Kazakhstan Investigates How Peaceful Demonstrations Turned Violent

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Riots and looting amid protests over fuel prices; Government and picketers alike see criminals involved

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The chaos rocked the government and prompted President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request Russian troops to help restore order, handing Moscow renewed influence in its Central Asian neighbour.

Mr Tokayev and his mentor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, say their forces have largely re-established control. But a central puzzle remains: How did the mostly peaceful protests turn into violence?

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The government and protesters agree on more or less one thing: peaceful demonstrations were hijacked by violent criminals.

Mr Tokayev says the army was armed terrorists and outlaws, some of whom were trained abroad, trying to destabilize the country and orchestrate a coup. He did not say exactly who he believed was behind the violence, but authorities have detained the powerful former security-services chief on suspicion of treason. Some analysts say the violence was triggered by high-level infighting between people close to the president and his predecessor, Mr Nazarbayev, who served as president for nearly three decades before appointing Mr Tokayev as his successor in 2019. had worked. As soon as the power went away. Mr Nazarbayev’s camp, he said, as fighting spread to the streets.

Some civil rights groups blamed the government, saying the authorities ignored people’s complaints, leaving the protests out of control and allowing criminals to take advantage.

Wherever the truth is, the explosion points to a potentially dire future for Kazakhstan’s long-stricken opposition, which has campaigned for sweeping political change. Mr Tokayev has blamed the media and activists for perpetrating the violence, although his government has vowed not to act.

“We expect a peaceful outcome of the events and punishment of the perpetrators, not the peaceful residents and peaceful protesters,” said the civil rights group “Oyan, Kazakhstan!” or “Wake up, Kazakhstan!” Posted on his Facebook page. “We call on the independent media, rights defenders and activists to lay the blame for what happened.”

According to the Associated Press, Kazakh authorities said they detained about 1,700 people on Wednesday in connection with the unrest, bringing a total of 12,000 people into custody.

Initial protests in western Kazakhstan were caused by a rapid increase in the price of gas used as a cheap car fuel. They began on January 2 in Zhanozhen, an oil city where more than a dozen demonstrators were shot in 2011 to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

Mr Tokayev, who promised to listen to people’s grievances after being elected to succeed Mr Nazarbayev, sent a government delegation to speak with the protesters. But the demonstrations were already spreading to other industrial cities in the region and taking on a more political character.

Some were calling for the removal of Mr Tokayev and Mr Nazarbayev, who continue to have significant influence.

Mr. Nazarbayev created an authoritarian system that opponents called corrupt, leaving little room for dissent and turning the plunder of the country’s rich natural resources to those close to him rather than to the poor population. Mr. Nazarbayev denied this. Mr Tokayev, the former prime minister, promised political and economic reforms, but made largely cosmetic changes.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural and business center, protesters from various opposition and civil-society groups gathered on the afternoon of January 4. By evening, the crowd had grown to several thousand people.

Police detained the protesters using heavy grenades, tear gas and charged the crowd for apprehending people and taking them to vans. Some fought back, scuffled with law enforcement and, in at least one incident, chased down army vehicles.

“The government will not fall,” said Mr. Tokayev. They imposed curfew that night.

The next day, the protesters gathered again. But by noon, he noticed the presence of unusual characters, resembling an unruly crowd. Among them, according to the video of the scene, was an iconic gangster named Armaan Dzumageldiev, better known as Armaan the Wild, who made loud speeches while surrounded by several tough-looking men. The Interior Ministry said on 7 January it had detained Mr Zumageldiev along with five associates, confiscating four semi-automatic weapons and an armored car.

Lawyer Aiman ​​Umarova, 54, who lives in central Almaty, said she saw young men with metal wrenches and rods running toward one of the city’s main squares. Some wore construction helmets and had metal affixed to their chests as temporary protection. Others were wearing mismatched military apparel, such as a crunchy pressed military jacket with jeans.

Ms Umarova, an ethnic Kazakh, said they did not look like the locals and sometimes spoke in a language she did not understand.

“People were really scared,” she said.

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The crowd became increasingly violent, attacking and setting fire to official buildings including City Hall and the prosecutor’s office. Officials say rioters looted the armory of police and security-service buildings.

Videos and photos posted on social media channels run by Kazakh news outlets showed chaotic scenes. In one, a man gets into the cars and pulls guns out of the trunk. In another, a front-end loader crashes through the door of the bank.

A resident saw young men waving guns and knives on one of Almaty’s main pedestrian streets.

“One day it was like a European city where people were making political demands. The next day it was hell,” said the resident, who asked not to be identified. “I was too scared to see them, they looked so aggressive. were.”

However, even in the chaos, the resident said he could tell the difference between those who were taking advantage of violence for loot and theft and those who actively tried to destroy state property and incite violence against the police. Was doing.

Ms Umarova said she saw several cars full of young men in the city without license plates. They called others on the road to ask them to drive them to the airport.

Armed men soon occupied the airport, which had been guarded by army units a few hours earlier.

Officials said dozens were killed in the night of the violence. Following the announcement of Russia’s imminent military support, local security forces regrouped and began to restore order by entering Almaty.

Even as the security forces opened fire, the peaceful protesters tried to suppress their case.

On 6 January, a group held a banner in a central square in Almaty.

“We are normal people, not terrorists,” it read.

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