The Unrest in Kazakhstan: What happened?

The people of Kazakhstan were tired of living in a corrupt state and carried out nationwide demonstrations for several days. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee demands that the Kazakh authorities comply with their human rights obligations and include civil society in the road ahead.

On January 2nd, 2022, the Kazakh authorities doubled gas prices in the country. What started as peaceful protests in the city of Zhanaozen, developed into complex and violent demonstrations across the vast territory of Kazakhstan. The city of Almaty was hit particularly hard, where, among other things, the mayor’s office was stormed and set on fire. It was all similar to a war zone.

The triggering factor for the demonstrations was a doubling of gas prices. The increase would mean that ordinary people would have to spend half their monthly salary on fuel. It is wrong, however, to say that gas prices alone are responsible for the people’s discontent.

While Kazakhstan has the world’s twelfth largest oil reserves, the population has noticed little of the enormous oil wealth.  Corruption and nepotism have characterized the management of the state’s resources, which have thus, for the most part, ended up in the pockets of a small political elite. At the same time, the authorities have put the development of democracy on hold – the citizens have not had a political alternative to vote for besides the regime and pro-regime parties and candidates. The suppression of freedom of expression and the press has led to real problems remaining under the rug and have been barely dealt with by the authorities. 

Read more about Kazakhstan here.

Tokayev was quick to declare that prices should not be raised, but it was too late. The unrest was already ongoing, and at the same time the government resigned. It was after this that the demonstrations were taken over by violent elements in Almaty. 

As the street protests developed both rapidly and intensely, Kazakhstan and Tokayev decided to turn off the Internet. One can speculate as to the reason for this, but Tokayev’s official explanation was that “the terrorists’” ideas should not be spread.

The next day, violence increased further. The mayor’s office in Almaty was stormed, in addition to which several shops and businesses were destroyed. A national state of emergency was introduced, and the government resigned.

The president announced that the unrest would be put down with the strictest possible measures. Security forces used stun grenades and tear gas, and hundreds of protesters were arrested. Shooting, looting and instances of arson were also reported. To get help in the fight against “the terrorists”, Tokayev turned to the military-led defence alliance, The Collective Treaty Organization (CTSO), and Russian forces were quickly in place. Putin had previously stated that they would be present for as long as necessary but has now begun the withdrawal.

For a short time, the authorities facilitated Internet access so that Tokayev could speak to the people. The speech contained an ominous message. He ordered the security forces and the army to fire to kill without warning. He further claimed that “20,000 bandits and terrorists” with foreign training were participating in the protests.

Human rights defenders and journalists would also be blamed for how the situation had unfolded. Tokayev believes that these groups damage Kazakhstan’s reputation and cause economic loss to the country by constantly speaking negatively about the situation. This creates fear in the human rights community that their working conditions may become more difficult in the future.

More from Tokaev’s speech was reproduced by The Guardian and can be read here.

However, it is not just external battles that are fought in the streets of Kazakhstan. In the wake of the unrest, President Tokayev has replaced former President Nazarbayev as head of the country’s powerful Security Council, and a number of senior officials near Nazarbayev have been ousted, including the head of the country’s security service, Karim Masimov, who is accused of high treason.

On January 11, President Tokayev delivered a speech promising systemic change and reform, including combating corruption and better distributing the country’s wealth. The Helsinki Committee believes that it is crucial that the country’s authorities include civil society in the process, to ensure that change is sustainable and meets the people’s expectations. Additionally, the Helsinki Committee, together with members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, has issued a statement demanding that the Kazakh authorities cooperate with the UN and the OSCE on an independent inquiry into the unrest.

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Marius Fossum

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