ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Mass protests in Kazakhstan began peacefully over the New Year weekend, with marchers decrying a sharp rise in fuel prices. They quickly spread from the western part of the Central Asian nation to more populated areas, eventually reaching its largest city of Almaty.
But something changed in a week.
Groups of armed men appeared in Almaty, some were seen in cars without license plates or with their faces covered. Protesters at the peaceful protests say these men began urging them to storm government buildings, promising to give them guns.
Clashes with the police soon erupted, and by the night of January 5, Almaty was in chaos. City Hall was burning, as were cars and buses; stores were looted; and attempts were made to storm the presidential residence. Gunshots were heard in the streets, the internet was cut, and even the airport was briefly seized.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed the unrest on “terrorists” who received foreign training and support.
But nearly two weeks after the events that left dozens dead and around 16,000 arrested, the government has presented no evidence to support its claim of outside involvement.
It remains unclear if these more violent actors were individuals taking advantage of the chaos to loot and vandalize stores, or if they were part of organized groups with broader political motives.
Protesters, however, say their rallies were somehow undermined, leading to a crackdown by security forces. Tokayev said authorities did not use force during peaceful protests.
Although protests began over higher fuel prices, the scope and agenda of the protests quickly widened. Large crowds gathered in major cities, expressing frustration over deteriorating living conditions and inequality under the authoritarian government that has maintained a stranglehold on power for more than three decades in the energy-rich nation of 19 millions of inhabitants.
Much of that happened under longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favor of Tokayev, his hand-picked successor, but maintained influence behind the scenes. The slogan “Shal ket!” “Old man, go ahead! – was chanted at rallies.
“A significant part of the people are those who have come at the call of their hearts to express their attitude towards the authorities, because they are tired, because they do not feel that the state provides them social security,” said a human rights activist. Galym Ageleuov, president of the Liberty Foundation.
Tokayev initially tried to calm the crowds by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and returning Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council, a move widely seen as an attempt to end patronage. former ruler while consolidating power.
But protests continued and violence escalated amid peaceful rallies in Almaty.
A protester whose first name is Bezshan said that on January 5, gunmen approached and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm a police station. “They said they would distribute weapons,” he told The Associated Press, recalling the incident more than a week later. AP chose not to release the full names of protesters interviewed out of an abundance of caution for their safety.
Beken, another protester, said he also saw ‘provocateurs’ at the rally that day, calling for an attack on the police: ‘We tried to stop them as much as we could, telling them: ‘Everything everyone, stay put.’ We don’t need weapons, we came out for a peaceful rally,” he said.
On January 6, security forces opened fire and killed dozens of protesters. At least 12 officers were also reportedly killed. The next day, Tokayev announced that he had ordered the security forces to shoot to kill to end the violent unrest, saying: “We intend to act with the utmost severity towards the offenders”.
Almaty police spokeswoman Saltynat Azirbek called the January 5 attack on the police department a “real battle”.
The attackers “made no demands”, she told reporters. “They came deliberately to destroy, to kill.”
She also insisted that police were unarmed when working at unauthorized protests in Almaty, but did not say whether she was referring to the January 6 rally.
Amid the bloodshed, Tokayev also called in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet states, which helped restore order.
Some saw the blaming of foreign instigators as a pretext to bring in predominantly Russian forces.
“To invite Russian troops, you need a serious reason (…) which is not an internal confrontation with the people,” political analyst Dimash Alzhayev said in an interview. “So naturally (the authorities) had to find terrorists.”
A protester named Marat told AP that authorities “have shown us no terrorists so far”, citing only the high-profile arrest of Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
The musician appeared on Kazakh television after his arrest with large bruises on his face and said on the show that he had arrived by plane and was promised money for his participation in the protests.
Kyrgyz authorities protested Ruzakhunov’s arrest and demanded that Kazakhstan release him. He was released soon after and when he returned to Kyrgyzstan he said his statement on Kazakh TV was false – he was visiting a friend in Almaty and got swept away trying to leave the city.
Ruzakhnunov told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that while he was detained, his cellmates said the fastest way to be released was to confess a false story, so that’s what he did.
Alzhanov, the analyst, noted that Kazakh public broadcasters amplified the government’s message by repeatedly airing videos of the turmoil.
“They continued to release the visuals, so the government was interested in releasing them to a wide audience,” he said, adding that the state of emergency that had been declared provided a pretext to quell the protests by strength.
A protester named Daulet told AP he believed “the security forces deliberately portrayed the protesters as some kind of fringe group ready to revolt.”
Beken, the protester who described seeing what he called “provocateurs”, criticized the security forces “for firing on their own people”. He said a Jan. 6 rally he attended featured protesters marching towards the military with a white flag.
“It is unfathomable. I can’t understand it. How is that possible?” he said.