How the Peaceful Protest Became Unpeaceful

The massive protests that turned into disturbances and swept Kazakhstan at the start of January remain a topical issue in the Kazakh and international media. The local and foreign politicians and political experts have been trying to draw their conclusions. But no consensus exists at this point.

KZ.MEDIA reporter Vladimir Radionov has interviewed the head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR) Evgeny Zhovtis. In this interview, the human rights advocate assesses the January protest and lists the lessons that, in his opinion, the authorities must learn from what has happened.   


Evgeny Alexandrovich, in your opinion, why the protests that began as peaceful meetings had turned into a “terrorist attack” (to quote our President)?

— We should begin our analysis with uncovering the underlying causes. In this particular case, I believe, we are dealing with the merging of the pre-existing and the ad hoc factors.

There is no doubt that the January 2 protests in Zhanaozen served as the trigger that had demonstrated a number of serious and chronic problems experienced by Kazakhstan. For example, the huge social divide, the unfair distribution of the economic wealth, the state-based oligarchical economy that slows down the growth of small and medium-size businesses as well as the development of the competitive environment.  

And all this overlaps with a very high level of corruption within the state apparatus. Add to this the social anger stemming from the 30 years of the individual ruling. These problems had been building up for years an, eventually, reached the tipping point.

Apart from that, the two-headed system of governance that was formed in Kazakhstan in 2019 as a result of the start of the power transition has made this structure rather porous.  

On one hand, Nursultan Nazarbayev has remained an influential political figure. On the other hand, the inability to continue being as politically active as he has been for the past thirty years due to his advanced age has created a threat to a certain part of the elite in terms of retaining personal immunity. 


Then, the situation began unfolding at full speed.  

The Zhanaozen protest triggered by an isolated incident of the gas prices increase that had affected the well-being of the town’s residents was joined by other regions – partly to support the oil workers, partly to voice their own demands (to decrease the retirement age, to increase the wages). 

Little by little, the oil workers were joined by civil activists and representatives of the political opposition who added political demands to the socio-economic ones. And then the protest began snowballing. 

Was there a single command control centre mentioned by the President?

— In my opinion, it was not a specially organised operation with a single control centre and with fighters dispatched in all the regions. Depending on the region, the protests were held differently. The snowball rolled across the country driven by a number of the unsolved problems. At certain point, young people began joining the protestors – partly, the young residents of the cities; mostly, those who had just moved from the villages closer to the city areas in search of a better social standing. And these people were truly angered by the existing social divide into the rich and the poor, behaved aggressively towards the police whom their regard as an enemy (the term “menty” (a derogatory name for policemen in Russia and the CIS – edit) is still being actively used by the people).

However, everything had been rather peaceful until the night of January the 4th.

What do you think happened on January the 4th?

— A number of explanations has been presented. Some say that representatives of the Nazarbayev clan saw the protests as a threat to themselves and an opportunity for Tokayev to solidify his position. Therefore, they “fought back”. Some speak about an “external trail” and Islamic radicals. Some believe that crime figures got involved in the process. 


Because, even if we do assume that there had been organised groups in Almaty, then, as far as Kyzykorda and Semey are concerned, the protests there were of a different nature, therefore, the forces behind them were also different.

The aggressive and highly motivated youngsters that had joined the protestors had no idea what to do next and did not have clearly defined leaders apart from individual provocateurs.

Having turned their steps towards the centre of the city (I mean Almaty), they encountered the police forces that began breaking them up as per usual.

On January the 5th, they got stronger in terms of their number. At this stage, they may have been joined by Islamic radicals and by armed representatives of the local elites. It is these people that were involved in the hot phase that we have witnessed.

But the way the events have developed in Kazakhstan does not differ from the way such events develop in other countries. In the USA and in Europe they also burn cars, smash everything in sight and try to seize police stations. There is nothing new here. However, our police was unprepared to deal with such scenario.

It is one thing when a protest is attended by a hundred of completely peaceful citizens. But when it involves thousands of aggressively-minded people, it becomes something completely different. The police should be prepared for such an event, they should have some basic scenarios of how the conflict may develop and how they are to resist it.

What we have witnessed in Almaty means that either the scenarios are bad or some elements of sabotage have taken place at a certain point. It is for this reason that we did not see the police in the streets of the city on January 5 and 6 regardless of how vigorously they are trying to explain to us now that the police was guarding the stations and the arsenals of weapons.


Let’s go back to the terrorists mentioned by the President. Do you not thing that, even if they were involved in the events, their actions were quite atypical? Usually terrorists seize strategic facilities, make demands. As for seizing power, they usually prefer doing it in the capital.  

— I agree. Basically, the term “terrorist” should be used in a very narrow sense, in accordance with the definition specified in the international law. But we use it in a rather broad sense.

And, just as broadly, do we use the term “extremist” that is not a part of the international legal vocabulary.

If we take the Kazakh Criminal Code and see what articles in it correspond to the terms “terrorist” and “extremist”, the list will be quite a long one. If you attack a policeman, you are deemed “an extremist” even though regular protestors (who are not terrorists) can be involved in clashes with the police.

In our case, we cannot state that terrorists have not been involved – there were bandits, there were even politically motivated bandits which makes them more like terrorists. However, they did not have a leader, they did not have goals except for destabilising the situation. But destabilisation is not a goal, it is an instrument. And if the goal is to seize power, one should try and do it in Nur-Sultan, not in Almaty or in Semey.

