This month, people in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty gathered outside the General Prosecutor’s Office to demand the release of loved ones detained since demonstrations in January. Hundreds remain in custody on charges including terrorism after protests that were sparked by rising fuel costs became a nationwide referendum on the country’s political system.
But even if calls for protesters’ freedom are answered, Kazakhstan will remain on edge until two additional demands are met: a full investigation into the government’s abusive response to the unrest, and the fulfillment of promised political reforms. Unfortunately, neither is likely.
Kazakhs commonly refer to last month’s unrest as “Qandy Qantar,” or “Bloody January.”
The demonstrations that began on January 2 in the small western city of Zhanaozen over a spike in prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) quickly spread, and became political. Protesters in cities across the country shouted “Old man, out!” in reference to ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev and the nepotistic system that he built. While Nazarbayev left office in 2019, he remained an influential powerbroker until recently.
The immediate political response after the demonstrations seemed to start the process of “de-Nazarbayevification.”
After re-establishing order with the help of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made several key appointments in the government, purged Nazarbayev’s sons-in-law from top positions in state energy companies, and removed Nazarbayev’s nephew as deputy of state security services. A special social fund for Kazakh citizens was created and oligarchs were asked to contribute.
Tokayev has also said Kazakhstan “owes” Russia nothing for sending CSTO troops – a concern for many Kazakhs versed in Soviet history. He has highlighted, however, the possibility of closer Eurasian economic integration.
During his recent visit to Moscow, Tokayev implied a possibility of stronger security cooperation with Russia and reached an agreement to expand the network of branches of leading Russian universities in Kazakhstan.
Many experts agree that Tokayev’s political changes are cosmetic and will do little to achieve the types of reforms people have been advocating. The “old man” might be gone, but the system he built remains. In a recent interview, Tokayev conceded as much when he said it is not “his method” to be bullied by the public to change the government radically.
Even more troubling has been Tokayev’s treatment of the protesters. The official government version is that among them were terrorists, armed bandits, or some other as yet unidentified group.
Media reports that peaceful demonstrations included mobs and criminals led Tokayev to claim – without substantial evidence – that 20,000 “bandits” had attacked Almaty. While the city did suffer from pockets of violence and vandalism, many experts believe the reaction by Kazakh security forces could have been disproportionate to the threat.
The official death toll stands at 227, with 149 killed in Almaty alone; 19 were members of the security forces. While the cause of death for most protesters remains unverified, witnesses have described riot police and members of the military opening fire on peaceful demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch reported about the “ample evidence” that “security forces opened fire without any apparent justification and killed at least 10 people.” After the report, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry in talks with HRW said authorities “are ready to consider each specific case of concern of [Kazakhstan] citizens and the international community.”
Tokayev’s “shoot to kill” order, which he confirmed during a televised speech on January 7, also lies heavy in the hearts of Kazakhs who lost loved ones. Because the Internet was shut down during the unrest, some people who died had not even been aware such an order was in place. No doubt some of those killed had ventured into the streets simply out of curiosity. Authorities continue to claim that security forces did not shoot peaceful protesters.
What is clear is that many people were caught up in the government’s dragnet, and thousands were arrested after the turmoil. Human-rights lawyers, independent rights organizations, and those recently released from prison report widespread torture, and physical and psychological abuse in police facilities.
As of this Wednesday, authorities were investigating 181 cases related to terrorism and mass rioting, but relatives of some victims report these “confessions” were obtained under torture. There is a lot of “exaggeration and hysteria” on the issue of torture, Tokayev suggested in an interview. Some 27 cases of treason, abuse of power and attempts to seize power are also under investigation.
Given the allegations, international observers have rightly called for an investigation into the government’s response. Tokayev has resisted, insisting that Kazakhstan can “do it on our own.” He has also criticized a recent European Union resolution that called for sanctions against individuals proven to have violated human rights, calling it “biased and premature.”
Tokayev’s actions in the weeks since “Bloody January” illustrate an unfortunate truth: Protests have done little to alter the status quo. Worse, the country might become more authoritarian than before, as Tokayev consolidates power and seems to cooperate more closely with Russia. In other words, it is unlikely that the democratic path that many lobbied for last month will emerge any time soon.
But this isn’t the last we will hear from the Kazakh street. No matter what authorities’ plans are, the people of Kazakhstan will not end their quest for a more representative form of government.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.