Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not sweeten his words when he launched a broadside against his own government over sugar shortages and rocketing food prices on July 14.
It is not surprising that the situation is ringing alarm bells in Kazakhstan, where socioeconomic discontent was a major factor in bringing protesters onto the streets in January in civil unrest that turned fatal.
Inflation on foodstuffs has hit nearly 20 percent and some commodities have gone up by 80 percent, Tokayev fumed at a cabinet meeting.
Overall inflation, which is “the most serious problem,” is running at a seven-year high, he said, in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz.
“Inflation on foodstuffs has influenced the rise in prices. Its level has reached 19.2 percent. As a whole, some foodstuffs have gone up by 80 percent,” he said.
The price of sugar has gone up by 79 percent this year, official data released on July 1 show.
The price of other basic commodities is also rocketing. Flour is up by 33 percent, pasta and poultry by 30 percent, bread by 17 percent, and cooking oil by 16 percent.
Inflation on goods and services is running at 14.5 percent, the highest level since 2015, Tokayev said.
He acknowledged the influence of rising global prices for food and commodities, without dwelling on the role Russia’s war in Ukraine is playing in creating and fueling food shortages and inflation around the world.
Tokayev had harsh words for his government, whom he blamed for failing to rein in inflation and keep supermarket shelves filled with basic commodities like sugar.
“The government wants to stop inflation in the old-style manner and is allocating extra funds from the budget and correcting prices only artificially,” he said. “In other words, the fight is being waged not with the reasons for high prices but with the consequences. But, in fact, it should be the other way around.”
Tokayev complained that central government officials were dumping responsibility for controlling food prices on local officials. Local officials, in turn, are “using the administrative resource and going around stores” to monitor prices because “there are no new approaches and ideas,” he said.
Tokayev did not, however, suggest what those new ideas should be.
He reserved particular ire for his trade and agriculture ministers, who got the blame for sugar shortages that have plagued Kazakhstan for months and caused occasional stampedes at stores as shoppers jostle to get their hands on dwindling supplies.
Kazakhstan is dependent on imports for 90 percent of its sugar supplies, said Tokayev.
Only four of seven sugar refining plants in Kazakhstan are functioning, he complained. And even they are crying out for modernization, according to officials.
Government promises to increase the area of land planted with sugar beet six-fold by 2026 are all well and good, but the figure has fallen by a third over the last four years, Tokayev exclaimed.
Trade Minister Bakhyt Sultanov and Agriculture Minister Yerbol Karashukeyev received official reprimands over the sugar shortages, which Tokayev described as a “serious failing by the government.”
Tokayev did acknowledge that the policies of a Russia-led trading bloc of which Kazakhstan is a member had contributed to woes over food prices and supplies.
He did not specify which Eurasian Economic Union decisions he was referencing, but there has been plenty of wrangling over Russia’s insistence that the entire bloc impose grain quotas and tariffs on exports to third countries, a policy that Kazakhstan has opposed.
Russia’s actions since it invaded Ukraine have made a mockery of the spirit of the ostensible free trade bloc. In March, Moscow slapped bans on exports of commodities such as grain and sugar, and it extended this ban to fellow member states. That ban on sugar exports sparked shortages in Kazakhstan, which then imposed its own export ban. This in turn fueled smuggling to Kazakhstan from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, an EAEU member that is reliant on Russia for 99 percent of its sugar imports. Bishkek ended up imposing its own export ban.
A pithy headline from Bishkek-based outlet Kaktus Media summed up the mounting mood across Central Asia in a report published on July 14: “Sugar Hell.”