Therefore, I believe that the President’s statement on “the international terrorist treat against Kazakhstan” was nothing but political and rhetorical, directed towards the international audience and served as the foundation for bringing in the CSTO troops. There was not much more meaning to it especially considering that, of all the “terrorists”, we have only presented  one unfortunate Kyrgyz musician.

 Why were there no pogroms in Zhanaozen and Aktau?

— We must take into consideration the fact that the CSTO forces were brought only in Nur-Sultan, Almaty and the Almaty region. And this fact shows that some intra-elite conflict may have been going on. Clearly, this conflict (if there was one) was acutely developing in the south and not in the west of the country. The protestors had made no demands in regard to Tokayev’s resignation, their demands had to do only with Nazarbayev and his family (“Shal, ket!”) and then came down to the dismissal of the government and the socio-economic requests.


Do you think the actions taken by the police that, on the night of January the 4th, used flash-bang grenades, gas and rubber bullets facilitated the radicalisation of the protest?

— Partly. However, from our police, nothing else was to be expected. For years, the guardians of law and order have been running after peaceful protestors with impunity – no one has ever estimated whether or not the force used to break up a protest with balloons was proportionate to the danger.

When the police began breaking up the protestors this time, they probably thought everything would be as usual. Moreover, they were equipped rather well and were eager to use all these additional tools against the protestors. Indeed, this had partly triggered the disturbances that followed.

But let me go back to my idea that the escalation of violence was, among other things, a result of the fact that the peaceful protestors were joined by criminals, Islamic radicals and trained groups of fighters connected to the local elites.

Could the opposition that joined the protestors see where the biggest protests in the Kazakh history could lead?

— No, because, for the past 25 years, the history of the protests in Kazakhstan has been a history of peaceful protests. Those involved in them expected to be detained, forced into prison trucks, trialed and be either jailed or penalised for violating the peaceful assembly law.

Moreover, you may have noticed from the data available at this point that, at certain times, they were urging to abandon violence. However, it was clear that no one was listening to them and they could not weigh in on the crowd because it was not there electorate, not their environment.

You have already mentioned the bringing of the CSTO troops. And it seemed like the reasons for doing it were justifiable – restoring the order and releasing the local silovik forces to destroy the armed groups. However, some people have responded to this development in a negative way. What do you think about it?

— I have responded in a rather negative way myself since I am always suspicious of internationalising domestic developments. An internal conflict is one thing. But when the conflict involves a third party that is playing an important role in it, it is something else entirely different.

Apart from that, there is the fact that the CSTO consists mostly of the Russian troops. Thus, the appearance of Russia in the country that, for a long time, had been under control of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Kremlin and, only recently, has obtained independence, was perceived in the society as a sign of invading the Kazakh sovereignty.

As I see it, the bringing of the troops was dictated by the two following reasons.

The first one (and we have seen it confirmed) is that President Tokayev was not too keen on relying on the internal forces, their loyalty and the sufficiency of the resources to restore the order to the desirable extent. This is so far as the enforcement part of the problem is concerned. However, the political part was even more important, namely, brining the CSTO troops aimed to indicate to a certain part of the elite (if the internal conflict did indeed take place) that Putin “is on his side”.

However, when the troops entered, I said that, if their stay will not be extended, the positives will outweigh the negatives (the negative reaction in Kazakhstan and abroad). And since the troops are already being actively pulled out, I think this operation has not done much damage Tokayev’s reputation. 

What lessons should the authorities and the society learn from the January events?

— The main lessons should be learned by the authorities. As I understand, some lessons have already been learned by them. A number of Tokayev’s initiatives presented on January 11 has to do with solving the problems I have mentioned while listing the causes for the disturbances – crooked economy, corruption, the absence of the competitive environment, etc. The proposed solutions (reducing the gas prices, regulating the recycling fee) are special cases, of course. Nonetheless, the decisions have been made.  

From the political standpoint, I am afraid the lessons are yet to be learned. For, the reforms in the social block cannot be conducted without the supremacy of law, without the normal state institutions which includes judicial courts and the public prosecution office. These institutions have to be reformed as well. This, in its turn, cannot be done without an emerging civil society, a pluralist political system, free media.

As for the lessons for the people, unfortunately, the ordinary citizen is now scared and, therefore, is likely to support the opinion that the right for peaceful assembly needs to be restricted while the law-enforcement structures must be scaled up in order to ensure security.

To me, scaling up the law-enforcement structures is a dubious step. Clearly, they need to be trained, they need to have the resources to cope with threats. However, if we follow the path of increasing the number of policemen and increasing their authorities, then I am afraid, in between combatting the “terrorist threats”, such measures will be employed to antagonise the dissidents and the political opposition.

Moreover, let’s recall the year 2016 when the legislature underwent a whole number of amendments aimed to fight terrorism. And they had tried to convince us that the measures introduced, such as toughening the rules for the citizens’ registration, controlling the NGOs and the media, compiling a list of the persons funding terrorist, would allow us to cope with the terrorist threat. However, given the Presidential statement on “the terrorist attack”, we can see now that these measures have resulted in nothing.   


When scaling up and training the law-enforcement structures, we must consider the political context. If the “scaled-up” siloviks continue to clean the political space off the constructive opposition, its place may be overtaken by, say, religious radicals. What happens next is meticulously described in any political science textbook.

Thank you for the interview. 

See original article on KZ.MEDIA


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