Seeing Revolution Everywhere: The 'Kazakhstan Spring' That Isn't

Why are outside analysts so ready to see a nascent Kazakh uprising that isn't really there?

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Kazakh Interior Ministry troops patrol past partially burnt buildings damaged in Friday's riots in the town of Zhanaozen / Reuters

While the world ponders what to make of a post-Kim North Korea, or the horrifying clashes in Syria, or the sad devolution of the Egyptian Revolution, there is another country where conflict is raising fears of instability: Kazakhstan.

Over the weekend, a long-simmering worker's strike in the western oil town of Zhanaozen boiled over into an outright riot, and in the melee with Kazakh security forces at least 15 people have been killed. Information from the area has been extremely difficult to come by, leading to many unanswered questions about what, precisely, happened. The Kazakh government declared a state of emergency until January 5 and has restricted access by journalists. One activist has been jailed for protesting the government's response and the Kazakh government is fending off criticisms of its violent response to the riots. The area seems to be in an uneasy calm but a great deal of tension remains.

While the situation in Kazakhstan continues to seethe -- hospitals are still treating wounded suffering from gunshot wounds and the streets of Zhanaozen are dotted with burned-out buildings -- it is important to keep in mind what Kazakhstan is not. Kazakhstan is dealing with localized unrest. It is not dealing with an Arab Spring-style movement or even a revitalized global terrorist movement.

There is a certain path dependency to describing situations of political and social unrest in familiar terms -- that is, when analysts look at a new situation then tend to contextualize it in terms of what they're most familiar with. So when a terrorism analyst looks at Kazakhstan he or she often sees the specter of terrorism; when a political analyst looks at Kazakhstan he or she sees instability.

Describing these by-the-book analyses of Kazakhstan as ritualistic would probably be too dismissive, but there is a strong element of ritual in each. While Jacob Zenn accurately describes the fledgling Kazakh terror group Jund al-Khalifah as unrelated to the current unrest and insufficient to challenge the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev or even substantially disrupt the government, he leaps from a few isolated botched terror plots and opportunistic web videos to describing Kazakhstan as a next center of global jihadism.

Similarly, Alexander Shustov starts his piece off by calling Kazakhstan "a hotbed of extremism," which does not at all match what I saw in my own time there. He ties the oil workers' riot to a series of terrorist acts carried out by Jund al-Khalifah but it's hard to see any evidence that the two are connected. The implication is that unrest in Kazakhstan is related to and inspired by the Arab Spring.

The riots in Kazakhstan are actually a localized labor dispute between some oil workers striking for better working conditions and higher pay and the state-run oil company, OzenMunaiGaz (with the clever acronym OMG). There is also terrorism in Kazakhstan, a worrying trend that so far has remained very small scale -- limited to a few bombs and a bunch of scary talk on the Internet. But there's no apparent reason to combine the two into a broad argument about some Arab Spring-inspired uprising in Central Asia. And that does not match with the facts of what has happened.

There is no indication that Jund al-Khalifah enjoys any popularity within Kazakhstan (most of its leadership is in northwest Pakistan, anyway). Similarly, apart from a 12-person protest in Astana, the plight of those oil workers just hasn't resounded throughout Kazakhstan the way Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation rippled across the Middle East. Previous protests in Kazakhstan over Chinese land leases and high housing prices drew crowds that dwarfed even Zhanaozen's rioters. Additionally, Jund al-Khalifah remains an unpopular and marginal group within both Kazakhstan and the "global jihad" movement, no matter what its eager Internet videos say.

The Democracy ReportZhanaozen is 100 miles away from the nearest city. It is tiny and isolated within Kazakhstan. Even its local anchor city, Aktau, is cut off from the rest of Kazakhstan and only accessible by air, since the roadways connecting it to other places in the country are too long to drive and not well maintained. The workers' plight has been blunted somewhat by the Kazakh government's response that these oil workers already make substantially above average wages -- a message that has resonance in a country that struggles with sharp divides in wealth and power. Geographic isolation plus economic disparity equals no revolution.

So, while we should keep an eye on Kazakhstan, we should also keep in mind what isn't happening. It's easy to fall into declaring the sky is falling every time something dramatic happens, but the reality is, sadly, far more boring.