CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Making sense of Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’ — Part I/III

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Making sense of Kazakhstan’s ‘Bloody January’ — Part I/III
President Tokayev took no chances with his crackdown, issuing a shoot to kill order. / Amineshaker CC-BY-SA 3.0
By Peter Baunov in Almaty February 6, 2022

Many of those who’ve thought long and hard on the astonishing mass unrest that suddenly erupted in Kazakhstan in early January, as well as on its aftermath, relate how they can’t get away from the feeling that the details surrounding the deadly events don’t yet add up. They remain exceptionally strange.

The economic dismay and discontent that has been the lot of poorer Kazakhs for many years is well known. It’s been a misery exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. Even the president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, openly acknowledges the wretchedness the more unfortunate members of the country’s population have endured. Indeed it’s a key theme for Tokayev as, attempting to make a clean break from the three-decade-long Nazarbayev era, he piles populist promise upon promise in pledging to bring about change following ‘Bloody January’.

But viewing the anger among the people of Kazakhstan, which so jarringly burst out on to the streets at the start of the new year, as simply a series of countrywide protests that happened to turn violent and prompt a grisly crackdown, might be too simple an explanation. Moreover, the glib explanation that “foreign-backed terrorists and plotters” tried to overthrow the government—something the Tokayev regime continues to claim without coherent evidence—has to be disingenous. For the story of what really happened both on the ground and among the top echelons of the Kazakh hierarchy appears to be far more convoluted.

Doesn't add up

The most bizarre notion that has been put forward by the Tokayev administration is that “20,000 terrorists” descended upon largest Kazakh city Almaty. If true, it would have amounted to a small invasion. Yet many residents from across Almaty, who witnessed some of the upheaval on the streets, don’t go anywhere near to describing what they saw as of such a scale.

In fact, aside from the rioting that broke out over January 4-5, many recount what they experienced as relatively “restrained”. That is not to say that violence did not occur on some days. Violence that certainly wasn’t all one-way. Information gathered by human rights activists, rumours circulating online and personal accounts of eyewitnesses even suggest that security forces over January 6-11 directed violent actions at protesters and random passersby, sometimes people with no connection to any rioting, looting or even protesting taking place.

If a person was to solely listen to news coverage put out by state-run Kazakh media and some Russian media, they would believe that Almaty was in fact turned into a warzone with constant shootouts between security forces and the so-called terrorists. But the experience of civilians was vastly different.

Some recollections nevertheless suggest that a few armed groups, with no obvious state affiliation, were present in the city. One recurring topic on Kazakh social media is an episode that took place at Almaty City Clinical Hospital №7, where doctors and nurses had to deal with an armed group said to have taken over the building, forcing security forces to lay siege.

“My friend narrowly dodged a bullet when driving near the hospital area,” one taxi driver told bne IntelliNews.

Some Almaty residents claim to have seen vehicles loaded with guns and ammunition that were handed out to groups of unidentified men on January 5.

“I saw a minivan park outside my window and a group of men ran up to it and grabbed firearms from the back of the vehicle,” another Almaty resident told this publication.

But such instances do not seem to have been widespread. Or it is at least safe to say that 20,000 men carrying firearms almost certainly did not attack the Kazakh commercial capital.

‘Men in balaclavas’

Between January 2 and the night of January 4, the protests seen across the nation appeared to be peaceful. And this was not the first time that Kazakhstan had seen countrywide demonstrations. The land reform protests of 2016 gained real momentum but in the main ended entirely peacefully with a moratorium put in the way of the potential leasing out land to China. The election protests of 2019—which broke out as a popular reaction against the process of an unquestioned transition of the presidency from autocrat of 29 years Nursultan Nazarbayev to his handpicked successor Tokayev—however, were brought to an end by a wide crackdown. Still, in both cases, the protests did not escalate into major violence. So what was so different on the night of January 4 that the largely peaceful unrest on the streets escalated into violent unrest simultaneously in multiple Kazakh cities? 

Protesters seize Almaty city hall (Image: Fars News Agency).

Reflect on the gathered accounts of people who took part in rallies held on January 4 and you find that these people were just as surprised as anyone at the descent into such violence. 

“At some point during the night, men wearing black balaclavas and carrying walkie-talkies began appearing in the crowd,” one protester recalls. “They were carrying alcohol and attempting to hand it out to men, egging them on to ‘warm up’.”

