ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Mass protests in Kazakhstan began peacefully over the New Year’s weekend, with marchers denouncing a sharp rise in fuel prices. They spread rapidly across the western part of the Central Asian country to more populated areas, eventually reaching its largest city, Almaty.
But something changed over the course of a week.
Crowds of armed men showed up in Almaty, where they were seen in cars without license plates or with their faces covered. Marchers who took part in the peaceful protest said the men began urging them to storm government buildings, promising them guns.
Clashes with the police soon erupted, and by the evening of January 5, Almaty was plunged into chaos. City halls were burning, as were cars and buses; stores were looted; and attempts were made to raid the presidential residence. There were gunshots in the streets, internet outages, and even the airport was briefly occupied.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed the unrest on “terrorists” trained and supported by foreign countries.
But nearly two weeks after the events that left dozens dead and about 16,000 arrested, the government has offered no evidence to support its allegations of outside involvement.
It was unclear whether these more violent actors were individuals who used the riots to loot and vandalize stores, or were part of a larger politically motivated organized group.
However, protesters said their rallies were disrupted in some way, leading to a crackdown by security forces. Tokayev has said the authorities did not use force during peaceful demonstrations.
Although the protests started with rising fuel prices, the demonstrations quickly expanded in scope and agenda. Large crowds rallied in major cities to express their dissatisfaction with deteriorating living conditions and inequalities in an authoritarian government that has held power firmly for more than 30 years in this energy-rich country of 19 million people.
Much of it happened under longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favor of his handpicked successor, Tokayev, but has maintained behind-the-scenes influence force. The slogan “Shal ket!” – “Go old man!” – was chanted at the rally.
“A large part of the people are people who express their attitude towards the authorities under the call of their hearts, because they are tired, because they feel that the state is not providing them with social security,” said the human rights activist. Ghalim Ahmed, president of the Freedom Foundation. Greuf.
Tokayev initially tried to reassure the population by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and dismissing Nazarbayev, chairman of the National Security Council, in a move widely seen as an attempt to end the former leader’s patronage while cementing that power.
But protests continued and violence escalated during peaceful rallies in Almaty.
One protester, Bezshan, said that on January 5, armed men approached and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm the police station. “They said they would distribute weapons,” he told The Associated Press, recalling the incident more than a week later. The Associated Press chose not to release the full names of the protesters it interviewed, citing security concerns.
Another protester, Behnken, who also saw “provocateurs” at the rally that day, urged an attack on the police: “We tried to stop them as much as possible, telling them: ‘Everyone, stay where you are. ‘” We don’t need weapons, we come out for peaceful rallies,” he said.
On January 6, security forces shot and killed dozens of protesters. At least 12 police officers were reportedly killed. The next day, Tokayev announced that he had issued a shooting order to the security forces to stop the violent unrest, saying: “We intend to take the harshest action against the violators.”
Almaty police spokesman Saltynat Azirbek called the January 5 attack on the police station “a proper fight”.
She told reporters that the attackers “made no demands”. “They came to sabotage, to kill on purpose.”
She also insisted that the police were unarmed while working at the unsanctioned demonstrations in Almaty, but she did not clarify whether she was referring to the Jan. 6 rally.
Amid the bloodshed, Tokayev also called in the troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military coalition of six former Soviet states that helped restore order.
Some see accusations of foreign agitators as a pretext for bringing in Russian troops.
“In order to invite the Russian army, you need a serious reason … this is not an internal confrontation with the people,” political analyst Dimash Arzayev said in an interview. “So naturally, (authorities) need to take out terrorists.”
A protester named Marat told The Associated Press that authorities “haven’t shown us a single terrorist so far,” citing only Vikram Ruza, a famous jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Vikram Ruzakhunov’s widely publicized arrest.
The musician appeared on Kazakh TV with large bruises on his face after his arrest and said on the radio that he had flown in and promised to fund the protests.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan protested the arrest of Ruzakunov and demanded his release from Kazakhstan. He was released shortly after, returning to Kyrgyzstan saying his statement on Kazakh TV was wrong – he was visiting a friend in Almaty and was involved in trying to leave the city .
Ruzakhnunov told the Kyrgyz Broadcasting Corporation that while in prison, his cellmates said the fastest way to release is to admit false stories, so that’s what he did.
Analyst Arzanov noted that Kazakhstan’s state broadcaster amplifies the government’s message by repeatedly broadcasting videos of the unrest.
“They continue to show the videos, so the government is interested in getting them to a wide audience,” he said, adding that the declared state of emergency provided a pretext for a violent crackdown on the demonstrations.
One protester, Daulet, told The Associated Press that he believed “security forces have deliberately portrayed the protesters as some sort of fringe group ready to riot.”
Protester Behnken said he saw what he called “provocateurs” who criticized security forces for “shooting at their own people.” He said he attended a rally on Jan. 6 where protesters marched toward the army with white flags.
“It’s unfathomable. I can’t understand. How is this possible?” he said.