An anonymous Kazakh participant reports on revolt and repression
The beginning of 2022 marked the largest protest movement in Kazakhstan since its independence. Protests that started in the small town of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, triggered by a double increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas, quickly spread to all over the country. Economic demands turned political and soon people were protesting in over 60 places, demanding genuine political change.
Having a vast territory (Kazakhstan is the 9th biggest country in the world by territory), large amounts of natural resources, and a relatively small population of only 19 million people, the political regime has not used the many chances they have had to implement life-improving political and economic reforms. Decades of empty promises, corrosive corruption, injustice and the lack of basic human rights have brought people together on the streets.
Initial internet blackout and a continuing massive state-sponsored disinformation campaign helped the government to infuse confusion into the simple story of uprising against dictatorship. By replicating fake news about a failed ‘coup d’état‘, the government is trying to devalue the protests and portray the situation as an internal power struggle. The authorities do not wish to admit that dozens of thousands of people could protest in solidarity for their brighter, democratic future. Nor do they want people to believe in their power, as it would be a death sentence for them.
Shocked by the scale of the protests as well as the determination of demonstrators, the Kazakh authorities resorted to the use of crowd control ammunition, including tear gas, flashbang grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons. The authorities were not expecting that demonstrators would mobilise to defend themselves and continue protests. Adding to their shock were videos of security forces and the military joining demonstrators. This sent an alarming message about their loyalty to the political leadership. That was the turning point when life-or-death decisions had to be made. The introduction of security services-controlled criminal groups to start riots and consequent violence was justified by the state to crackdown on protests with the use of lethal weapons.
Inconsistent rhetoric from the government that labelled demonstrators first as ‘destructive individuals’, and then as ‘foreign-trained terrorists‘ to justify the order to shoot without warning, causing deaths of hundreds of people, seriously questions the government’s willingness to honestly discuss the unfolding situation. However, the primary reason for the ‘foreign-trained terrorists’ narrative was that it enabled the government to call for Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military troops to Kazakhstan to pacify the protests. This was seen by many as interference in Kazakhstani internal affairs, undermining sovereignty and setting a dangerous precedent for future use of CSTO troops.
When asked to present evidence of attacks of foreign-trained terrorists, the Kazakh officials responded that terrorists attacked morgues at night and stole bodies of their dead comrades, shaved off their beards and dissolved them in the countryside. The government has not produced a single foreign-trained terrorist, except a well-known Kyrgyz musician, who was beaten and forced to give false testimony against himself on Kazakhstani state-controlled TV.
Officially, there have been around 10,000 detained, thousands injured, and 227 dead, including little children. Instead of publishing the names of the dead so that relatives could at least know whether or not their family members were alive, the government has only repeated that these people died in “terrorist attacks”. Human rights defenders have been gathering information on those killed, injured and detained. The list of names contains peaceful demonstrators, civilians, civil activists and others who do not fit the criteria of ‘foreign-trained terrorists’.
It is important to understand that if the government claims there were terrorists, they will “search and find them”. This is what is happening right now. People are being tortured and forced to say that they engaged in violence, participated in riots and in terrorist attacks. On 5th January, a photographer from Almaty, Sayat Adilbek, went to a pharmacy to buy medicines for his daughter and was shot in his right lumbar area. He survived; but on 8th January he was taken by armed police, wounded and naked, to a detention facility where he was subjected to torture and denied medical help. The absurdity of this story is that he is being charged with ‘participation in mass riots’ on 6th January, while he was in hospital recovering from surgery.
Mass shooting of peaceful people and repressions show that western democracies should take decisive and swift action in both investigating the crimes against humanity and holding human rights perpetrators accountable. The UK, as a leading global democracy, could play a key role in helping Kazakhstani civil society by supporting an OSCE-led international investigation into these events and imposing personal sanctions for grand corruption and serious human rights violations. As Dame Margaret Hodge said: “Imposing sanctions on this corrupt elite will not of itself root out evil practices or lead to a radical democratic transformation in Kazakhstan, but it will demonstrate that we mean what we say when we commit to fighting dirty money and corruption. The cost of inaction is high”. The cost of inaction for Kazakhstani civil society will be too high.