Last week, Nurlan left his apartment in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital that became the focal point. violent protests, just twice, to quickly buy groceries and scramble back.
The 41-year-old accountant, who worked mostly from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not even consider going to the city center, where hundreds of gunmen looted shops, seized and burned government buildings and clashed with police.
“I could have kicked the shit out of me – at best. Or they could have tortured me to death, “Nurlan, who withheld his name for fear of prosecution for saying” wrong things “about the protests, told Al Jazeera.
He spent most of last week in an information vacuum after authorities shut down web access and cell phone communications.
Meanwhile, his parents, who live in another city, endlessly dialed his number and “went crazy” about the uncertainty in Almaty and in the rest of the vast, oil-rich Central Asian nation of 19 million.
Although Nurlan grew up after Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union, his mother tongue is Russian, he watches Russian and Western movies, and he felt a cultural gap between himself and the protesters, who were mostly rural, unemployed, Kazakh-speaking young people.
But he believed it was not the protesters who turned to violence.
President blames ‘foreign militants’
Rallies started on January 2 in a southwestern oil village and spread to the rest of Kazakhstan’s urban centers.
The disorganized protesters had no apparent leaders or agenda and simply demanded higher salaries and the dissolution of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government.
On January 5, however, thousands of armed “mercenaries” arrived in Almaty to seize police stations, administrative buildings and the airport, Nurlan said, reflecting the official position.
Some were from neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, he said – and also repeated Tokayev’s words about “foreign militants” and “terrorists”.
Only nominally Muslim and indifferent to any religion, Nurlan claimed that the “mercenaries” were “bearded radicals” allegedly hired by Kayrat Satybaldy, a cousin of Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
A powerful businessman and former head of security, Satybaldy, is known as a campaigner for a strict version of Islam.
Nazarbayev retired in 2019, but retained enormous power as head of the powerful Security Council, while his family and protégés controlled Kazakhstan’s security agencies and key businesses.
Two days after the protests began, Tokayev Nazarbayev fired from the Security Council, dissolving the government and firing several key security chiefs appointed by the first president officially known as El Basy, “head of the nation”.
Tokayev never accused the president’s nephew – whose brother still serves as deputy head of the KNB, or the National Security Committee – of masterminding the violence.
Tokayev chose not to name the persons or forces that were behind the “aggressors”.
“We faced [an] “an unprecedented act of aggression and assault on our state, and has taken urgent measures to restore constitutional order and the rule of law,” Tokayev tweeted on Monday.
Instead, Tokayev asked a Russia-dominated security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for assistance. About 2,500 troops from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan arrived late last week – and will leave within 10 days, Tokayev said on Monday.
Nurlan is enthusiastic about the arrival of the peacekeeping forces – even though Kazakhstan may become more politically dependent on its former imperial master.
“Russians are better than this shit. “We would rather pay the price to the Russians than live among the bearded,” Nurlan said.
‘Questions will still be asked’
The gaps in Tokayev’s account of the events, his hints about the role of independent journalists and human rights activists, his government’s unwillingness to publish the names of dozens of murdered protesters, and the speed of arrests – more than 9,000 so far detained – international observers worried.
“At this point, we would encourage Tokayev to take advantage of this moment to tell the truth about what happened this past week,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera said.
“Questions will continue to be asked about the official version of events, which at this stage does not seem entirely credible and shameful to unnecessary speculation. An independent, international investigation into the events may be needed, “he added.
Many Kazakhs are careful to name the perpetrators – and rather praise the return to normalcy.
“The city is alive, public transport is moving, things are quiet, food is being delivered to shops,” Alexander, an ethnic Russian-born graphic designer born in Almaty, told Al Jazeera.
But for many in western Kazakhstan, where the protests began, the reason is crystal clear – an economic stagnation caused by corruption, rising inflation and a lack of opportunities for younger Kazakhs.
“The government’s greed and brutality have become unlimited. “People really have nothing to eat, no job,” a native of Atyrau, a Caspian port and major hub of oil production and exports, told Al Jazeera.
The town of Zhanaozen, where the protests broke out, has already experienced similar unrest.
In 2011, government troops fired on a crowd of disgruntled oil workers who went on strike for months, killing at least 14 and wounding hundreds.
Also in Zhanaozen, up to 200 were killed in 1989 ethnic clashes that marked the downfall of the Soviet Union.