some socio-ethnic clashes with minorities in the banlieues escalate at the same time. Fires break out. What will the government do? Probably act in the same way the Kazakh regime did: imposing curfews, declaring a state of emergency, and cutting off the internet, allowing access only to a few state-controlled websites. Although such an apocalyptic scenario seems highly unlikely now, it may not always be so in the future. In Kazakhstan it came as a surprise as well.

In Germany, currently, the AfD – a right-wing populist party attracting anti-establishment votes since 2014 – is supported by around 10 percent of the voters. Its potential, however, had been way higher before the pandemic; and the party still dominates the provinces of the former GDR. Since then, the party’s radical opposition to the government’s measures to contain the pandemic rather alienated voters who had sympathized with its anti-EU, anti-migration and anti-establishment rhetoric. However, these issues will remain on the agenda when the pandemic fades out. Anti-establishment attitudes and ethnic frictions are still simmering in German society and will not disappear easily. Additional challenges arise with the climate crisis, which will have deep socio-economic effects. With Germany’s hasty exit from nuclear power several years ago, and the reduction of coal energy in the years to come, gas and energy prices already rose about three times during the past year. Just remember that the Kazakh insurgency started for the very same reasons: the rise in prices of gas and higher costs of living. 

This analysis does not aim to pass judgment on which political camp is right or wrong and who disseminates fake news. Rather, this argument claims that the relationship between state power and control over the internet and free speech follows similar dynamics in autocracies and democracies alike; and further social disintegration amidst societal transformation and crisis affects this very development decisively. Whether people protest, or even take up arms, against their own government depends on whether they deem the structures to be subjectively legitimate and fair. Only recently, German officials got alarmed by the discovery of right-wing extremist networks in the German army, especially in its special forces, Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), and of right-wing chat groups among police personnel (Lemkemeyer, 2021). At the same time, it was publicized that ammunition had been stolen by the police in the State of Saxony (MDR Sachsen 2021), one of the former GDR provinces, in which right-wing populism and alienation from the German Federal Republic is most salient. If such various forces get triggered and join together at the right moment in an unexpected manner, we might well witness a Black Swan in Europe like the one we just saw in Kazakhstan.      


1. I thank Alexander Olteanu for this hint to the Egypt case. For a good introduction to the practice of internet shutdowns and governmental control by authoritarian, democratic and hybrid regimes, see Vargas-Leon (2016).

2.  I follow the common practice of using the adjective Kazakh ethnically inclusive to denote all citizens of Kazakhstan.

3.  Luca Anceschi (2022) as well highlights the similarities with the Arab spring in his recent analysis.

4. In his first public appearance since the turmoil (January 18), Nazarbayev continued his public support for President Tokayev and stated he had been living “in retirement” since 2019. He also announced that the leadership of the state party, Nur Otan, would be handed over to Tokayev soon (Khabar 24, 2022c).

5.  As Kassenova (2019) stated, the government’s personality cult around Nazarbayev indeed resonated both negatively and positively in parts of the Kazakh population.

6.  For other chronological accounts and background analysis, see (among others) Rymbetov (2022), Orisbayev (2022), Sorbello (2022a), Anceschi (2022) and Kassenova (2022).

7.  I myself, disclosed as a foreign who spoke Russian instead of Kazakh, was attacked by a Kazakh nationalist on January 5. On the following day, I was warned by a security guard that some radical Islamists started patrolling at some shopping malls.

8.  I need to stress that all my other encounters with Kazakhstani people in those days were positive.

9. In response to the London ‘BlackBerry’ riots in 2011, the British government considered an internet shutdown, but discarded this option to avoid comparisons with authoritarian governments in the Arab world (Vargas-Leon 2016: 177). A series of legal debates in the US, sparked by bills sponsored in the Senate and legislative proposals by the Obama administration, problematized the (absolute) legal powers possessed by the President concerning internet infrastructure and national security (Vargas-Leon 2016: 178-187).


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