The riots that have been rocking Southwestern Kazakhstan since Friday have already led to forty casualties and at least fourteen deaths as protestors clash with police. Official government sources have referred to the rioters as mere “hooligans” and remain confident that the government will be able to put down the protests. They continue to assure outside observers that oil production will not be interrupted by the protests. Even so, the situation is reminiscent of the countless anti-government protests that have been spreading across the Middle East and Central Asia all year. Kazakhstan’s government seems to need only a small push to be on the verge of collapse – probably for the best. Whether it is the Arab Spring-esque protests spurred by disgruntled oil workers (reminiscent of the protests that started the situation in Libya) or the pervasive government corruption, there needs to be a stark shift in power if Kazakhstan is to continue on its quest to become a full-fledged democracy.

The Kazakh government shut down cell phone towers and Internet access in Zhanaozen following President Nazarbayev’s decision on Friday to declare a 20-day state of emergency in the province: Mubarak’s government acted similarly in the early days of the Arab Spring. The hacker network Telecomix has been attempting to secure Internet connection for people in the affected areas by providing free dial-up servers and publishing instructions on how volunteers can establish their own dialup service. The network has been successful before, creating modem connections for Egypt’s protestors earlier this year.

The two situations are not completely analogous, since as of now none of the protestors have been calling for Nazarbayev’s removal from the presidency of the former Soviet province. So far they have only been protesting mistreatment by the state-owned oil companies, including the waves of layoffs that occurred at the end of the summer. Nazarbayev’s hold on the presidency seems secure: though the government has held elections during his 20-year tenure, no one has run against him. Furthermore, in 2007, the Kazakh parliament lifted Nazarbayev’s term limit, effectively giving him the ability to remain in office for the rest of his life: all future presidents, however, will be limited to two terms. He has effectively become the state; as the only president since Soviet rule ended in 1991, it is unclear what would happen to Kazakh democracy were he to step down.

Corruption is an enormous problem in Kazakhstan, and the president himself is believed to have transferred up to $1 billion from the state-run oil companies to his own private bank accounts. He may also benefit from a friendship with a Kazakh-Israeli businessman, Alexnder Mashkevich, who may control up to one quarter of the Kazakh economy. The U.S. Justice Department investigated James Giffen, an American former advisor to Nazarbayev, on the charge of bribing the president for exclusive control over oil fields in northwestern Kazakhstan; Giffen pleaded guilty to one count of making an unlawful payment to a senior Kazakh official.

All this coupled with claims of mistreatment from the oil workers – all of whom work for state-owned firms -- does seem to indicate an important need for reform in Kazakhstan. It is as yet unclear whether the current riots will lead to a larger movement against the government, and as of now, it doesn’t seem that it will, though most information leaving the country is released by official government sources. Perhaps it is time that Nazararbayev take his own words to heart in an Op-Ed he wrote for the Washington Post in March of this year: if Kazakhstan’s road to democracy is “irreversible”, maybe he is an obstacle that needs to be overturned.