When Denis Rusinovich set up cryptocurrency mining company Maveric Group in Kazakhstan in 2017, he thought he had hit the jackpot. Next door to China and Russia, the country had everything a Bitcoin miner could ask for: a cold climate, legions of old warehouses and factories where the mining rigs could be installed, and—especially—dirt cheap energy to power the electricity-guzzling process through which cryptocurrency is minted.
“That was a good opportunity,” Rusinovich says. When China outlawed cryptocurrency mining overnight last June, many miners based in the country—which at the time made up between 60 and 70 percent of Bitcoin’s mining network—made the same call and hastily relocated to Kazakhstan, bringing to the country as many as 87,849 mining machines, according to a Financial Times estimate. Less than a year later, the initial buzz is history: Miners are now being confronted with frozen machines, popular unrest, and Russian troops roaming across the country. And leaving is not an option.
Last week, chaos engulfed Kazakhstan as protests in the south of the country over a spike in fuel prices resulted in police repression, the removal of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev from his role as head of the security council, and an internet shutdown. Russian-led troops acting under the orders of the CSTO, a military alliance of post-Soviet states, were deployed to the country. The shutdown’s impact on crypto mining was evident—the Bitcoin network lost 12 percent of its hashrate. Jaran Mellerud, an analyst at cryptocurrency insights company Arcane Research, estimates that the shutdown alone, which added up to about 100 hours without nation-wide connectivity over six days, might have cost Kazakh miners around $20 million, or $4.8 million for every 24 hours with no internet. For many miners, that was just the latest in a series of unfortunate circumstances that had dogged their operations for months. Those tempted to relocate to the country for its low energy prices had found that its aging power grid was not prepared to handle the sudden influx of miners, which caused a spike in the consumption of energy. The government said mining accounts for 8 percent of the country’s capacity. Grappling with blackouts and power cuts, in October 2021 the government announced it would start rationing power supply to registered miners and unplug them if the grid came under any stress.
This means that, at best, cryptocurrency mining farms stop working during peak hours, when the general population turns on the heating due to the inclement winter. “From 6 pm to 11 pm—[the power providers] sometimes cut off electricity to our mining farms,” says Didar Bekbauov, founder of mining colocation company Xive. “That is definitely a problem. Hopefully when the winter season ends in March, we will be alright.” But in other cases, Rusinovich says, it was “no operation” at all. That is not only a problem in terms of lost gains—Rusinovich says miners lost “tens of millions of dollars” a month due to the power cuts, and Bekbauov says his mines are just about breaking even—but the weather presents an additional risk during shutdowns because condensation instantly freezes on mining machines in Kazakhstan's sub-zero climate, potentially damaging the hardware. “[If the machinery is] instantly shut down, if it's cold, it freezes solid,” he says. To guard that frozen stock during the protests, many miners decided to spend money on extra security, says Alan Dorjiyev, president of Kazakhstan's National Association of Blockchain and Data Centers Industry. “I talked to all the mining sector owners, and they said that they have increased the security for the mining facilities—because the equipment is quite expensive,” he says. That, he says, was despite the fact that most mining farms are located in the energy-rich north of the country, far from the turmoil.
So why are they still there? The answer is, brutally, that they are stuck. All the other major countries that have cryptocurrency mining infrastructure—including Russia, Canada, and the US— are grappling with an acute shortage of adequate facilities. “It could not be any worse—just there's no space, there's no capacity,” says Alex Brammer, vice president of business development at mining company Luxor Tech. “The largest American publicly traded mining companies are having significant problems getting their miners plugged in any time within the next three to six months.”
Someone coming out of Kazakhstan who doesn't already have a groundwork of relationships built up in their target jurisdiction will find it “pretty close to impossible,” Brammer says.
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Sam Doctor, head of research at digital asset brokerage and research company BitOoda, says the average waiting times to set up a new mining facility from scratch have skyrocketed to 24 months amid increasing demand and a cryptocurrency price rally. Even if that were taken care of, Kazakh miners—especially those previously based in China—will need to buy different types of energy transformers in order to be able to operate in the US, and waiting times for transformers are now around six to 12 months, Doctor says.
Even if they do manage to move, miners worry that it might not be worth it. Bekbauov says that shipping mining rigs to the US from Kazakhstan, for example, would take over two weeks, and the journey might actually end up damaging the devices. “When you're transporting used machines, they're more vulnerable to damage,” he says. Apart from the hefty shipping costs, moving the machines to the US would require a company to shell out enough money to pay for Kazakhstan’s export tax of 12 percent on the machine’s value, and for the 27.6 percent “Trump Tariff” on Chinese goods, given that most mining machines are made in China. Russia is a more affordable option, but Bekbauov says it suffers from the same shortage of mining infrastructure as the US. “That's why we try to remain in Kazakhstan,” he says. Rusinovich, similarly, has no plans to move his machines just yet, worried that, due to the current political tensions, traveling across and out of the country would become much more challenging. “Even going to [bordering] Russia will likely be affected: Can you imagine the customs process nowadays?” he says. “The [Kazakh] government is so worried they'll be checking every single shipment.”
Extra checks can cause even more costly delays to those determined to leave. “For the time being, it is actually wait and see,” Rusinovich says.
That is not to say that nothing will change. Mining company Bitfufu packed up in December 2021, and Dorjiyev claims that another three companies followed suit (but did not name them). Luxor’s Brammer has heard from another unnamed Kazakhstan-based company looking to relocate in the wake of the past few days’ events. But an exodus this is not. “We would have expected at least something similar to what happened when they announced the China ban—where our phones are just ringing off the hook. And we haven't seen that yet out of Kazakhstan,” Brammer says.
That would be quite a dramatic reversal of fortune for a country that just a couple of months ago was in the top three of global crypto mining powers. And some people, in fact, remain optimistic that this has just been a rough patch for Kazakhstan. Dorjiyev, the trade association president, says the government’s plan to better regulate the country’s cryptocurrency mining sector while uprooting unregistered mining operations will bring more stability and clarity to the industry—even if he fears that the ongoing crisis might distract the government from moving forward with the plan. Bekbauov says the government has promised to increase the country’s energy generation capacity, and that cryptocurrency mining companies themselves might play a role in helping the country meet the required production levels. “We are looking for energy projects to invest money in,” he says. “We are looking for opportunities to build some wind power stations, or hydropower stations, and see what can be done in Kazakhstan.”
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The real impact is going to be felt in the long run. Rusinovich says he has “fully reassessed” any new investment in Kazakhstan. As we speak on the phone, Bekbauov is in the US, “researching the market” for new locations. “Kazakhstan is not where the future is,” BitOoda’s Doctor says. Once—if—the internal situation stabilizes and the lack of mining facilities becomes less dramatic, it is quite possible that some of Kazakhstan’s miners will come unstuck and move elsewhere. But there is also a possibility that those machines will just remain there, quietly humming till the end of their life cycle, never to be replaced once they have stopped functioning. “So there may be a mining graveyard that emerges in Kazakhstan for some of the older-generation machines,” says Brammer. “You know, like Soviet bunkers full of uranium and old ASICs.”
Updated 1/12/2022 12:13 PM ET: This story has been updated to clarify that Kazakhstan's internet shutdown has ended.
Updated 1/13/2022 9:00 am ET: This story has been updated to clarify Mellerud’s estimate of what the shutdown might have cost Kazakh miners.
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