Claremont, California (January 21, 2022)—Barbara Junisbai, Pitzer College associate professor of organizational studies, spoke about unrest in Kazakhstan during an online event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University on January 10, 2022. Junisbai joined four other experts in Central Asia for “What’s Happening in Kazakhstan,” a panel discussion about the social and political situation in Almaty, the country’s former capital.
In an introduction to the panel, the Central Asia Program (CAP) summarized recent events: “The riots that erupted on January 5, 2021, in Almaty and then spread to Kazakhstan’s other cities have taken the government by surprise, but signals of unrest were present since (Nursultan) Nazarbayev left the presidency in 2019.” According to the New York Times, protests against fuel prices morphed into violent classes across the country, leading to the worst unrest “the country had seen since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.”
CAP said the current situation would have long-term repercussions for the country: “The dismissal of the Cabinet, the removal of Nazarbayev from the Security Council presidency, the storm of the Parliament and the Almaty airport, as well as police violence will, without a doubt, mark a turning point in the history of Kazakhstan.”
In her remarks, Junisbai drew on her extensive research in post-Soviet politics and society and conversations with people living in Kazakhstan.
“I’ve lived in Kazakhstan off and on for various times, and that kind of anger there that I felt among Kazakhs who’ve moved to the capital, Nur-Sultan, or Almaty was there for a long, long time,” she said. “There are people who, up to the mid-2000s, expected that their lives would get better … People thought that their children would live better, and they haven’t.”
She spoke about political infighting, the influence of former president Nazarbayev’s family, the use and abuse of the word “terrorism,” and the many factors that led to the initial protests against rising fuel costs. A video and a transcript of the panel discussion and Junisbai’s full remarks are available on CAP’s website.
Junisbai is a recognized expert on politics, society, autocratic regimes, and democratic movements in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Eurasia. Last year, she was elected to the board of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS). In 2020, she was selected as a country expert on Kazakhstan for the Varieties of Democracy Project, a team of social scientists devoted to creating a better understanding of democracy and the factors necessary for creating representative governments. Her book manuscript on intra-elite conflict in post-Soviet autocracies is currently under review at a university press.
Prior to joining Pitzer’s faculty in the College’s Organizational Studies Field Group, Junisbai taught political science for two years at Nazarbayev University in Astana (Nur-Sultan), Kazakhstan. Earlier in her career, she also served as an information officer for the US Agency for International Development in Almaty. She and Pitzer Professor of Sociology Azamat Junisbai have published extensively on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other former Soviet countries in Central Asia.
Junisbai was joined on the panel by Pauline Jones, University of Michigan professor of political science; Nargis Kassenova, director of the Program on Central Asia at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies; Merkhat Sharipzhanov, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s senior central newsroom correspondent; and Temur Umarov, research consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center. The event was moderated by George Washington University Professor Marlene Laruelle and co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Barbara Junisbai earned her BA in international relations at San Francisco State University and her PhD in political science at Indiana University.