“They looked out of the shadows, out of place. We knew something wasn’t right about them. The men reacted aggressively whenever people in the crowd attempted to film them on their phones,” he added. According to this protester, at a certain point the aggression of the men in balaclavas turned violent. Some of them, he said, appeared to be carrying handguns and they “started shooting at us and the crowd started panicking and running”.

It was unclear whether these men were trying to incite the crowd into violence, but the security forces were seen to use force on the panicking crowd, according to the protester. 

The peaceful and the violent 

Another key observation made by several eyewitnesses to some of the events is that those who turned to violence during January 4 and 5 were starkly different from the peaceful protesters in terms of their appearance and organisation. It wasn’t a case, it seems, of range of peaceful protesters suddenly switching to violence. Those marked out as violent were far more organised and all wore the same kind of medical mask, carried the same protest gear and dressed in nearly identical black winter jackets.

There are rumours and suggestions that the violent crowds emerged from the poorer areas of Almaty—presumably to vent their frustrations over the economic dislocation they have felt over recent years.

Some residents of one such district, Shanyrak, claimed that a crowd of men circulated around their neighbourhood, forcibly recruiting people to join their ranks. 

“They threatened to burn our house down if the [able-bodied] men in the family refused to join them,” one woman told this publication.

The residents alleged that such threats and intimidation were likely used to muster up the violent mob that subsequently marched towards the downtown area to attack police and torch various public and private buildings. Of course, many likely joined in willingly, but the recruitment tactics used raise more than a few eyebrows. 

At the same time, reporting on the events by OpenDemocracy does not seem to suggest any obvious distinctions between the violent and non-violent protesters, though it does note that the vast majority of the demonstrators were men aged between 20-40.

The authorities announced "anti-terrorist" operations. But if there were "terrorists" who were they? No compelling evidence of such a feature of the unrest has been presented (Image: Fars News Agency).

January 5 brought a series of near simultaneous attacks on government buildings, mainly during the daytime. Oddly, footage shown by state media suggested that security forces, in at least some instances, did not attempt to intervene, instead simply standing by. Security forces appeared to stand to the side, for example, as Almaty Akimat (City Hall) on Almaty Republic Square was set on fire. Social media posts, on the other hand, suggested a different scenario—some uploaded video footage showed apparent attacks on police carried out by an angry mob.

Here various accounts of the event get blurry.

One resident who lives a block away from Republic Square said that the night of January 5 was oddly quiet, despite the violence seen during the daytime. She also claimed that the previous night, the 4th, brought something that “looked like a battleground”, outside her home.

Another resident living in the area said he heard “occasional sounds of gunfire and explosions at night” on January 5.

One thing that seems to be clear about January 5 is that the crowd dispersed much more quickly than it did on January 4.

Peaceful protesters, lethal force

As noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), there appears to be some evidence of Kazakh authorities using lethal force against peaceful protesters and passersby. Eighty videos were analysed by HRW to identify and outline four incidents.  

One of the incidents both assessed by HRW and widely discussed on Kazakh social media occurred on the night of January 6. A relatively small group of protesters assembled and held out signs to assure the authorities they were not rioters. After gathering on Almaty’s Republic Square around noon, these men and women remained there undisturbed until the evening. Yet after sundown, the security forces allegedly opened fire on the group. Random passersby on foot and some in passing cars may also have been shot at. 

Other unconfirmed information circulating on Kazakh social media and spread by word of mouth among locals refers to people in cars who were allegedly shot to death both by unidentified men in black and security forces.

There has been a substantial number of claims from citizens that security forces and the national guard abused the state of emergency “shoot to kill” order issued by Tokayev on January 7. Allegations that threats of violence were used in the confiscation of people’s phones and during the arresting of individuals not even involved in any unrest are also widely heard.

Widespread claims of the abuse and torture of detainees by security forces have been reported by human rights groups. 

The death toll at the culmination of the unrest officially stood at a little over 200 people—with a couple of dozen of security force personnel among the dead—but, given how much of the violence could not be properly documented, the real number may be far in excess of this. 

What these events add up to is in the best analysis available to date a confusing mess. Who were the violent groups that seemingly usurped peaceful protests? Why are the authorities so extremely vague about identifying the violent groups? Who coordinated the various organised violent groups?

The answers may lie in the political drama that played out within the ranks of the Kazakh elites as the chaos unfolded across the country.

This is part I of a III-part series. Go here for part II and here for part III.