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Anti-China Sentiments Grows in Kazakhstan as Economic Cooperation Stalls

On July 6, Kazakhstan cel­e­brat­ed Capital City Day in com­mem­o­ra­tion of for­mer pres­i­dent Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 1994 deci­sion to move the cap­i­tal from Almaty in the south to Akmola in the north. The cap­i­tal was sub­se­quent­ly renamed Astana but, fol­low­ing Nazarbayev’s sud­den res­ig­na­tion, it has been known as Nur-Sultan since March 2019. July 6 is also Nazarbayev’s birth­day. Despite relin­quish­ing the pres­i­den­cy in favor of his anoint­ed suc­ces­sor, Senate speak­er Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, the for­mer head of state has retained the title of Leader of the Nation and the post of chair­per­son for life of the National Security Council. Unsurprisingly, Nazarbayev is still wide­ly con­sid­ered, both at home and abroad, as the pow­er behind the throne to whom President Tokayev defers for all key deci­sions (, March 19, 23, 2019).

Activist Zhanbolat Mamai, who organ­ised this year’s Capital City Day protests, speaks at the ral­ly in Almaty on September 13. (Source: RFE/RL)

The Capital City Day cel­e­bra­tions in Almaty were marred this year by a protest orga­nized by a long-time crit­ic of Nazarbayev’s regime, Zhanbolat Mamay. A small group of peo­ple led by Mamay, who were lat­er forcibly dis­persed by the police, called on Nazarbayev to leave the polit­i­cal scene for good, vent­ed their anger at ris­ing infla­tion and crit­i­cized Kazakhstan’s eco­nom­ic depen­dence on China. The lat­ter point has been a recur­rent theme of Kazakhstani domes­tic pol­i­tics in recent years, to almost com­plete silence from the cor­ri­dors of pow­er. Most recent­ly, in late March 2021, oppo­si­tion activists, includ­ing the afore­men­tioned Mamay, held a pre-autho­rized ral­ly in Almaty with some 300 par­tic­i­pants protest­ing “Chinese expan­sion” into Kazakhstan, name­ly the two gov­ern­ments’ old plans to build a net­work of indus­tri­al enter­pris­es on Kazakhstani ter­ri­to­ry (, July 7;, July 6; Radio Azattyk, March 27, July 6).

Since February, the Chinese con­sulate in Almaty has been assid­u­ous­ly pick­et­ed by rel­a­tives of eth­nic Kazakhs who are alleged to be in arbi­trary deten­tion with­in so-called “re-edu­ca­tion camps” locat­ed in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Similar unau­tho­rized pick­ets occurred in mid-2020, but they were few and far between, poor­ly attend­ed and quick­ly sup­pressed by law enforce­ment (, May 30;, March 25; Radio Azattyk, February 18, July 13;, June 26, 2020). Back in December 2019, Tokayev told a Deutsche Welle jour­nal­ist, who also hap­pened to be the daugh­ter of Boris Nemtsov, a promi­nent Russian oppo­si­tion politi­cian mur­dered near the Kremlin in 2015, “I think that these mate­ri­als [about forced labor in XUAR] do not reflect the real­i­ty. There may be iso­lat­ed cas­es of eth­nic Kazakhs get­ting into reed­u­ca­tion estab­lish­ments, but […] for Kazakhs to be forced there en masse there is no such trend” (, December 5, 2019).

The gov­ern­ment of Kazakhstan under both Nazarbayev and Tokayev, the lat­ter of whom is a flu­ent Mandarin speak­er, have con­tin­u­ous­ly strived to main­tain a prob­lem-free rela­tion­ship with neigh­bor­ing China. To date, Kazakhstan’s restrict­ed democ­ra­cy con­tin­ues to be micro-man­aged by the rul­ing regime, which does not allow gen­uine­ly oppo­si­tion ele­ments into the main­stream. For instance, Mamay’s Democratic Party was reg­is­tered by the Ministry of Justice in late 2019 but could not hold its inau­gur­al con­gress. The French-based exiled banker Mukhtar Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan move­ment was banned as extrem­ist by a Kazakhstani court in 2018. The lat­est par­lia­men­tary elec­tions of January 2021, which were boy­cotted by the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party, saw anoth­er vic­to­ry for NurOtan, which is chaired by Nazarbayev. The rul­ing par­ty effec­tive­ly pre­served its 70-plus-per­cent major­i­ty. However, even with such a sys­tem in place, the regime can­not ful­ly con­trol pop­u­lar dis­con­tent (Interfax, January 10;, February 19, 2020;, March 13, 2018).

Criticisms of China’s grow­ing influ­ence over the Kazakhstani oil indus­try, and the often-con­tro­ver­sial man­age­ment tech­niques imposed by expa­tri­at­ed Chinese exec­u­tives, were already aired exten­sive­ly dur­ing the 2014 protests at Zhanaozen. Those end­ed in blood­shed on Independence Day (December 16) as gov­ern­ment troops fired on unarmed pro­test­ers. Small-scale protest actions against China’s eco­nom­ic inter­ests in the ener­gy sphere on the Caspian—largely dri­ven by more pro­sa­ic issues such as labor con­di­tions and ulti­mate­ly little-noticed—have most recent­ly tak­en place over 2020 and 2021. However, the China issue more promi­nent­ly came to the fore in 2016 when up to 2,000 peo­ple protest­ed each day for near­ly two weeks against the government’s pur­port­ed plans to lease arable land to Chinese com­pa­nies. As a result, the author­i­ties enact­ed a mora­to­ri­um and estab­lished a land com­mis­sion, while two min­is­ters lost their jobs (, May 6, 2016). In May 2021, President Tokayev signed into law a bill that per­pet­u­ates the ban on the sale of agri­cul­tur­al land to for­eign­ers (, May 13).

China remains Kazakhstan’s sec­ond-largest trade part­ner, right after Russia, and a major investor. Yet the lin­ger­ing cri­sis in the glob­al oil indus­try, which began in 2014 and (after a brief peri­od of respite) was accen­tu­at­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, has left its scars. In 2020, China repa­tri­at­ed a record $811 mil­lion worth of prof­its from past invest­ments, ver­sus direct­ing $670 mil­lion and $569.4 mil­lion worth of net invest­ment flows toward Kazakhstan in 2013 and 2014, respec­tive­ly. In con­trast, Russia has main­tained a pos­i­tive net flow of invest­ments year after year, since 2013, accord­ing to Kazakhstan’s trade sta­tis­tics. With the imple­men­ta­tion of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects stalling across Central Asia, the Kazakhstani author­i­ties will find it increas­ing­ly chal­leng­ing to coun­ter­bal­ance pop­u­lar anti-Chinese dis­course, which feeds on both out­right mis­in­for­ma­tion and long-held fears (, accessed July 23). Nur-Sultan’s accom­mo­dat­ing pol­i­cy toward Beijing is, thus, becom­ing increas­ing­ly more dif­fi­cult to sustain.

Eurasia Daily Monitor By: Serik Rymbetov

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