During the past week, Kazakhstan has seen the rapid spread of demonstrations and violence across the country after protests first emerged in western regions on January 1, 2022 as a result of the sudden rise in the price of gas. Confronting a major challenge to its authority, the country’s entrenched autocratic leadership initially attempted to quell the protests by dismissing the government and making several limited concessions. When these efforts failed, some demonstrators attacked government buildings and the government responded with violent repression, raising questions about the future of Kazakhstan and the broader region. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev—whose two years in power have been overshadowed by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev—removed Nazarbayev from the powerful Security Council, indicating the possible end of the Nazarbayev era. Tokayev then apparently invited the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security organization dominated by Russia, to assist in restoring order. The presence of Russian (and other) troops on Kazakh soil renewed long-standing concerns regarding Russia’s influence in the internal politics of its neighbors, the fragility of their sovereignty, and the nature of regional arrangements among ex-Soviet states.

Demonstrators march on the central square of Aktobe, Kazakhstan, January 4, 2022. Image credit: Esetok (Wikimedia Commons).

This virtual issue brings together some of the recent research on Kazakhstan featured in Communist and Post-Communist Studies, focusing on socio-economic structural conditions, political institutions, discourse and regime legitimacy, and regional dynamics. These articles explore the country from different angles and can shed light on various aspects of the explosion of mass protest and violence. Starting with underlying structural conditions in the country, Palazuelos and Fernández provide an inside look into the politics of Kazakhstan’s agreements with international energy companies. For insight into some of the underlying socio-economic issues in Kazakhstan, Spankulova, Karatayev, and Clarke draw on recent survey evidence to explain emerging health disparities. Several recent articles shed light on political institutions, reform and divisions within Kazakhstan’s political and economic elite. In three separate articles, Öge, Kanapyanov, and Roberts identify important weaknesses and failed reforms within Kazakhstan’s non-democratic political system, demonstrating the important role that institutions play. Other articles in CPCS have investigated the role of elite messaging, information, and legitimacy in Kazakhstan. Kudaibergenova explores how discourses of state and nation are used to bolster regime legitimation. Yan examines the pathways of media control within Kazakhstan’s presidential system and Vanderhill demonstrates how the regime seeks to insulate the country from ideas of democracy. Finally, turning toward regional dynamics, Somzhurek et al. explore regional security arrangements (including Russia, Kazakhstan, and their neighbors), while Breuning and Ishiyama develop a framework for understanding different views of Russia among so-called “client” states in the region.


Kazakhstan: Oil endowment and oil empowerment
Enrique Palazuelos, Rafael Fernández

Kazakhstan became a petro-state in the 1990s, after signing important oil production agreements with several transnational companies. In recent years, Kazakhstan’s government has imposed the revision of former agreements on these corporations. This article contends that said revision has allowed the national players, government and the state oil company, to extend rent-seeking, but that the changes have not been deep enough to attain national oil empowerment. This means that national players do not control the oil cycle – from upstream to export trade – and are unable to secure continued expansion in the oil sector. Both key issues remain in the hands of the foreign companies, although their prominence has diversified following the entry of large Chinese and Russian companies.

Trends in Socioeconomic Health Inequalities in Kazakhstan: National Household Surveys Analysis
Lazat Spankulova, Marat Karatayev, Michèle L. Clarke

According to the relative income hypothesis, the health status of a population is determined by its horizontal social and financial conditions, both mutually interrelated factors. As a former republic of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is a particularly interesting case in which to explore the impact of health-related inequalities due to economic, sociodemographic, and institutional changes experienced as the country transitioned to independent status. The goal of this article is to examine the degree to which commonly-used socioeconomic determinants (education, income, living conditions, marital status, occupation) are associated with health inequalities in Kazakhstan. We found significant differences in the health status characteristics among the population. Poor health was found to be significantly associated with living conditions and income level. This article will assist policy makers in developing and improving existing social and health policies to address the apparent lack of health-related equity in Kazakhstan.


Role and place of the parliament of Kazakhstan in the system of checks and balances
Timur Kanapyanov

This article examines the system of checks and balances in post-Soviet Kazakhstan in general and the role of the Parliament of Kazakhstan in that system in particular. As opposed to the scientific mainstream in Kazakhstan which explains established system of checks and balances as a result of formal constitutional reforms, this article undertakes broader analytical framework and examines the system of checks and balances in Kazakhstan taking into account a correlation of formal and informal practices. The goal of the article is to show that in post-Soviet Kazakhstan the separation of powers is established without proper checks and balances. The inference drawn from the article is that the separation of powers in Kazakhstan is blocked by the strong constitutional and informal powers of the President, which allows him to control and interfere in affairs of all branches of power.

Elite preferences and transparency promotion in Kazakhstan
Kerem Öge

This paper evaluates the factors that shape the establishment of transparent institutions in resource-rich countries with a specific focus on Kazakhstan. Specifically, it draws upon indepth interviews and analysis of key institutions to understand the pace and intensity of transparency reforms in the Central Asian state. It argues that external transparency promotion can lead to institutional reform only when it is matched with strong elite incentives in favor of reforms. Kazakhstan has had few incentives to comply with Western-initiated norms before 2014, an era of relative economic security. As a consequence, the political elite often stalled the successful implementation of reforms. However, the economic turbulence following the fall of oil prices and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have motivated the Kazakh government to embrace the norm of transparency in order to attract foreign investment.

