Soldiers have started a military operation to clear the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital and largest city, threatening to shoot on sight anyone that ventures abroad.
Russian state-owned news agencies have broadcast dramatic video of squadrons of soldiers walking down a wide street that they claim is close to Republic Square in the heart of the old capital and shooting machine guns at unseen assailants.
Russia’s flagship English-language channel RT reports that dozens are dead, including ten policemen, and that three of those have been “beheaded.”
The problem is that bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Almaty says that most of the reports are not true, or are at least highly suspect.
Currently it is next to impossible to verify or confirm the many dramatic reports coming out of Almaty. The internet has been shut down. All the independent media outlets and social media apps like the popular Telegram messaging service are not working.
However, Kazakh state media are still releasing information and the Russian state-owned press is also on the ground and broadcasting, including the Kremlin’s RT.
Some independent information is coming out of the country and it seems clear that there have indeed been shootings and killings of both Kazakh police and civilians. What is not known is the scale of the casualties and fatalities. bne IntelliNews’ correspondent, reporting by phone, says that there has been violence and fighting but from what he can glean by calling around to people that live at the scenes of the reported violence, the clashes have been on a smaller scale than some of the reports since January 5 have described with estimates of dozens dead.
The Russian media outlet TASS also reported on the soldiers shooting at Republic Square in the heart of Almaty. The news agency released footage of soldiers in an urban setting shooting down a street at unseen opponents – the source of the video that was used by RT.
The RT report went on to say that banks have been robbed and stores looted. The reporter also claimed that at least 10 police officers have been killed and “three were unfortunately beheaded,” a claim that does not seem to have been picked up by other media reporting on the story and is new compared to early reports of eight policemen that died, reported the day before.
bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Almaty warns that reports by the official media and Russian state-owned media should be treated with caution, as they have already reported on shootings that bne IntelliNews’ correspondent can assess as fake news.
“Those reports, I wouldn't believe them, as in the physical locations where the shooting is reportedly happening, I called people who live there and they say it has been peaceful all day. Nothing is happening,” bne IntelliNews’ correspondent said in a phone call from Almaty.
Nevertheless, there have been multiple reports and videos that suggest some of the protesters have got access to guns, and other unconfirmed reports on social media show that there has been shooting in the city.
Official reports of around a dozen deaths amongst the police force also seem creditable, even if the reports of beheadings cannot be confirmed at this time. Video has also surfaced from what appears to be from a morgue of almost two dozen civilian corpses.
Another aspect of the reporting coming out of the old Silk Road way station of Almaty is that the Kazakh and Russian media have been contradicting each other on the severity of the crisis.
The context of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's call on January 5 for military help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to quell the protests may be a decisive factor here. On the one hand, calling in Russian military is politically embarrassing for Tokayev, who already seems keen to play the need for outside help down; on the other hand, the Kremlin is motived to hype up the violence in the Kazakh city to justify what it has been selling as a peacekeeping mission to save lives and restore order. Some pundits have already been drawing parallels between the Russian military aid as an “intervention” or reminiscent of Prague in 1968, when the Soviet Union sent in tanks to put down the "Prague Spring" demonstrations.
The situation has been further confused by the speed of the changes in the last three days. On the first day Tokayev addressed the nation with a conciliatory tone and concessions. He blamed and sacked the government for the spike in fuel prices that had sparked the first demonstrations. The subsidies were reintroduced and Tokayev announced a package of aid and price caps to try to deal with the core complaints of the protesters.
As it became clear the next day that these concessions were not going to placate the crowds as the demonstration was already morphing into more general anti-government unrest, Tokayev’s line quickly hardened. He began to talk about “hooligans” and then within hours “international organised and funded terrorists” and “financially motivated plotters”.
Tokayev addressed his unrest-gripped Central Asian nation on January 5, vowing a "tough" response to mass protests over a New Year energy price hike. "As president, I am obliged to protect the safety and peace of our citizens, to worry about the integrity of Kazakhstan," he said in Russian on Kazakh television, adding that he intends "to act as severely as possible".
That is when he asked the CSTO for help. However, now the Russian soldiers are on the way, and some are already reportedly on the ground, the Kazakh official media is already backing away from its stern stance.
“The official Kazakh media is already reporting things are calming down and things will go back to normal in the next few days. The Russian media are reporting that all hell is breaking loose,” bne IntelliNews’ correspondent said.
“The Kazakh media are reporting that the CSTO forces will come to protect infrastructure and will mainly be made up of [CSTO member states] Kyrgyz, Armenian and Tajik forces. However, the Russian media are saying the CSTO forces are coming in and are needed to bring peace,” our correspondent continued.
