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After the January events: Why Mongolia can’t and won’t produce broad mass movements

Mongolian factory worker with cashmere. Photo by Adrianrowe. Wikimedia Commons.

One aspect missing in the coverage of what happened in Kazakhstan was the initial workers-led protests in the Western part of Kazakhstan, where large mining projects have been running since the mid 1990s. Not considering the working-class beginnings of the protests and focusing only on elite power struggles between Tokayev vs. Nazarbayev, as many observers did will give us only a partial answer to the question of what has really happened. So here I will try to systematize the build-up to the protests from a long-term perspective, comparing them to my home country of Mongolia. Towards the end, I will try to provide an analysis of Mongolia’s failure to generate broad mass protests in a seemingly free political environment with living standards much lower compared to those of Kazakhstan.

This line of thinking has been spurred by an article on Lefteast, which explained the socioeconomic background of the protests and took a long-term view of capitalist development in Kazakhstan since its independence. It becomes clear here that the ‘miracle’ of Kazakhstan’s economic development was indeed this Western region on the shores of Caspian Sea where much of its natural resources are extracted. While in Mongolia, there is only one – a controversial multinational project Oyu Tolgoi, – in this part of Kazakhstan there are several projects of similar magnitude. These include the jointly owned oil pipeline that goes through much of Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, as well as Chevron’s largest project Tengizoil.

Long story short, Kazakhstan’s version of ‘developmentalism,’ or more precisely, full embrace of capitalist development was swift and intense, backed with its strong state and foreign capital. As with any industrial developmental project, it required rapid mobilization of Kazakh workforce – so that in the last 30 years there was significant demographic change in the region where a large number of young Kazakhs have migrated westwards for job prospects, while at the background there was also significant out-migration from Kazakhstan, especially for non-Kazakh citizens within the capacity of state promoted ‘kazakhization’ and as a result ‘de-russification’.

This gradual demographic change in the Western region is a classic example of what can be called proletarianization of population and forming of common consciousness. It should be also taken into consideration that the proportion of Kazakh makeup was at the center of this transformation. Compared to the census in 1989, the western Atyrau and Mangystau regions saw an increase in migration of Kazakhs and out-migration of non-Kazakhs which today both regions have more than 90% Kazakhs. More telling numbers are the increase in absolute numbers in two regions, specifically, the population in Mangystau today is 736795 compared to 324243 in 1989.

Even after the ‘January events’, at the time of the writing (March 9), strikes and demonstrations are still continuing in Zhanaozen against KazMunayGas, the biggest state-owned oil and gas company in Kazakhstan. The labor struggles there have a long and tragic history, marked by the killing of at least 15 strikers during the violent suppression.

When facts such as there are taken into account, it is no longer puzzling why the initial strike of the protests started here in Mangystau, more precisely in Zhanaozen, where workers’ strike and protests had long history since the region was activated for extraction, and not in Almaty or in the capital Nursultan.

Only after acknowledging the more structural preconditions of protests can we then delve into other social issues of general dissatisfaction apparent globally, in this case, Nazarbayev-style developmentalism. It is stated elsewhere that only 162 people associated with Nazarbayev and to his extended family, who make only 0,001% of the entire population, own 50% of Kazakhstan’s wealth. In a very clumsy way, if we apply this to the current numbers, GNI per capita in Kazakhstan decreases from 8,710 to 4,107.9 barely making the upper middle income group. Then the whole discussion of Kazakhstan being the success story and model case in Central Asia might lose its relevance.

Coming back to the comparative aspect to our discussion, it shouldn’t be as troubling to compare the two countries. After all, both had similar beginnings after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both had to carry out state-building, which for Kazakhstan involved a good deal of nation-building. One should keep in mind that in the last days of the Soviet Union, in the Kazakh ASSR only some forty percent of the population were ethnically Kazakh while the rest consisted of various Soviet peoples with a Russian lingua franca. As with other post-Soviet states, the Kazakh nation building then had to undo the Soviet aspect and replace it with Kazakh one.

