In the late hours of January 5, residents of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, realized that the peaceful protests that had started in the country three days earlier over increased fuel prices were peaceful no more. It will take a while to understand what happened and – more importantly – who is responsible for the tragic turn of events.
That day, Aiman Umarova, a well-known Kazakh lawyer and activist, decided to see what was happening in the streets of central Almaty three days into the biggest protests in the 30-year history of independent Kazakhstan.
Umarova is no stranger to protests. Over the past several years she has frequented many anti-government meetings and rallies. As a lawyer she also worked with victims of the system, political opposition, and people accused of violent crimes, including terrorism.
But what she saw only a couple of blocks away from her home was not the type of rally she would usually participate in herself. The chaos on the streets, where only hours earlier the protesters had demanded economic and political changes, shook her to the core.
“There were sounds of gunfire. The streets were packed with people and it was impossible to pass. I saw young people, some of them wearing construction helmets, others in bulletproof vests, equipped with shovels and bats. They looked like they were going to war,” Umarova told The Diplomat.
“Many cars had no plates. Peaceful protesters were there, but there were also groups of clearly trained people who came to fight. A rally is when you come out and voice your demands. What these people wanted was unclear. Suddenly someone shouted ‘Let’s go to the airport’ and they started leaving.”
The images Umarova saw deeply troubled her. She no longer understood what was happening in her hometown. Groups of masked looters stormed shops, cafes, and public buildings, stealing and destroying everything they encountered in their path.
From January 5 to 8 she stayed at home. She was too afraid to leave the house and did not understand what was going on outside. For the next few days, Umarova and her two children slept all in one room. Falling asleep before 4 a.m. proved impossible.
“We cooked bread ourselves at home because we have a bread oven. All the shops were closed, but we had food for a few days. Sometimes relatives would bring us something, so we were not hungry. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t withdraw money because the banks were not working,” Umarova says.
“We did not know what to do with ourselves, we watched the same channels all over again, but information was scarce. Only a few governmental TV channels were working. People could not reach me because the internet was down. It’s scary to be offline. It’s scary not to know what’s going on.”
On the days of the protests, Daniyar Moldabekov, an Almaty-based journalist, was at work.
In the evening of January 4, he left the house to cover the protests. The demonstrations were still peaceful. As Moldabekov recalls, people chanted opposition slogans, some sang the national anthem. This is when the police started to respond with force.
“My colleagues and I went to the Republic Square area. At first we heard there were several hundred people, when we arrived there were several thousand people. When they approached the square, the security forces began to fire with stun grenades. They shot at the main square, some of the protesters said they fired rubber bullets but they did not fly past me,” Moldabekov says.
“I fell into a ditch and injured my knee, it hurt for several days. I couldn’t sleep, I wrote articles. Soon after, my colleagues reported that the akimat had been destroyed, the presidential residence was destroyed, the airport was seized, somehow everything entered a new phase. From the 4th to the 5th there were, of course, people who could pass for provocateurs, but in general everything was calm. When did the killings start? Who opened the fire first? It’s a good question.”
Svetlana – who requested The Diplomat not use her real name – has been living in Uzbekistan for the past few years, but she decided to celebrate the New Year in her hometown of Almaty. She did not expect that the long-awaited holiday would turn into a nightmare.
“One afternoon we lost the internet. We were watching a movie and suddenly everything stopped loading, messengers stopped working. We went to bed and thought that this was some kind of a technical failure and everything will resume working soon. In the morning it turned out that nothing changed. Then some friends called us and said that there were rallies, that nothing was getting better, that they themselves did not know what was happening,” Svetlana says.
Although based in the outskirts of the city, she could see groups of people going in and out of Almaty. Many of them were wearing balaclavas. They moved in columns of three to four cars with no registration plates. It was impossible to know who these people were.
“We were left without any communication. We switched on the radio and received all the news from there, but they only gave information from governmental sources. We only knew that there was a terrorist operation going on, that a high security level and a curfew were declared in the city, so after 11 p.m. no one was allowed to be outside,” she says.
“At some point, the time of the curfew changed to 8 p.m., but many people did not know this. On the radio they said that the authorities will shoot to kill in case of disobedience. Many civilians were killed. Who was responsible – the security forces or extremists – no one knows. What happened later was an armed attack on the city. People robbed banks and stores, took out everything they could. It is not clear what happened, but I think that it was all about the division of power.”
“There were provocateurs, combat-trained, and they could not organize themselves without the National Security Committee (KNB). I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years and I know for sure that such an operation could not happen without the National Security Committee knowing,” she said.
“I think that Nazarbayev’s circles have been involved in this. The provocateurs deliberately made a bloody massacre and chaos out of a peaceful rally. The police did not use weapons at first, no one knew that there would be provocateurs. We have a police force, an army, the KNB, so we should feel safe, but we saw something else. The question is: What was all this for? I think to seize power. They fight among themselves for power, and ordinary people suffer.”
On January 18, after remaining silent for more than two weeks, Nazarbayev addressed the nation. He denied that there was any conflict within the elite; many Kazakhs distrust his version. The former president stated that he has been retired since 2019 and that all power is now in the hands of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a surprising statement given the fact that the current president for years has been seen as a puppet whose strings were held by Nazarbayev’s hands.
But something had clearly changed. As the revolutionary dust in Kazakhstan settles, more and more people from Nazarbayev’s closest circles are losing their positions and economic influence.
Karim Massimov, the head of the KNB and the first president’s close ally, was arrested on January 6 for treason and attempt to violently take power. Two of his deputies now face similar charges. Soon after, Samat Abish, the first deputy head of the KNB and Nazarbayev’s nephew, was also dismissed.
Timur Kulibayev, the husband of Nazarbayev’s daughter Dinara, resigned from his position as the chairmen of Atameken, an influential business lobby. The husbands of Nazarbayev’s other two daughters also lost their business positions.
While it is still hard to figure out what exactly happened in the first days of 2022 in Kazakhstan, it is clear that the Nazarbayev era is coming to an end. For the first time since becoming president in 2019, Tokayev appears to unquestionably be fully in charge. People’s feelings are mixed.
“One of my colleagues received 10 days of arrest, other colleagues started having problems, several testimonies have already come out that many people who have been detained were tortured,” Moldabekov said.
“Personally, I think that the regime will remain autocratic. This type of power is unlikely to change, everything will stay the same. I doubt the next election will be fair, but we will see.”
While shocked and appalled with the imprisonment of journalists and activists, Svetlana still hopes that Tokayev might bring the long needed change.
“My emotions are rather mixed now. I was waiting for Tokayev to become a full-fledged president, because he is intelligent, he knows several languages, and unlike Nazarbayev, he seems to care about the people. But I do not like what is happening. We don’t see any democratic changes yet. We see the security forces persecuting and beating people,” she said.
“If journalists and activists had not been detained, I would have been on the side of Tokayev. People have trusted him, I trusted him. I understand that since 2019 his hands have been tied. But now power is finally in his hands and I hope that he will take meaningful action.”
According to official data, at least 225 people were killed in the January clashes and at least 4,300 were injured. Although Tokayev spoke of 20,000 terrorists operating in Kazakhstan during the riots, so far 546 criminal investigations have been launched, only 44 for terrorism charges.