Poverty, corruption and large economic income gaps - it is not just the shock rise in petrol prices in Kazakhstan that has triggered a violent riot in the country. And even though this type of uprising can be a starting shot for democratization, the weakened democracy in the world can also be an obstacle to the starting shot, says Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict at Uppsala University.
Despite the fact that Kazakhstan has been known as one of the few stable countries in Central Asia, it is not entirely unexpected that protests have taken place in recent weeks. According to New York Times so 70 percent of all authoritarian regime changes lead to the collapse of the incumbent government.
Even though Kazakhstan is not in a regime change right now, it is only three years since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over from Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been president for almost 30 years. Governments usually collapse on average five years after regime change, according to NYT.
The people become stronger when the regime is weaker
Changes in the regime can put authoritarian leaders in a weak position, especially when the political elite in the country are not united, explains Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict at Uppsala University. Such conflicts have witnessed in the government and elite of Kazakhstan, in particular between the current and former president and their respective staff. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan's current president, has ousted the country's former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as head of the country's Security Council, and taken over the position himself.
- The former and current president of Kazakhstan is currently divided, and there seem to be differences between them and other elites, which makes protests coming from the people more powerful, says Ashok Swain.
This division and conflicts among the political elite can often lead to anxiety among the people and a weaker image of the government. A weaker government can often not oppose protests as successfully as a united government, which leads people to believe that the chances of success are greater, says Ashok Swain.
- If the protests are considered legitimate, as they are considered by the Kazakh people, it creates the perception that there is a reason to fight - and that there is an opportunity to overthrow the regime.
The global, democratic setback
But even though this type of uprising can be a step in a democratic direction, as in Tunisia or Egypt during the Arab Spring, democracy is currently facing several setbacks in the world, says Ashok Swain. Globally, democracy has declined over the past 15 years, including freedom reduces global and multilateral cooperation weakened. Even the United States, which has been a leader of the free world, is now classified according to Freedom House as a country with weak democratic institutions.
- Even though the United States has previously been seen as a leader of the free world, the quality of their own democracy has been questioned. Joe Biden has a lot to work on at home before he can preach to others about what is right and wrong, says Ashok Swain.
This has given authoritarian leaders the opportunity to mobilize and legitimize themselves, as we have also witnessed in Kazakhstan, explains Ashok Swain. This became apparent when the only international intervention that has taken place in Kazakhstan came from Russia hold, whose purpose has been to stop democratization, something that also Xi Jinping expressed support for.
- They are given an opportunity to pursue their policy for themselves, and because of that they have managed to stop the protests in Kazakhstan, says Ashok Swain.
Had the demonstrations taken place 30 years ago at a time when democracy was on the rise, the protests in Kazakhstan would probably have been more successful and authoritarian leaders less influential, Ashok Swain explains.
- Things would have looked different if the free world in the global society had united and stood up for democracy, but this has not happened on their part.
An uncertain future for the Kazakh people
Although it has become more common for regime changes to lead to the collapse of authoritarian regimes, it is difficult to know whether the protests in Kazakhstan will be the start of democratization, or the beginning of an even tougher iron grip on the Kazakh people, according to Ashok Swain.
But the protests in the country show how sometimes it only takes a small spark to light the cup to overflow - a spark that was also lit when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2010 and the Arab Spring started. In this case, the spark ignited when gasoline prices rose in shock. That spark will remain a threat to authoritarian leaders forever - and it is often difficult to predict.
- All types of protests need that spark. We always see a spark ignite that leads to protests and we never know when it may come. But when the spark is lit, and the people take to the streets and protest - then it can be dangerous for these leaders, says Ashok Swain.