Technology

Kazakhstan's Deadly Protests Hit Bitcoin, as the World's Second-Biggest Mining Hub Shuts Down

Pavel Mikheyev | Reuters
  • The second-biggest country for bitcoin mining lost its internet access, taking as much as 15% of the network offline.
  • Kazakhstan is home to coal mines that provide a cheap and abundant supply of energy, which is a major incentive to miners who compete in a low-margin industry, where their only variable cost is typically energy.
  • Bitcoin fell below $43,000 for the first time since September in trade on Thursday, falling over 8% at one point.

As the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan plunged into chaos this week, an internet shutdown hit the world's second-biggest bitcoin mining hub, in yet another blow to miners searching for a permanent and stable home.

Less than a year ago, China banished all of its cryptocurrency miners, many of whom sought refuge in neighboring Kazakhstan. But months after these crypto migrants set up shop, protests over surging fuel prices have morphed into the worst unrest the country has seen in decades, leaving crypto miners caught in the middle.

After sacking his government and requesting the aid of Russian paratroopers to contain the fatal violence, president Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered the nation's telecom provider to shutter internet service. That shutdown took an estimated 15% of the world's bitcoin miners offline, according to Kevin Zhang of digital currency company Foundry, which helped bring over $400 million of mining equipment into North America.

As Kazakh miner Didar Bekbau put it, "No internet, so no mining."

Bitcoin dropped below $43,000 for the first time since September in trade on Thursday, falling over 8% at one point. The price move followed the release of hawkish minutes from the Federal Reserve's December meeting. Castle Island Ventures' Nic Carter thinks the supply delta from changing the pace of mining is minimal and that the falling price of bitcoin is more a function of the Fed and "general risk-off behavior."

Internet service was briefly restored in the country, but data from monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory shows that connectivity levels continue to flatline at just 5% of ordinary levels across the country.

"It's now Friday morning in Kazakhstan where internet has been shut down for some 36 hours, placing public safety at risk and leaving friends and family cut off," NetBlocks wrote in a tweet.

The entire episode lays bare two significant facts about the state of the bitcoin mining industry. For one, the bitcoin network is resilient to the point that it doesn't skip a beat, even when a substantial portion of miners are unexpectedly taken offline. Second, the U.S. may soon see a fresh influx of crypto miners looking to avoid future disruptions.

The question now is whether the U.S., which eclipsed China as the planet's largest bitcoin mining hub in 2021, has the room to take in any more miners.

"What's concerning is that previous congestion and bottlenecks around hosting capacity (readily available space to plug machines into) will be squeezed that much tighter," explained Zhang.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure and demand for hosting capacity," he said.

Bitcoin mining in Kazakhstan

When Beijing kicked out all its bitcoin miners in May 2021, Kazakhstan seemed like a logical destination. Beyond the fact that it was right next door, the country is also a major energy producer.

Mining is the energy-intensive computing process used to create new coins and maintain a log of all transactions. Kazakhstan is home to coal mines that provide a cheap and abundant supply of energy, which is a major incentive to miners who compete in a low-margin industry where their only variable cost is typically energy.

It also helps that the Kazakh government typically has a more lax attitude about building, which is good for for miners who need to construct physical installations in a short period of time. 

Bekbau runs Xive, a company that provides hosting services to international miners and sells the specialized equipment needed for mining. In the last several months, he's fielded countless inbounds from Chinese miners looking for a safe place to plug in their gear.

Kazakhstan is just behind the U.S. in terms of its share of the global bitcoin mining market, with 18.1% of all crypto mining, according to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.

But the government hasn't exactly been thrilled about its burgeoning crypto mining industry.

For months, Kazakh lawmakers have been setting down new rules to discourage mining, including a law that will introduce extra taxes for crypto miners starting in 2022. Experts expect the move will significantly change the incentives for people looking to deploy capital inside Kazakhstan.

"The internet outage comes at the heels of efforts to impose a de facto ban on new mining in the country, so miners will have been well aware of the political risk there," said Carter.

"These bans just underscore why miners are increasingly locating themselves in politically stable jurisdictions," continued Carter.

Several mining experts also tell CNBC they think that Kazakhstan was always intended to be a temporary stopover on a longer migration west.

Alex Brammer of Luxor Mining, a cryptocurrency pool built for advanced miners, said that large miners were going to Kazakhstan in the short-term with older equipment.

"But as older-generation machines reach the end of their service lives, those companies will likely deploy new machines into more stable and energy efficient and renewable jurisdictions," Brammer said.

The U.S. has fast become a mecca for crypto mining, in part because it is home to some of the cheapest sources of energy on the planet, many of which tend to be renewable.

If miners do make their way west, it could bode well for the larger debate around bitcoin's carbon footprint.

Carter points out that Kazakh energy is carbon-intensive, so just like the Chinese ban, a prolonged outage in the Central Asian country would likely have the net effect of further decarbonizing bitcoin mining.

But not all are convinced of an imminent crypto mining exodus from Kazakhstan.

Alan Dorjiyev is president of the National Association of Blockchain and Data Centers Industry in Kazakhstan, whose membership is mostly comprised of mining companies. Dorjiyev tells CNBC that after speaking to owners of mining farms across the country, it is his understanding that most data centers are safe, because they are located in regions where there are no protests.

Bekbau also remains optimistic, tweeting that he hopes by next week, "everything will be okay."

Whether miners make the move out of Central Asia or not, industry experts tell CNBC that the biggest takeaway of this entire ordeal is the fact that bitcoin mining has yet again survived another stress test with little drama.

"As we saw with China, when a country demonstrates it's unstable for mining bitcoin, miners in that country will move elsewhere," said bitcoin mining engineer Brandon Arvanaghi, who now runs Meow, a company that enables corporate treasury participation in crypto markets.

"This is how the bitcoin network gets more resilient over time. Miners migrate towards the most favorable jurisdictions, making disruptions less and less frequent."

Copyright CNBCs - CNBC
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