While there are a number of differences between the two countries both in terms of their pre-reform economic capacity as well as the specificity of their transition to capitalism, what we know in the end is that both Central Asian states have created resource-dependent economies – a raw material model of capitalism where only the few has benefited while the vast majority are either clinging to or under poverty line. 

What distinguishes the Kazakh experience from the Mongolian one is the factor of political stability which Nazarbayev provided up until recently and the scale of mega projects that kick started as early as mid-1990s. As a result, in addition to its industrial base and found reserves explored during the Soviet period, the capitalist project in Kazakhstan was rather smooth and rapid. It was supported by its newly founded oligarchy – former cadres guaranteed by stable commodity prices.

What went wrong, however, is that the mega projects in the Western region, have created favorable conditions for proletarianization and the creation of common consciousness among the Kazakhs drawn to these regions for the search of jobs and better life. Unemployment is also the major issue in this region where the unemployed often go on streets to demand jobs. Even though the confederation of independent trade unions were banned in 2017, the very fact that the strikes and meetings are still happening to this day on a hostile terrain without an officially approved organized body clearly shows the class-for-itself aspect of the workers and unemployed in the region.

In comparison, none of these – neither industrially driven urbanization nor creation of large working class was present in Mongolia. Mongolia did not create a functioning extractive industry with a numerically and politically strong working class. Instead, its social “achievements” of the past thirty years of development can be summarized as the creation of an atomized precariat class with no job security and empty hopes of empty entrepreneurialism. Most importantly, the common consciousness we witnessed among Kazakh workers is decidedly missing.

Unlike Kazakhstan, because there was no significant concentration of industries located in one region or in several monotowns, the wage earners in Mongolia have been unable to form a common interest and thus mobilize their interests in some form of movement, where trade unions usually play a leading role. Not surprisingly, in the last few years only teachers and doctors have been able to mobilize protests to raise their concerns, primarily because of their still visible professional solidarity, together with their bare minimum salary of around 249 USD for teachers and 290 USD for doctors compared to national average of around 340 USD.

That is why the occasional demonstrations at the central square are not interest-based but often make broader and more abstract demands such as greater transparency, no corruption or are instigated by the seasonal political scandals that these days come in routine. Often these demonstrations are staged or supported by rivaling political parties so that the words like protests (temtsel) and demonstrations (jagsaal) became trivialized in public consciousness.

Moreover, compared to Kazakhstan where both private and state-owned mining companies are at the center of the contention, there is no clear target for the Mongolian precariat to channel their grievances but to themselves – a result of a thirty-year neoliberal dogma indigenized in Mongolia with all sorts of culturalist explanations championed by the likes of the Baabar[i]; or rightly so, the blame is often directed towards the state (tur) and the government (zasag) for not providing enough for its citizens reduced as subjects. The absence of a clear target for the Mongolian precariat to confront then fosters conspiracy, with its fake targets, which are then used to discredit their cause and their entire agency. While in Kazakhstan everything wrong can be directed to Nazarbayev and his family, the collective project of Mongolian democracy removes any such singular figure and leaves it to an individual, a voter. Thus the saying: Yamar ard tumen baina, tiim l tur baina – roughly translated ‘as the people are, so is the state’.

That is why it is almost impossible for broad mass movements to emerge in contemporary Mongolia without the specific demands that articulate the common interests based on the common consciousness of certain social groups, in this case, Mongolian workers.

Finally, why should we look upon social movements as something to aspire for? Many might say, mass movements and demonstrations lead to nothing but chaos, disruptions of normal life and even to unnecessary violence. To push against this, in many ways, modern history is the history of mass movements. It is the arena to enter when formal politics has failed to deliver. From raising a salary to civil rights – many of the things we take for granted today were all fought through contentious social movement. And when democracy erodes, it might be the only avenue to push for real politics.

[i] Baabar (Batbayar) is a columnist, a former politician who served as a minister of finance between 1998-1999 and one of the most influential public intellectuals in Mongolia. He is considered an important figure behind the democratic revolution in the 1990s. Today, he runs major publishing house Nepko, as well as popular site one of the earliest internet platforms in Mongolia for political discussion

Manlai N. Chonos is a social scientist based in Germany. He can be found @mchonos on social media and through his blog