Unrest in Kazakhstan Prompts Governmental Changes

by Therese Askarbek

News

January 27, 2022

Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country sparsely populated with just over nineteen million people, has recently undergone major governmental changes in response to recent protests. Earlier this month, on January 2, protests erupted in Zhanaozen, a small town located in western Kazakhstan, before spreading across the country.1 The protests, catalyzed by frustration over the government raising gas and oil prices, intensified because of discontent from Kazakh citizens. In 2011, police shot dead at least fifteen people in Zhanaozen protesting in support of oil workers who were dismissed after a strike.2 Disquiet over continual human rights abuses such as these, corruption, inequity, poor quality of living, and other factors fueled the most violent and large uprisings the country has seen since its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991. To give a picture of Kazakhstan, about a million people are estimated to live below the poverty line.3 The average national monthly salary is less than 450 pounds, about 600 dollars, according to a 2019 report by KPMG, a British-Dutch global professional services network, while 162 people in the country own more than fifty percent of its wealth.4 

The protests quickly spread to other parts of the country, but were mostly focused in the former capital city, Almaty. According to current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, “About 1300 businesses were affected, more than one hundred shopping centers and banks attacked, and about five hundred police cars burned.”1 Looters and unidentified non-state armed groups emerged among the peaceful protests, with the government claiming these groups have ties to “criminal, extremist, and terrorist networks—homegrown and foreign—though without providing any convincing evidence.”1 They knocked out doors and windows, threw around documents, and destroyed offices. Grocery stores, among other establishments, were looted, leaving many without basic necessities.1 Nurali Kuanyshbaev, a resident of Almaty (and the cousin of this reporter) who flew into Boston from Astana on January 17, had this to say about his experience during the protests: “The first two days, my family and I were very worried. We then moved to our grandparents’ house, which was safer. We rarely went outside, only to the grocery store for necessities. In the beginning, when the protests were peaceful, I supported all the protesters, but not the looters who decided to cash in on the trouble. Most of the people here have not liked or supported the government for a long time.” Many others in Almaty had similar experiences during the protests. They stayed in their houses as the bullets fired outside, and those who couldn’t get to a grocery store shared food with their neighbors. 

The now burned-down Almaty akimat, or government office, has become a symbol of these tragic events, known as Qandy Qantar—Bloody January. After the situation was deescalated, reports surfaced of police wrongly detaining civilians on charges of participation in the violent riots and looting.1 Victims released from detainment claimed they had suffered prolonged interrogation, beating, torture, and pressure to confess. The tactics used to suppress uprisings in Kazakhstan closely resembled those in Belarus: a brutal and swift takedown of peaceful citizens and looters, sowing disinformation, broadly blaming unspecified foreign “terrorists,” and cutting out the internet across the country.5 At the height of the unrest, Tokayev said he had ordered troops to shoot to kill protesters without warning. The official death toll is 225, with nearly ten thousand detained. The authorities have justified their response by putting responsibility for the protests on both foreign and domestic “bandits and terrorists.”

A peaceful protester, Sergey Shutov, was arrested on January 11 after attending protests in the city of Atirau. He claimed security services brought him to a gym on the outskirts of town and repeatedly beat him and dozens of others. “I begged them to stop kicking me. I had to promise I would never join a meeting again,” Shutov said. A veteran opposition activist, Aset Abishev, said, “There is no way back for Tokayev. The people of Kazakhstan have seen what this regime is capable of. He has blood on his hands.”6 Along with the President announcing an order for state police to shoot to kill without warning, the state used water cannons, tear gas, and flashlight grenades against civilians. Those who stayed after signs of escalation were caught in the crossfire between the police, who used both rubber and regular bullets, and non-state armed groups on the night from January 4 to January 5. The government still has not released the names of the deceased civilians, despite civil activists’ demands.1 A senior aide to Kazakhstan’s prosecutor general said that 3,337 offenders were released while over a thousand people were currently under arrest.4

In response to the uprisings, Tokayev attempted to pacify the crowds by dismissing former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, taking over his position as chairman of the National Security Council, and naming a new prime minister and government. He fired and detained Karim Massimov, head of security services, and an official who worked under Nazarbayev. Several other officials related to Nazarbaev, such as his nephew, also were removed from their high positions.7 Many protesters demanded that Nazarbaev be removed from power, who resigned from his post in 2019 but still is considered by citizens and outsiders to be controlling the government and, in tandem, Tokayev.8 Many seem to think that Tokayev’s decision to take Nazarbaev’s position was a move to safeguard Nazarbaev’s legacy and keep him close to power.4 

In any case, Tokayev’s attempt to appease the public wasn’t effective enough, so he switched tactics by describing the demonstrators as terrorists. He then brought in the Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, to send “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan “to stabilize and normalize the situation,” according to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.2,9 Approximately three thousand Russian soldiers were deployed, alongside some five hundred troops from Belarus, one hundred Armenians, two hundred Tajiks, and one hundred fifty Kyrgyz, to conduct the “counter-terrorist operation,” as described on Twitter by Tokayev.10 He also rejected calls from the international community, including the United Nations and the United States, to resolve the crisis peacefully, saying it was not possible to negotiate with parties he described as “armed and trained bandits, both local and foreign.”9 The Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, made an official visit to Kazakhstan in May of 2019, including regions of Aktau and Almaty where the protests emerged. According to her, Kazakhstan’s overly broad use of the word “terrorism” in this context against protesters, civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and political parties aimed at instilling fear was deeply concerning. Several other experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council echoed her sentiments.11

