FILE – Riot police prepare to block protesters in central Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 5, 2022. At demonstrations in the largest city, Almaty, protesters say groups of armed men have reportedly joined the peaceful rallies, urging them to storm police stations and government buildings. (Vladimir Tretyakov/NUR.KZ via AP, file)
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Mass protests in Kazakhstan got off to a peaceful start over the New Year’s weekend as protesters denounced a sharp rise in fuel prices. They quickly spread from the western part of the Central Asian nation to more populous areas, eventually reaching the largest city of Almaty.
But over the course of a week something changed.
Groups of armed men emerged in Almaty, some of whom were seen driving in cars without license plates or with their faces covered. Demonstrators at the peaceful protests said these men began urging them to storm government buildings and promised to give them guns.
Clashes with the police soon broke out, and by the night of January 5 Almaty was in chaos. The town hall burned, as did cars and buses; shops were looted; and attempts were made to storm the President’s residence. Gunshots rang out in the streets, the internet went black, and even the airport was briefly confiscated.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has blamed the unrest on “terrorists” who were trained and supported abroad.
But nearly two weeks after the events, which led to scores of deaths and some 16,000 arrests, the government has presented no evidence to support its claims of outside involvement.
It remains unclear whether these more violent actors were individuals taking advantage of the chaos to loot and vandalize businesses, or whether they were part of organized groups with broader political motives.
However, protesters say their rallies were somehow undermined, leading to a crackdown by security forces. Tokayev said the authorities did not use force during peaceful demonstrations.
Although protests began over higher fuel prices, the demonstrations quickly expanded in scope and agenda. Large crowds gathered in major cities, venting their frustration at deteriorating living conditions and inequality under the authoritarian government that has gripped power in the energy-rich nation of 19 million people for over three decades.
Much of this happened under longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in 2019 in favor of Tokayev, his handpicked successor, but maintained his influence behind the scenes. The slogan “Shal ket!” – “Dude, go!” – was chanted at rallies.
“A significant part of the people are those who have come to their heart’s call to express their attitude towards the authorities because they are tired, because they do not feel that the state offers them social security,” said a human rights activist Galym Ageleuov , President of the Liberty Foundation.
Tokayev first tried to calm the crowds by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and deposing Nazarbayev as chairman of the National Security Council, a move widely seen as an attempt to end the former leader’s patronage while taking power to consolidate.
But protests continued and violence escalated amid peaceful rallies in Almaty.
A protester, whose first name was Bezshan, said that on January 5, gunmen approached and young people in the crowd asked to help them storm a police station. “They said they were going to distribute guns,” he told The Associated Press, recalling the incident more than a week later. AP has chosen not to release the full names of protesters it interviewed for security reasons.
Beken, another protester, said he also saw “provocateurs” at the rally that day and called for an attack on the police: “We tried to stop them as much as possible by telling them, ‘Everyone stay here.’ We don’t need guns, we came to a peaceful rally,” he said.
On January 6, security forces opened fire, killing dozens of demonstrators. At least 12 officers were also reported killed. The next day, Tokayev announced that he had ordered the security forces to end the violent unrest, saying, “We intend to use the utmost force against lawbreakers.”
Almaty police spokeswoman Saltynat Azirbek called the Jan. 5 attack on the police department “a real fight.”
The attackers “made no demands,” she told reporters. “They came on purpose to destroy, to kill.”
She also insisted that the police were unarmed when they worked at unauthorized demonstrations in Almaty, but did not explain if she meant the January 6 rally.
Amid the bloodshed, Tokayev also called in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military coalition of six former Soviet states that helped restore order.
Some saw blaming foreign instigators as an excuse to bring in the mostly Russian forces.
“To invite Russian troops, you need a serious reason … this is not an internal dispute with the people,” political scientist Dimash Alzhayev said in an interview. “So of course[the authorities]had to find terrorists.”
A protester named Marat told the AP that authorities “haven’t shown us a single terrorist so far,” citing only the widely publicized 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 program that he had flown in and was promised money to take part in the protests.
The Kyrgyz authorities protested against Ruzakhunov’s arrest and demanded Kazakhstan’s release. He was released shortly thereafter and, upon returning to Kyrgyzstan, said what he said on Kazakh television was false – he was visiting a friend in Almaty and got carried away trying to leave the city.
Ruzakhnunov told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that his cellmates in prison said the quickest way to be released was to confess to a false story, so he did.
Alzhanov, the analyst, noted that Kazakh state broadcasters reinforced the government’s message by repeatedly broadcasting videos of the unrest.
“They kept broadcasting the images, so the government was keen to get them out to a wide audience,” he said, adding that the declared state of emergency provided an excuse to use violence to quell the demonstrations.
A protester named Daulet told the AP he believed the “security forces deliberately portrayed the protesters as some sort of fringe group preparing for a riot.”
Beken, the protester who described seeing “provocateurs,” criticized the security forces “for shooting at their own people.” He said at a Jan. 6 rally he attended, protesters approached the military with a white flag.
“It’s incomprehensible. I can not understand. How is that possible?” he said.