Crossroads Asia

Social Benefits Remain at the Heart of Ongoing Kazakh Frustration

Nearly a year after a tragic fire, mothers in Kazakhstan continue to stage protests against insufficient government support.

Social Benefits Remain at the Heart of Ongoing Kazakh Frustration
Credit: Pixabay

On Monday, dozens of women reportedly rallied in Nur-Sultan calling for increased social benefits. According to RFE/RL it is the second such rally in January alone. The protest underscores ongoing agitation and frustration with stagnation in Kazakhstan, much of it rooted in the gaps evident between the rich and the rest.

An estimated 50 protesters gathered at the Labor and Social Protection Ministry. As reported by RFE/RL, they were “demanding an increase in financial support to single mothers, mothers taking care of handicapped children, and those with low incomes.”

At the start of the year, Kazakh authorities increased the social allowance for families with multiple children — now about 10,100 tenges ($27) per child per month — but some among the protesting women said it’s not enough.

The protesters were invited by a representative of the mayor’s office to enter the building and discuss their demands. But journalists were refused entry and so the women also refused to go in.

There have been numerous triggers for such social issue-focused protests, but the deaths last year in February of five young girls in a fire touched a particularly sensitive nerve. The children — all between the ages of 3 months and 13 years — were home alone on a frigid February night in the Kazakh capital. Their parents were both working night shifts. The home, located in a new part of Nur-Sultan, had no gas connection yet and was warmed by a jury-rigged stove. 

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After the fire, a government official said it was caused by a violation of fire safety standards. Other government officials were similarly clinical. Deputy Employment and Social Protection Minister Svetlana Zhakupova, when asked why the parents were both working night shifts, according to Eurasianet, replied, “It’s their choice.” 

As the Carnegie Endowment’s Paul Stronski wrote last year, the house fire was not the only such incident that drew public outcry in recent years. “The house fire, however, epitomizes many of the country’s social problems, as well as the widening gap between the government and the governed,” he wrote.

And that gap remains evident. While Kazakhstan has made great economic strides since independence on the back of its oil industry, that wealth has not been equally distributed and those drawn to booming urban centers end up living in shoddy conditions, the result of poor planning and corruption. Stronski put it well: “There is a new Kazakh urban underclass and these five girls were likely part of it.”

In the year since that tragedy, the government has tried to assuage public concerns with action plans, new initiatives, and as noted above, a small increase in the allowance granted to families with multiple children. But Kazakhstan has also wavered in constructing a suitable narrative. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came into office after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation last March promising continuity. When people seek change, promising more of the same is precisely the wrong message — and Tokayev has followed it with other promises of continued improvement. The government’s new initiatives targeting various social issues are at risk of merely being paper tigers or simple band-aids.