How Western Media Framed Kazakhstan’s Protests

Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 5. Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 5. Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

Harrowing images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shocked the public—but also raised tough questions about whose lives matter in the West. Critics have focused on the telling contrast in coverage between the welcome given to Ukrainian refugees and the cold shoulder given to those from countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan as well as the lack of assistance provided to African and South Asian students trying to leave Ukraine. Before the Russian invasion, however, another country in Eurasia elicited similar questions.

On Jan. 2, protests in western Kazakhstan over a steep rise in fuel prices spread across the country, reflecting the population’s deep-seated anger with corruption, lack of civil rights, and economic inequality and stagnation. Just three days later, protests in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, grew to an unprecedented scale—but also went off course. Groups of armed men allegedly connected to organized crime groups, set city hall on fire, looted shops and ATMs, and briefly seized the city’s airport, seemingly as part of an opportunistic power struggle among the country’s elites.

The Kazakh government claimed that all protesters were “terrorists” funded by foreign malign actors, declared a state of emergency, and requested support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization—a military alliance between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. On Jan. 6, more than 3,000 troops, most of them from Russia, descended on Almaty, establishing checkpoints and brutally sweeping the city.

Although the protests in Kazakhstan’s biggest city saw outbursts of violence, those in the rest of the country remained peaceful. Moreover, as the government brutally cracked down in Almaty, protesters across Kazakhstan came out with signs that highlighted the peaceful nature of their dissent. Yet many major international news outlets ran stories that focused only on the violence and destruction perpetrated by a minority unassociated with the peaceful protesters, going so far as to refer to the events as “riots”. The BBC ran the headline “Kazakhstan: Why are there riots and why are Russian troops there?” Le Monde wrote: “Riots in Kazakhstan leave 225 dead”. Al Jazeera followed with “Kazakhstan: More than 160 killed, 5,000 arrested during riots”, and Deutsche Welle reported on how “Almaty picks up the pieces after riots”.

“International media became really interested in Kazakhstan only when the protests turned violent”, noted Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington. “We saw how images of burned vehicles and buildings dominated the coverage. I don’t think the international media would be as interested in Kazakhstan if not for the violence that broke out”.

Focusing on the violence and descriptions of “riots” was a particular choice. Using “protests” legitimizes the expression of discontent, presenting it as orderly and confined to socially acceptable boundaries. “Riots”, by contrast, shifts the focus away from the legitimate grievances of participants and implies chaos and illegitimacy while ignoring the fact that in repressive societies like Kazakhstan, where the government has spent the past 30 years curtailing civil rights and gutting the country’s civil society and independent media, aggressive acts of civil disobedience are often the only way to express popular anger. They are, to quote former activist Martin Luther King Jr., “the language of the unheard”.

That was visible in the way even respected and independent Russian media covered the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Yulia Latynina, a high-profile columnist for the independent Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta, wrote an article where she decried the “violence” of the BLM protests, going so far as to compare them to the violence perpetrated by the Soviet system and matching the tone of the American right-wing media’s coverage. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, white observers delegitimize the expression of grievances by people of color.

“Kazakhs are racialized and stereotyped in the West”, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the intersections of race, foreign policy, and culture in the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. “This both feeds off and into the idea that the country is not important to Western audiences”. Historian Francis Pike’s error-ridden article for the Spectator claiming that the protests in Kazakhstan were a “Jihadi takeover” provides a particularly egregious example of such racialization. Pike’s piece played into Western Islamophobic narratives that revive old Orientalist stereotypes that the citizens of Middle Eastern and Asian countries are inherently less rational and more violent than their counterparts in the white, Christian West.

“The protest coverage on Kazakhstan was racist, especially the written profiles on the country”, said Alexa Kurmanova, a doctoral student in the anthropology department at the University of California, Berkeley. “The New York Times profile asked the question of ‘why does it matter?’ This question is rarely if ever asked when it comes to perceived ‘white,’ ‘developed,’ or more ‘civilized’ spaces in Eurasia—such as in Russia or Eastern Europe. The discourse surrounding refugees in Ukraine has rooted within its ideologies of civilized and uncivilized, which deem some bodies deserving and others undeserving”.

Western media coverage of the events in Kazakhstan also illustrates the ways in which Western, predominantly white audiences have come to view civil disobedience. In her recent book, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement, Erin Pineda, an assistant professor of governance at Smith College, argues that the civil rights movement of the 1960s is the lens through which U.S. society views all civil disobedience, writing that “In popular American discourse, the civil rights movement operates not merely as a powerful example of civil disobedience but also as the horizon of judgement for all civil disobedience—one that is constantly receding and impossible to meet”.