In very recent news, before Tokayev removed the rights of a private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbaev’s daughter Aliya, he made his first ever public criticism of Nazarbaev, saying last week that under his predecessor’s leadership, many lucrative businesses and extremely rich people had appeared in Kazakhstan and that it was now time for the ordinary people to receive what they deserved.4,12 Numerous political analysts are not surprised by Tokayev’s moves to dismantle Nazarbaev’s power monopoly, as they have claimed that Tokayev has been trying to get out from under the control of Nazarbaev since his own instatement.7 Nazarbaev, who seemed to disappear during the protests, finally reappeared in a video address on Tuesday, in which he claimed, “In 2019 I handed over my powers to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and since then I am a pensioner. I am currently taking deserved rest in the capital of Kazakhstan and I have not gone anywhere,” in response to rumors that he had fled Kazakhstan.13

Now, weeks after the height of the protests, there are some political uncertainties within and outside of the country. Russia’s involvement and Putin’s interests are making political analysts and commentators uneasy, and citizens are still reeling from the death and destruction that this situation has left in its wake.14 Many are looking for their loved ones who are still unaccounted for and begging the government for answers.

If you’re looking for ways to help, supporting local activists, demanding accountability, and donating to fundraisers are just a few ways to support those affected. I recommend the following three fundraisers: Stand with Kazakhstan, Dollar-for-dollar donation initiative to help civilians in Almaty and other regions of Kazakhstan to recover from the aftermath of social unrest and the ensuing chaos, and Aid for those affected in Almaty, Kazakhstan.


1 Akbota Karibayeva, “Kazakhstan’s Unrest Leaves Behind a Traumatized Society,” Foreign Policy, January 19, 2022,
https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/19/kazakhstan-unrest-trauma-aftermath/.

2 “What’s behind unrest rocking oil-rich Kazakhstan,” AP News, January 6, 2022,
https://apnews.com/article/business-europe-russia-moscow-kazakhstan-3349e68089ccdbcd08e76a5e8fd4a909.

3 Gareth Jones, “From stability to turmoil – what’s going on in Kazakhstan,” Reuters, January 8, 2022,
https://www.reuters.com/markets/currencies/stability-turmoil-whats-going-kazakhstan-2022-01-06/.

4 Pjotr Sauer, “‘His Family Robbed The Country’: personality cult of ex-Kazakh leader crumbles,” The Guardian, January 20, 2022,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/20/nursultan-nazarbayev-family-robbed-country-personality-cult-of-ex-kazakh-leader-crumbles.

5 Michael Bociurkiw, “For Putin Kazakhstan is a domino too big to fall,” CNN, January 17, 2022,
https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/17/opinions/putin-kazakhstan-russia-unrest-bociurkiw/index.html
.

6 Pjotr Sauer, “As the Dust Settles on Kazakhstan’s Unrest, Reports of Torture and Violence Surface,” The Moscow Times, January 19, 2022,
https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/01/19/as-the-dust-settles-on-kazakhstans-unrest-reports-of-torture-and-violence-surface-a76084.

7 Rachel Pannett, “Kazakhstan’s ‘father of the nation’ resurfaces, says he’s retired after Russian intervention in bloody unrest,” The Washington Post, January 19, 2022,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/19/kazakhstan-president-nursultan-nazarbayev-video/.

8 Shaun Walker, “Poverty, inequality and corruption: why Kazakhstan’s former leader is no longer untouchable,” The Guardian, January 5, 2022,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/05/old-man-out-kazakhstan-discontent-to-change-leaders-legacy.

9 Helen Regan, “Kazakhstan is in turmoil and regional troops have been sent to quell unrest. Here’s what you need to know,” CNN, January 7, 2022,
https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/06/asia/kazakhstan-almaty-protests-explainer-intl-hnk/index.html.

10 Matt Cavanaugh and Jahara Matisek, “Little Blue Helmets in Kazakhstan,” The Diplomat, January 19, 2022,
https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/little-blue-helmets-in-kazakhstan/.

11 Atul Alexander, “Kazakhstan Crisis: Has International Human Rights Law anything to offer?” The Leaflet, January 19, 2022,
https://www.theleaflet.in/kazakhstan-crisis-has-international-human-rights-law-anything-to-offer/.

12 RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, “Kazakh President Replaces Defense Minister, Parliament Removes Nazarbayev From Lifetime Posts,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, January 19, 2022,
https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-toqaev-ousting-nazarbaev/31661748.html.

13 Shaun Walker, “‘I have not gone anywhere’: former Kazakh leader denies fleeing country,” The Guardian, January 18, 2022,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/18/former-kazakh-leader-nursultan-nazarbayev-denies-fleeing-country.

14 Shaun Walker, “As order is restored in Kazakhstan, its future remains murky,” The Guardian, January 8, 2022,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/08/as-order-is-restored-in-kazakhstan-its-future-is-murkier-than-ever.

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