In the night of 4 to 5 January, Masja was startled by a loud bang. An earthquake, the twenty-something thought, and she got out of bed in her home in the center of Almaty, in southeastern Kazakhstan. When she opened the window, she began to cough from the smoke. She heard explosions and screams and saw the buildings light up. She called friends and family in other parts of the city and learned that violent protests had broken out. “The internet had already been shut down for two days, there were police everywhere and I had trouble getting to work,” she says by phone. Like many Kazakhs, she is hesitant to speak openly, and does not want her full name in the newspaper.
The next morning she left for a friend in the higher part of the city, where the Tian Shan Mountains begin. “I first saw protesters on the street. Lots of men and a few women, they were quiet and peaceful. I did see traces of the nighttime violence, but otherwise it was quiet.”
She stayed with her friend. That night, violent riots broke out again between rioters and riot police. The town hall was stormed. “We heard explosions and shots.” When the friends ventured outside on January 6, they found havoc: burned-out cars and fire trucks, overturned benches. The presidential residence had gone up in flames. “There was a lot of blood on the cobblestones, empty bottles were everywhere and liquor stores had been looted.”
Never before has the new year started so restlessly for Kazakhstani. What began on January 2 in the west of the country as a peaceful protest against an increase in fuel prices quickly escalated into the most violent anti-government uprising in the history of the former Soviet country. People took to the streets in all seven district centers of the country, but it was in Almaty – the demographic and economic center of gravity – that the most violent riots broke out. Government buildings went up in flames, shops were looted, statues were knocked down. In many parts of the country, the government shut down the internet, causing panic.
A week later, the dazed population is left with untold questions. How could the situation in their relatively stable country get so out of hand? Who were the rioters? How’s it going?
In the meantime, the internet and air traffic have been restored, and the fog is slowly lifting. The government speaks of 2,000 injured and 146 killed, including three children and 16 police officers. A four-year-old girl died in Almaty when the car she was in was riddled with bullets. At least ten thousand people have been arrested.
Boys with police shields
“These were tough days,” Yevgeny Zhovtis says by phone. Zhovtis, 66, is the director of the International Bureau for Human Rights and one of the country’s most prominent human rights activists. Like Masja, he lives in the center of Almaty and followed the events via social media and telephone. “Fortunately, we had enough food at home and I have many contacts through my work and fame.” When the internet shut down, he resorted to television. “It’s kind of funny that I now had to watch state TV, which I never do because of the propaganda. But other channels were blocked by the government. Luckily I have cable TV and I was able to follow the international news.”
According to Zhovtis, the situation in the city escalated as more and more interest groups joined the peaceful demonstrators: banned political parties, but also influential figures at odds with the government. Such as the former Kazakh banker and politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, who was granted political asylum in France last year and opposite Reuters news agency as the leader of the protests. Added to this were groups of young people who hold a grudge against the government because of a lack of work and future prospects. A hard core clashed with the riot police, who started shooting.
Masja also lost an acquaintance when the car he was driving came under fire. Four occupants were killed. Who was shooting? The young woman does not know, but refuses to believe that the police would shoot at cars in broad daylight. “I don’t know who they were or where they came from. What is certain is that they were radicals, barbarians.” On the street she saw grown boys armed with police shields and spades.
Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokajev spoke of a foreign terror attack and a ‘coup attempt’. “The battle must be fought to the end. Those who do not surrender will be destroyed.” He warned that live ammunition would be used, but to what extent this has happened remains unclear. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent a peacekeeping force under the flag of the regional security organization CSTO, also spoke of foreign interference.
Yevgeny Zhovtis believes little of the official story. The activist estimates the number of protesters in Almaty at about 20,000. “There were certainly provocateurs and armed groups, but that’s a minority, maybe 15 percent.” According to him, initially small-scale protests turned into national popular anger against the corrupt elites. Many people live in poverty and do not benefit from the enormous wealth of raw materials in the country. In addition, people are outraged by the power that 81-year-old former president Nursultan Nazarbayev has exercised for three decades. It seems to be over for him: Tokaev seized the crisis to push Nazarbayev and his clan out of politics.
Few dare to talk to the press, but 33-year-old Misja does want to say something anonymously. He speaks short audio messages with a heavy bass voice. He is an undertaker in Almaty, his Instagram account shows a variety of coffins. “It was terrible, people have died, children. The police had no chance against the masses. People were scared and panicked.” According to Misja there were many dead, bullet holes in their bodies. That information cannot be verified by NRC.
Street protests in all seven district centers
‘Journalists are complicit’
The big question is what will happen to the ten thousand detainees who were arrested. Prison conditions are poor, torture is widespread. In addition, the prison system in Kazakhstan is not under the supervision of the Justice Department, but of the Interior, which also monitors the police. Zjovtis: „The government does not give us any information. We know that the police stations are overcrowded, that people have been moved to other places, and that lawyers are barely allowed in. We can only guess at the rest.”
Journalists were arrested in several cities. One of them is Darchan Omirbek, 31, who died on January 4. report of the demonstrations in the capital Nur-Sultan. He works for the Kazakh branch of the American news site Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL), one of the rare independent media outlets that reports in Kazakh and Russian. “I’m usually in the office, but it was the weekend and colleagues were urgently needed to understand what was going on.” In the center he found hundreds of protesters demanding economic and political reforms.
He started a live blog with his cell phone, but when the batteries ran out in the freezing cold, he had to go home. “When I returned, riot police were dispersing the crowd and making massive arrests. The internet was cut off, so we couldn’t get online.” Although he identified himself as a journalist, Omirbek was also arrested. In the detainee car he managed to put a live video on Instagram.
After four and a half hours he was allowed to leave the crowded police station. “I think they were careful with me. Radio Svoboda is a well-known medium and they wanted to avoid an international scandal.” Omirbek struggles with the privilege that saved him. “Suppose I had worked for a Kazakh news site, or had been a regular protester. What would they have done to me then? Not everyone has a lawyer.” The journalist fears that press freedom will be further curtailed by the authorities. “President Tokaev said last week that journalists are complicit in the situation and have incited the crowd.”
Despite the violence and casualties, many Kazakhstani seem happy that the government has intervened to restore order and that Nazarbayev has left the field. Masja does not want to say anything about him, but about the president. “My friends and I believe in President Tokaev’s good intentions. He has proved to be a good and strong leader, who did not hide when the going got tough, and who has protected his people. But this is far from over.”
Foto Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 15 January 2022 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of 15 January 2022