The demonstrations and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan last week came as a surprise.
Days after hundreds of protesters rallied against rising fuel prices in a western town, Zhanaozen, protests quickly escalated to other cities, where various socio-economic grievances were shared.
Finally, protesters demanded an end to what they and many observers saw as a corrupt political system.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev initially promised to lower fuel prices, when the government fired and removed former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the symbol of the system, as head of the powerful Security Council.
Despite his moves, the protests soon turned violent.
Rioters stormed shops, police stations and local administration buildings and the country fell into disarray.
Tokayev ordered security forces to fire without warning, claiming – without providing evidence – that 20,000 foreign-trained “terrorists” had attacked the capital, Almaty.
At the request of the President, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russia led military alliance – troops deployed to Kazakhstan to protect strategic objects.
According to official data, 8,000 people were arrested.
Dozens were killed, including civilians and police. The actual toll may be higher, as reliable information is difficult to gather in the strictly controlled former Soviet state.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, an Almaty-based Kazakh human rights activist, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law and recipient of a number of human rights awards – including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee Andrey Sakharov Freedom Award in 2010 – talks about the current state of affairs in Kazakhstan and the politics behind the protests.
Al Jazeera: What is the situation in Almaty now?
Yevgeniy Zhovtis: The situation is slowly returning to normal. It is clear that the authorities and the security forces have taken full control of the city. Possibly in some remote parts of the city operations are still taking place against armed groups, but in general it is now quiet, shops reopening gradually, but banks are still closed.
On Monday, the internet was available for four hours, from 09:00 to 13:00. People are slowly starting to leave their homes, but one can still see very few cars, a little more in the city center. The city is not alive again yet, but it is slowly returning to normal.
On 5, 6 and some of the 7th of January the city was in anarchy. There were almost no police and troops on the street. There were looters, here and there people stormed police stations, it was total chaos. On the 8th, an operation began to calm the situation.
Al Jazeera: Who were the groups that Tokayev called “foreign-sponsored terrorists”?
Zhovtis: It is important to understand that protesters are never a united mass. It is not that a single group or political party has taken to the streets. In all the regions where the protests took place, it was a mixed group of people.
First, it was traditionally political opposition and civil society activists – who were peaceful. Over 30 years of independence in Kazakhstan, there have never been protests that would involve burning cars and violence against the police.
The only exception was the 2011 Zhanaozen protests, where a peaceful protest of 1,000 oil workers ended with a provocation that led to clashes with police and the deaths of at least 15 people.
At the time, however, no police officers were killed.
Apart from that, protests over the years have never been violent. Also this time, people who took to the streets in Zhanaozen and then in Aktau and all the other cities were absolutely peaceful and had a certain set of demands. In the beginning they were socio-economic, then political demands appeared.
Kazakhstan has very strict laws regarding protests. It takes three days to get permission to organize a protest, and akimiat (the local municipality) can refuse permission. But most importantly, in all cities, meetings and demonstrations can only be arranged in certain places. So when people go to the central square or anywhere near administration buildings, they are already breaking the law.
Until January 4, all the protesters were peaceful. Gradually, groups of marginalized young people from the countryside joined them, dissatisfied with their socio-economic situation and ever-present corruption.
In Almaty, they have slowly become the main group of protesters – young unemployed people from the regions expressing their frustrations against injustice. They have been hit hard by price increases and the pandemic. They distrust the authorities and the police.
The president’s statement that 20,000 fighters were sponsored from abroad does not seem to be true.
Al Jazeera: Tokayev ordered security forces to shoot without warning and called on Russia and the CSTO states to support Kazakhstan. What do you make of these moves, especially in the context of his more conciliatory tone earlier?
Zhovtis: Tokayev’s order to shoot without warning only came after the attacks on police stations, so there was no mass shooting of peaceful protesters. But an exchange of fire did take place. Now we need to find out what happened.
As for foreign troops, they were not called to take part in armed operations. CSTO soldiers protect only official buildings, important strategic objects and airports, while the clearance operations are carried out by Kazakh forces.
Tokayev’s decision may have been because he distrusted the loyalty and competence of some of the security structures and needed additional resources. What’s more important is the political dimension of the decision, which was to demonstrate that he has resources he can use – and that he enjoys [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s support.
We can only assess the role of the CSTO intervention once the troops are out of the country. If they leave this or next week, there will be no cause for concern, but if they stay, it will become a serious concern.
Al Jazeera: Many critics say the crisis is the result of a clash between Tokayev and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who chose Tokayev as his successor. What do you think?
Zhovtis: I would not say it is a clash between Tokayev and Nazarbayev. Sure, there was tension, but I think it’s more of a clash between Tokayev and those who support him against the pro-Nazarbayev elite whose position has diminished as Nazarbayev’s influence has weakened.
They saw Tokayev’s strengthening position as a threat to their interests. But we must remember that beyond that, there were peaceful protests that had nothing to do with this power struggle and that were rooted in socio-economic problems, social discontent and corruption.
It is clear that the situation has strengthened Tokayev.
He now puts his people in positions of power and he has become the head of the Security Council, so in a way it is the end of Nazarbayev’s era.
However, this does not mean that the former president will leave or be tried, or that his closest associates will be set aside and lose their economic and political power. It just means that the system that has existed for the past 30 years is slowly coming to an end.
It is difficult to say what will happen next, but it is clear that Tokayev is becoming an independent and strong figure.
Al Jazeera: Did you see it coming? Many saw Tokayev as Nazarbayev’s puppet …
Zhovtis: Last year, I said that the corrupt regime and the existing socio-economic problems need serious reforms. What you are seeing is a setback to all the problems that have not been solved over the years.
The injustice in resource distribution, the unresolved problems of the Kazakh-speaking population in the regions, corruption and oligarchy. It was clear that Tokajev would sooner or later have to break with the system that Nazarbayev had built.
Whether he can do that is another question. The past two years have shown that the system resists any change because it continues to function according to the rules set by Nazarbayev.
Recent events can be understood as a call for change. At the same time, the situation can be exploited by runners and the conflict elite.
Al Jazeera: One of the main slogans of the protest was “Old men must go”…
Zhovtis: Of course, the old elite has to go. In many ministries, generational change is already taking place, new people are being appointed to important positions.
But deeper reforms are needed because the system is incapable of solving existing socio-economic problems, fighting corruption, oligarchy and redistributing resources.
What worries me most is that the authorities may now be able to start putting pressure on civil society, human rights activists, journalists and the political opposition. If the government now starts suppressing the independent voices, it will only become more authoritarian.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.