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Second verse, same as the first…

January 6, 2022

I don’t know enough about Kazakhstan to make an informed comment.  But I can make an emotive one.  The path to the protests, the reactions of the ruler and the deeply disturbing scenes as the confrontation unfolds have been repeated all my adult life.  Why do old men cling on to power – and do so in such corrupt and violent manners?  Power-hungry dictatorships – of whatever political hue – operate and react in the same way.  The goal is to stay in charge at all costs – power for its own sake.  They are not generally very effective at running an economy or accepting and acting on criticism (although Vladimir Putin seems always to play a poor corrupt hand very well).  They scoop up and exploit the assets of the country to maintain their own power and lifestyle.  They rely on oppression, friends and family in key ministries and relentless propaganda.  This is an expensive and inefficient way to run a country.  Small wonder that, for example, a massive, resource-rich country like Russia has a GDP smaller than Italy.

In such a society, it often only needs a simple, single trigger to get people on the streets.  A hike in the price of fuel, the arrest or disappearance of a member of an opposition party or the uncovered excesses of a corrupt minister all fit the bill.  Government, opposition and people are all generally surprised when protests turn violent. 

Poorly trained and heavily armed police and army do the rest.  The Arab Spring was a good example of how things can fall apart quickly.  Gunfire, teargas and rubber bullets were the primary forms of engagement with popular demands.  

Dictators are stuck.  There are no off-ramps.  No one ever retires peacefully once they have a few human rights violations under their belt.  To reduce the repression and invite political reform cries out “weakness”, inviting popular uprisings or a palace coup.  The usual response is to double down with violence, often urged on by fellow members of the card-carrying dictator club, anxious they might be next.  A narrative of “outside provocation” (read as: America, NATO or the West) gushes from government-controlled media.  I see that Russia has warned other countries to keep out of Kazakhstan’s internal affairs, while inserting its own paratroopers into the country.  The VDV are historically known for their ability to defuse angry civilians with tact, negotiation, good-humour and soothing words.  I am doing irony here. 

False narratives and disinformation flood the airwaves.  Some of this is based on manufactured lies – traditional dictatorial bullshit – others on genuine misunderstanding and misperception in fast-moving, volatile and frightening environments.

             Two scenes from the social media footage of recent developments in Kazakhstan I have seen dozens of times over decades:

  • Wide boulevards at night.  Army trucks and light armoured vehicles are attempting to navigate through a shouting crowd of several hundreds of demonstrators running around and between the vehicles and in the road.  The military vehicles are almost certainly trying to extricate themselves as quickly as possible.  I found myself anxiously willing no one to get run over.  It reminded me of the fall of the Soviet Union in the Baltic states where Russian BMP armoured vehicles attempted to drive out of an angry crowd.  Many of the crowd were in front of the vehicle physically trying to push it back.  A BMP does not do nuanced driving.  Nor does it offer wide all-round visibility to the driver, who was almost certainly a frightened, poorly trained, conscript fearing a petrol bomb or being torn apart.  Belching and revving its engine it lurched forwards and crushed some of the protestors.
  • A group of Kazakh army personnel (at least they were well equipped and in military camouflage – but perhaps that passes for a police uniform in those parts).  They had been stopped by an angry crowd.  Sat in the back of their stationary truck they were made to dismount and, pushed and pulled, lie down in submission on the ground, surrounded by hostility.  I remember footage of a bridge in Istanbul, during the so-called “coup” in 2016, in where a group of terrified conscripts were dismounted, disarmed and stripped of their gear. Some were beaten to death.  In the brief footage I saw, the Kazakh troops were not beaten.

Violence and brutality rapidly escalates in situations where no one really understands what is going on and people are scared.  Reaction leads to overreaction.  A terrified young conscript should not ideally be held responsible for the situation a dictator puts him in.   But angry crowds who have just witnessed one of their own being shot or crushed are likely to lynch those that are close to hand.  This is more likely to be a young kid in a uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time than a secret police chief or a corrupt minister.

This is all naïve analytical stuff, I know.  I don’t have a sense for how effective Kazakh political opposition parties are (or even if any exist), but I suspect a lot of angry Kazakh citizens will be aware of the tragedies that are Syria and, closer to home, Belarus. The balance of probability is that they conclude that legitimate protest and reform is not achievable or would come at an appalling cost.  The options are “Syria” or continued repression garnished with shit economy.  Here’s how it plays out:

  1. The protests are crushed violently including by military force from fellow dictators, mainly at Russia’s direction
  2. Many protestors are killed, arrested or “disappeared”– accurate figures will never be known
  3. Additional repressive measures are developed by the Kazakh government, with Russia’s assistance
  4. The population go back to being resentful
  5. Government-controlled media outlets praise the defeat of “NATO gangsters” and warns the west not to consider meddling in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan

Don’t know what the answer is. 

Here are some lyrics from Joe Strummer, taken from the song “Groovy Times”, by The Clash, written in 1978, that speak to the volatility and risks of civil protest and the importance of propaganda to the authorities:

They discovered one black Saturday

That mobs don’t march they run

So you can excuse the nervous triggerman

Just this once for jumping the gun

As they were picking up the dead

Out of the broken glass

Yes it’s number one, the radio said

Groovy times have come to pass!

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 6, 2022 2:32 pm

    “Why do old men cling on to power… power for its own sake.”
    You seem to answer the question. My interpretation of it: ‘they become trapped inside their own hybris.’

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