“From the ground it looks like [the] internet shutdown has been done so people don't know what is going on and stay at home, but when you talk to people who actually live there [amid the locations of the unrest] nothing seems to be happening,” bne IntelliNews' correspondent reports. “There is a lot of what looks like misinformation. After January 4 the next wave of protests were muted. The government stepped back and allowed the ransacking to go on but only now they say they are back in control,” he added.
While RT is reporting on widespread vandalism and looting of banks and stores, our correspondent says the only obvious victim is the large Magnit shopping mall in the centre, which has been attacked, but there is no widespread looting.
Another factor at play is that, as bne IntelliNews has reported, Tokayev appears to have opportunistically taken advantage to the crisis to remove the last hold on power of the former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Tokayev took over Nazarbayev’s job as head of the National Security Council, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and has replaced key figures in the administration, including the head of the security services, with people loyal to himself.
“Nazarbayev’s name has disappeared from reporting in the last two days; [he] fled the country on January 5 and is now believed to be in Switzerland,” bne IntelliNews' correspondent says. “Officially Tokayev now holds all the levers of power.”
Blood on the street
Despite all these complications, the protests in Almaty and elsewhere have clearly got out-of-control and there most certainly have been casualties and deaths. Below bne IntelliNews reports on what has been broadcast and shared, but we emphasise that none of the posts or videos released can be verified. Moreover, we strongly suspect that some or possibly even all of the posts could be fake, as clearly both the Russian and Kazakh authorities have been trying to manipulate the information reaching the public to bring the protests to an end sooner in the case of the Kazakhs by terrorising the population, and to justify sending Russian troops to another country in the case of the Russians.
While information is sketchy, it is clear that there were major clashes between protesters and Kazakh police and in many incidents the protesters outnumbered the police who were not in control of the situation. Many of these reports were posted on social media before the internet was turned off during the afternoon of January 5.
Some 109 people have been hospitalised, according to official news reports, of which almost all were police officers, strongly suggesting that the demonstrators have had the upper hand on the second day of protests.
On January 5 those reports were followed by new reports of deaths amongst the security services. The Kazakh Internal Affairs Ministry says 10 police and national guard troops were killed in clashes with protesters and another 317 injured during unrest in several regions of Kazakhstan, Russian news service RIA reported. These early reports of the 10 dead policemen made no mention of any beheadings.
The social media that was still possible to release on January 5 showed copious video of protesters fighting with police and openly smashing and burning police cars and vans.
In another clip a group of about 20 protesters surrounded an officer in full riot gear and wrestled a shotgun from him and walked away with it. Shotguns are standard issue in protests and used for crowd control but usually fire non-lethal birdshot rather than deadly ammunition. During the Belarusian demonstrations in the summer of 2020 there were several confirmed reports of the use of shotguns firing birdshot against protesters.
But the most disturbing video (WARNING: graphic content) to emerge on social media is a clip circulating on Russian Telegram that appears to be shot from inside a morgue, where some 20 body bags are lined up in a small hall that contain what appears to be normal people who are cut and bruised, covered in blood.
Fight for the airport
The one clash that certainly occurred and was confirmed by Tokayev himself was the fight for the airport in Almaty that was briefly taken over by protesters on January 5, until local security troops recaptured it later in the day.
Tokayev referred to the seizure the next day, saying an assault to recapture it was led by Kazakh paratroopers. However, separately there were reports that Russian Spetsnaz participated in, or even carried out, the operation.
RT broadcast a recorded phone message from a Russian at the airport waiting to fly out as the airport was taken over. The passenger said that the staff of the airport suddenly left.
“There are eight of us sitting here, but all the staff is leaving. They have not told us anything and they have not tried to evacuate us,” the man said. Other reports described the same events, in reports that cannot be independently verified.
However, by the end of the day the airport was back in the government’s hands, although no details of how that was achieved or if anyone was hurt in the operation were given.
The airport currently remains closed and no flights are going in or out of any of Kazakhstan’s three main international airports.
Nazarbayev reportedly left Almaty Airport shortly before it fell into the protesters’ hands on January 5 on a private jet, one of the last flights out of the country.
It also appears highly like that some of the protesters have armed themselves. More social media footage showed men handing out rifles and machine guns in the last two days, getting ready to fight.
In another incident, there were unconfirmed reports that protesters had stormed a National Security Committee armoury in Almaty and emptied it of arms and ammo. The footage showed men emptying lockers and gun racks of arms, while at least one man had an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).
Some of the guns seem to be already in use. While there is little reliable reporting, in a video posted on Twitter by BNO News during the evening of January 5, machine gun fire and loud explosions can clearly be heard on the street as screaming women flee. A second video posted earlier in the day shows more heavy machine gun fire in what appears to be the centre of Almaty.