Pineda goes on to argue that liberal understandings of this historical moment—which posits the movement’s success as being a result of “soliciting white empathy” and seeking legal dress—“[reinforce] the tacit presumptions of white supremacy” while intentionally washing the fact that the 1960s protests were often confrontational and violent out of the collective memory. Civil disobedience that does not live up to the post-civil rights era’s whitewashed ideas of peacefulness and legality while soliciting the empathy of white audiences is, thus, viewed as illegitimate.

During the 2012 protests in Russia against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency after briefly ceding it to Dmitry Medvedev, an aesthetic feature that received much international attention was the white ribbons—and other white objects, such as balloons and flags—used by the protesters. The accessory clearly connected the protesters’ actions to the color revolutions that had taken place in other former Soviet countries like the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 to 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, both of which had similar defining symbols. We can see the positive international perception of these protests as a response to the way they tapped into an established visual lexicon that represented pro-democratic—and therefore, in the minds of many, pro-Western—aspirations, while right-wing or nationalistic elements were ignored. The same happened with the Arab Spring protests, where the sweeping, shared aspirations to democracy got far more play in Western media than the complicated and often intensely local issues involved in particular countries.

The same phenomenon played out in the international response to Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014. In this case, the blue and yellow colors of the EU flag—fortuitously the same as the colors of the Ukrainian flag—provided the symbolism legible to a Western audience. Most recently, the protests in Belarus against the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko have been characterized by the predominance of red and white—colors drawn from the flag of the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic of 1918. Opposition leaders, such as Belarusian activists Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kalesnikava, have repeatedly stressed the peaceful nature of the protests; Kalesnikava’s now-famous heart gesture is emblematic of the emphatically nonviolent and hopeful image of the opposition movement.

The participants in these protests may not have always consciously made these aesthetic choices to court Western public opinion, but rather, that occidental political and cultural dominance is how they define the bounds of legitimate action in other countries, particularly in the post-Soviet space. Tsikhanouskaya’s tweet around Martin Luther King Jr. Day reinforces Pineda’s argument by explicitly drawing on the Western liberal understanding of the civil rights movement to legitimize the Belarusian protesters.

In her 2020 article, “The Future of Nonviolent Resistance”, Erica Chenoweth, professor of public policy at Harvard University, argued that the increasing ubiquity of nonviolent resistance coincides with its decreasing efficacy. One of the reasons for this phenomenon, she writes, is that authoritarian regimes are “learning and adapting to nonviolent challenges from below” and have “developed a repertoire of politically savvy approaches to repression”.

This argument is particularly relevant to the many undemocratic regimes that have emerged in formerly Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan. Allegations of foreign interference in any sort of political opposition, for example, gained currency after Russia’s introduction of the 2012 foreign agent law. Since then, nondemocratic actors across the region have adopted similar rhetoric. Lukashenko, for example, has repeatedly blamed opposition to his rule on Western provocation. The Kyrgyz government has also repeatedly sought to introduce its own version of Russia’s repressive legislation. It is no coincidence that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev deployed the trope of “foreign interference” during January’s unrest, stating that “Kazakhstan is facing an armed act of aggression well prepared and coordinated by perpetrators and terrorist groups trained outside the country”.

Given that authoritarian regimes are adapting, so too must the understanding of what constitutes legitimate resistance—and how the media should cover it. It is unrealistic to insist that protesting citizens unfailingly conform to the West’s peaceful ideal when the society in which they operate allows minimal avenues for being heard by those in power—and, indeed, when the latter themselves use violence as a means of repression. “Curriculums [in the United States] emphasize the peacefulness of Martin Luther King’s protests but do not discuss the violence against the peaceful protesters or that his peaceful movement ended in his assassination”, said St. Julian-Varnon. “If we only teach peaceful or nondisruptive protests as the only acceptable protest, then it follows that any protests that do not follow that formula are condemned”.

With Putin’s war in Ukraine understandably dominating the conversation, the world’s attention has turned away from Kazakhstan, where the government is refusing to disclose the names of the people who were killed during the January protests, continues to fend off credible accusations of torture against peaceful protesters, and is slowly walking back on its promises of systemic political and economic reforms. Lack of fair and balanced international coverage of countries like Kazakhstan does a disservice to its people and places accountability for its corrupt government even further out of reach.

Emily Couch is a British freelance writer who has written on politics and culture for publications such as the Moscow Times and the Calvert Journal. She lives and works in Washington. Sher Khashimov is a Tajikistan-born freelance journalist and researcher who examines social and cultural issues and issues of identity in post-Soviet Central Asia.

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