Kazakhstan activists recall path from protest to bloodshed

ALMATY – Mass protests in Kazakhstan began peacefully over the New Year’s weekend, with protesters denouncing a sharp rise in fuel prices. They quickly spread from the western part of the Central Asian nation to more densely populated areas, eventually reaching the largest city of Almaty.

But over the course of a week, something changed.

Groups of gunmen appeared in Almaty, and some were seen driving cars without license plates or with covered faces. Protesters at the peaceful protests say these men urged them to storm government buildings and give them weapons.

Clashes with the police soon broke out and on the night of January 5, Almaty was in chaos. The town hall was on fire, as were cars and buses; shops were looted; and attempts were made to storm the presidential residence. Shots were heard in the street, the internet was down and even the airport was confiscated for a while.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has attributed the unrest to “terrorists” who have received foreign training and support.

But almost two weeks later the events that led to dozens of deaths and about 16,000 arrests, the government has not provided any evidence to support its claim of outside involvement.

It remains unclear whether these more violent actors were individuals who took advantage of the chaos to loot and vandalize shops, or whether they were part of organized groups with larger political motives.

However, protesters say their demonstrations were somehow undermined, leading to the crackdown by security forces. Tokaev has said authorities have not used force in peaceful demonstrations.

Although protests started over higher fuel prices, the scope and agenda of the demonstrations quickly expanded. Crowds gathered in major cities expressing their frustration at deteriorating living conditions and inequality under the authoritarian government that has held power in the energy-rich country of 19 million people for more than three decades.

Much of it took place under former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favor of Tokayev, his hand-picked successor, but who has maintained influence behind the scenes. The slogan “Shal ket!” — “Old man, go!” – was sung at rallies.

“A significant portion of the people are the ones who came to their heart to express their attitude to the authorities because they are tired, because they don’t feel that the state provides them with social security,” said a human rights activist. Galym Ageleuov, President of the Liberty Foundation.

Tokayev initially tried to calm the crowd by announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and removing Nazarbayev as head of the National Security Council, a move widely seen as an attempt to end the patronage of the former leader while consolidating power.

But protests continued and violence escalated during peaceful demonstrations in Almaty.

A protester whose first name is Bezshan said gunmen approached on January 5 and asked young people in the crowd to help them storm a police station. “They said they would hand out guns,” he told The Associated Press, recalling the incident more than a week later. AP has chosen not to publish the full names of protesters interviewed as a precaution for their safety.

Beken, another protester, said he also saw “provocateurs” at the rally that day and urged an attack on the police: “We tried to stop them as much as possible and said, ‘Everyone, stay put.’ We don’t need guns, we came to a peaceful meeting,” he said.

On January 6, security forces opened fire and killed dozens of protesters. At least 12 officers were also reported killed. The next day, Tokayev announced that he had ordered security forces to end the violent unrest, saying: “We intend to act with maximum rigor against lawbreakers.”

Almaty police spokeswoman Saltynat Azirbek called the January 5 attack on the police station “quite a struggle”.

The attackers “made no demands,” she told reporters. “They came intentionally to destroy, to kill.”

She also insisted that police were unarmed when working at unsanctioned demonstrations in Almaty, but did not clarify whether she meant the January 6 demonstration.

Amid the bloodshed, Tokayev also enlisted troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet states, to help restore order.

Some saw blaming foreign instigators as a pretext to bring in the mostly Russian troops.

“To invite Russian troops, you need a serious reason … that is not an internal deadlock with the people,” political analyst Dimash Alzhayev said in an interview. “So of course (the authorities) had to come up with terrorists.”

A protester named Marat told AP that authorities have “not shown us a single terrorist yet,” citing only the highly publicized arrest of Vikram Ruzakhunov, a well-known jazz pianist from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

The musician appeared on Kazakh television after his arrest with big bruises on his face and said on the broadcast that he had been flown in and had been promised money to participate in the protests.

Kyrgyz authorities protested Ruzakhunov’s arrest and demanded that Kazakhstan release him. He was released shortly afterwards and, when he returned to Kyrgyzstan, said his statement on Kazakh TV was false – he was visiting a friend in Almaty and was dragged when he tried to leave the city.

Ruzakhnunov told a Kyrgyz broadcaster that his cellmates in prison said the fastest way to get released was to confess to a false story, so he did.

Alzhanov, the analyst, noted that Kazakh state broadcasters reinforced the government’s message by repeatedly broadcasting video images of the unrest.

“They continued to broadcast the images, so the government was interested in communicating them to a wide audience,” he said, adding that the declared state of emergency was a pretext to violently crush the demonstrations.

A protester named Daulet told the AP he believed the “security forces deliberately portrayed the protesters as some sort of fringe group willing to revolt”.

Beken, the protester who described what he called “provocateurs,” criticized the security forces “for shooting at their own people.” He said that at a January 6 rally he attended, protesters were marching towards the military with a white flag.

“It is incomprehensible. I can not understand. How is this possible?” he said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Source Kazakhstan activists recall path from protest to bloodshed

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