Insider’s account: The Kazakhstan unrest

A general view of the burned and looted city hall of Almaty in the aftermath of riots in downtown of Almaty, Kazakhstan, 11 January 2022. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

A trusted source in Almaty gave a rare first-hand account to EURACTIV of the unrest that shook up the Central Asian country in the first days of 2022.

The source, who asked not to be named, has provided reliable information and analysis to this website for more than 10 years. The original account has been shortened for clarity.

“To understand Kazakhstan, one should consider that this is a country rich in resources, including energy. But the riches are unevenly distributed, corruption has been there since Soviet times, and those in top positions got a significant slice of the pie. Although frustrations have been piling up, they are not the only explanation.

In Almaty, the former capital and the country’s largest city, the internet returned only on Tuesday (11 January). The protests started on 1 January in the western province of Mangistau after a decision, on 31 January, to liberalise the prices of liquefied petroleum gas, a popular car fuel in Kazakhstan.

Its price, which was the equivalent of 50 tenge or 11 cents, more than doubled. Thus automobilists protested and many people joined them. This very rapidly became a social and political protest movement.

The demands were the government’s resignation, bringing the former leader (Nursultan) Nazarbayev to account and stripping him of his remaining official duties. In Western Kazakhstan, when the protests started, Nazarbayev was not popular because this was not his tribe.

So the protests started spreading from the west, on 4 January, across the country up to Almaty, the former capital (in the east). In front of the Almaty Akimat (City House), peaceful demonstrations were held during the night of 4 January. The protesters were not armed and the police did not use lethal weapons.

On the same night, President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev called a meeting of the country’s security council, which Nazarbayev usually chairs. The latter was in Almaty on New Year’s day, but we do not know where he was after 3 January.

So Tokayev announces the state of emergency across the country and a curfew from 23:00 until 07:00, starting from 5 January in the evening and lasting until 19 January.

Tokayev also announced that Nazarbayev is no longer the chair of the security council, that he is taking over, that the price of LPG returns to 50 tenges, and that a week later, he would announce a new government and reforms.

On the morning of 5 January, things return to normal in Almaty despite some clashes during the night, but they were relatively minor. Despite being the worst crisis in the 30 years of independence, many thought that it was now over and the three-year transition from Nazarbayev to Tokayev would be finally completed, ending a period of co-leadership.

But during the night, people from the periphery of Almaty came uptown. In the morning, there was thick fog, and from 14:00, there were many protesters, between 10,000 and 20,000, converging in the city centre. Such a large number is without precedent.

The roughly 300-strong police forces headed to the City Council to protect it. But the large group of people attacked the City Council from two sides and for the first time, firearms were seen among the demonstrators.

It became clear that shops selling hunting weapons had been looted. It also became evident that protestors were well organised, with cars regularly bringing them automatic weapons and iron rods.

This was when firearms were first used against the police, who were in fact conscripts aged 18-20, equipped mainly with batons and shields, who had orders not to shoot at the protesters.

The police forces fled and the rioters (we can no longer call them protesters or demonstrators) to whom Molotov cocktails have been distributed, started fires on two sides of the building.

They then entered the building, and then another one, which was Nazarbayev’s residence. They set fire to it too and attacked the Prosecutor’s office.

In Kazakhstan, prosecutors wear uniforms and there are weapons stocks in these buildings. So they got hold of these weapons, disarming the policeman who guarded the building, beating them, and beheading two of them.

Among the rioters, there were people from the outskirts, but also “bearded people”, Salafists, who are very well organised and came in groups of 25, split into smaller groups of five.

Within these groups, one is a trained militant who commands the other four. These are people with combat experience, good physical fitness, and they succeeded very rapidly in overwhelming law enforcement.

On the night of 5 to 6 January, the airport was taken over by 800 rioters. The airport is 12 kilometres from the city centre, and they went by cars, buses and trucks, throwing out the original drivers and removing number plates.

There was no resistance from police at the airport, and the rioters took control of the buildings, the runway, and even some aeroplanes. It is only the following day that the Kazakh special forces arrived to regain control.

Simultaneously, several attacks on police headquarters occurred, but unlike on previous occasions, the police used firearms against the armed rioters, resulting in victims among the attackers. This, however, cannot be called “police shooting peaceful protesters”.

During the same night, rioters broke into the studios of the TV channel MIR (featuring programming from all the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States), First Channel Eurasia, the office of the website Zakon.kz, and TV channel KNK.

The rioters told journalists of MIR that they wanted to air a message but were told this was not possible, because “the button for broadcasting is in Moscow”.

The rioters reportedly said, “record us, and you will air it later”, but it is still not known what their message was. The remaining media offices were empty so they were looted and the whole building was set on fire.

On 6 January, there was sporadic gunfire across Almaty, with sniper-armed rioters killing passersby, including a young man who was the son of a university dean.

On the night of 7 January, rioters tried to get hold of the TV tower, and a heavy exchange of fire was heard for 12 hours, until 09:00, but they were not successful.

Apparently, taking control of the TV could see TV and radio transmissions covering half of the country’s territory cut off. With the absence of the internet since the morning of 5 January, this would mean a complete blackout for the population and could spark mass panic.

On 5 January, we learned that Tokayev had called on CSTO [a mutual defence pact, the Collective Security Treaty Organization] for assistance and that the first peace-keeping contingents arrived in the evening of the 6.

In the meantime, the control of the city’s critical infrastructure was re-established, and we learned that the CSTO troops were first bound to Nursultan. On 7 and 8, there was sporadic sniper fire by armed militants, with three children killed on the 8 January, aged four, 11 and 15. One thousand shops were looted since the 5th across Almaty.

On the night of 7 to 8 January, the militants reportedly retreated from Almaty in the direction of Kyrgyzstan. The last sniper fire was heard on 8 January.

Tokayev’s interpretation of what happened is that this was a coup d’état attempt, with the participation of terrorists who came from abroad, with combat experience from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In his view, the protests were hijacked from 5 January by, according to him, 20,000 “bandits”. It is said that many of them have been paid $700 per month to be ready since November-December. All of them have been promised money and looting opportunities.

Eyewitnesses say they were very well organised. According to Tokayev, without the arrival of the CSTO forces, the terrorists would also have attacked the presidential palace in Nursultan. According to Tokayev, there was a single coordination centre, although he did not say where it was located and who was behind it.

Alternatively, there are three other possible scenarios.

The first says that this was an attempt by the Nazarbayev circle to get rid of Tokayev. This circle includes his daughter, his nephews, the chief of the secret services Karim Massimov, who in the meantime was accused of high treason. This version does not exclude the Nazarbayev circle using the services of Islamist militants.

The second version, circulated on social media such as Telegram by circles close to Moscow, basically says the unrest was an attempted ‘colour revolution’ instigated by the US.

According to its authors, the motivation is to impact the context of the current tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine. The theory is substantiated by arguing that Islamist militants were combating pro-Russia’s Assad in Syria.

The third version is that in the aftermath of the US retreat from Afghanistan, this is an attempt to destabilise Central Asia via Afghan militants. Although at first sight Afghanistan’s neighbours Tajikistan or Uzbekistan were more likely targets, crossing into Kazakhstan was. not a problem either.

With some advanced preparation, such a crossing can take place in three days, the time which elapsed between the first protests and the first violence on the night of 5 to 6 January.

The three hypotheses can also be combined in different ways,” the source concluded.

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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