Converging party systems in Russia and Central Asia: A case of authoritarian norm diffusion?
Sean P. Roberts

Almost twenty five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and several Central Asian republics appear to be converging on what may be termed a ‘hierarchic party system’, characterised by controlled and unequal competition between parties. Addressing the juncture between international politics and party politics, this article explores this convergence and considers Russian authoritarian norm diffusion as a possible explanation. This article argues that although Russia continues to build significant party-based linkage in Central Asia, similarities between party systems are the result of complex, multidirectional norm diffusion, as regimes look to liberalise or close their respective political systems.


Compartmentalized ideology and nation-building in non-democratic states
Diana T. Kudaibergenova

What are the mechanisms of legitimation in non-democratic and linguistically divided states? How do regimes in these states use and manipulate the ideology and nation-building for the purposes of regime legitimation? The article focuses on the concept of compartmentalized ideology in non-democratic regimes with substantial divisions in the so-called titular and minority group where socio-linguistic divide allows regimes to construct diverse audiences and even political communities with their own distinct narratives and discourses about the nation, state and the regime. The compartmentalized ideology is only sustainable under the conditions of the regime’s power to control and facilitate these discourses through the system of authoritative presidential addresses to the nation and/or other forms of regime’s communication with the polity. The shifting of these discourses and themes contribute to the regime stability but also may constitute its re-legitimation.

Comparing democratic performance of semi-presidential regimes in the post-communist region: Omnipotent presidents and media control
Huang-Ting Yan

The article attempts to identify common explanatory factors and internal causal mechanisms behind the poor democratic performance of post-communist semi-presidential regimes. It attributes poor democratic performance to constitutionally powerful presidents supported by single-party-majority cabinets. Under this situation, omnipotent presidents enact media-related law unhindered, tightly regulate the media, prevent the opposition from disseminating election information, and thus increase the ruling party’s probability of winning elections. Through quantitative analysis and comparative case studies of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, this paper verifies the convergent pathway from powerful presidents’ media control to poor democratic performance. In conclusion, powerful post-communist presidents endanger democracy via media control.

Active resistance to democratic diffusion
Rachel Vanderhill

Recent research on the international diffusion of democracy has focused on demonstrating how diffusion can change regime outcomes. Although there is still debate within the field of democratization over how important democratic diffusion is relative to domestic factors, autocratic leaders believe that democratic diffusion can be a threat to their rule. It is clear that some countries, such as North Korea, prevent diffusion by severely restricting interactions with foreigners and forbidding access to external sources of information. The more intriguing question is how the states that have economic, diplomatic, and social linkages with democratic states prevent democratic diffusion. In other words, what methods do globally-engaged, autocratic governments use to limit exposure to and reduce receptivity to democratic diffusion?

In addition to using coercion and economic patronage, autocratic states utilize two nonmaterial mechanisms to prevent democratic diffusion: 1) restricting exposure to democratic ideas and 2) developing alternative narratives about democracy to reduce local receptivity to democratic diffusion. Sophisticated autocratic leaders can limit receptivity to democratic diffusion if they convince citizens that those ideas are “foreign,” will cause “chaos,” or if they believe they already have their own form of democracy. I explore these methods of establishing firewalls to prevent diffusion by examining the cases of China and Kazakhstan, two countries where a high level of economic linkage coincides with a successful continuation of autocratic rule, despite the global spread of democratic norms. China has developed extensive methods to restrict access to foreign ideas about democracy while Kazakhstan has mainly focused on developing an alternative narrative about democracy. This article contributes to the literature on authoritarian persistence and democratic diffusion by investigating the internal methods autocratic leaders adopt to ensure that democratic diffusion does not threaten their rule.


Central Asia and regional security
B.Zh Somzhurek, A.M. Yessengaliyeva, Zh.M. Medeubayeva, B.K. Makangali

This paper aims to analyze the politico-military cooperation among the Central Asian countries viewed as a key factor in ensuring the regional security. Today, the geopolitical tension in the surrounding regions, the worsening situation in Afghanistan, as well as intraregional socio-economic problems directly affect the security situation in Central Asia. In this regard, the question arises as to how well the Central Asian states are able to meet these challenges. The analysis of the situation in the region in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new century shows that attempts have been made to establish a regional security system based on military cooperation among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, unregulated interstate relations in Central Asia, the lack of political will to cooperate with leaders of neighboring countries and the combination of external and internal threats have contributed to the creation of a regional security system based on the multilateral structures with the involvement of external actors.

Confronting Russia: How Do the Citizens of Countries of the Near Abroad Perceive Their State’s Role?
Marijke Breuning, John Ishiyama

Russia has become increasingly assertive in its foreign relations with surrounding states—especially toward those states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Although much attention has been paid to the Russian reassertion in the near abroad, very little work has been done on how the citizens of former Soviet states see their state’s place in the world, particularly relative to Russia. Although Russia may view the former Soviet states as its potential “clients,” there is considerable variation in how the citizens of these states view their role in the world and, by definition, their relationship to Russia. Role theory provides a useful framework for evaluating the reaction of these states to Russia’s reassertion of power. These countries represent opportune cases to examine the evolution of national role conceptions in new states, and how these conceptions are affected by these countries’ relationships with Russia, China, and the West. This article provides an explanation as to why citizens of some states differ from others in their role conceptions. We offer a novel theoretical explanation that accounts for variation in roles, based on each country’s historic relationship with Russia, its emerging relationship with the West and China, and domestic ethnopolitical conditions.

Communist and Post-Communist Studies is an international, peer-reviewed scholarly journal featuring comparative research on current and historical developments in the communist and post-communist world. Post-communist states and societies encompass Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, for which the term “post-communist” remains analytically useful as a temporal or geographical frame. The journal broadly covers domestic politics and societies, foreign policy and international relations, ideology and identities, political economy, political and human geography, and law.