‘This is a turning point’ In a dispatch from Almaty, a local journalist shares an eyewitness account of Kazakhstan’s uprising
Developments in Kazakhstan have evolved rapidly since demonstrations began on January 2. Under pressure from nationwide protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev dismissed the cabinet and removed Nursultan Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as chairman of the National Security Council on January 5. By that evening, it appeared as though protesters had taken complete control of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. But the military soon returned to the city and launched an “anti-terrorist operation.” According to official reports, by the morning of January 6, dozens of protesters had died and police had arrested around 2,000 people. In a dispatch for Meduza, local journalist Aysulu Toyshibekova offers an eyewitness account from the streets of Almaty.
Around 3:00 p.m. on January 5, I left home with my boyfriend to walk around the neighborhood and see what was happening. The streets were quite crowded, there were lines for nearby grocery stores — they had run out of bread.
A little ways on, at the nearest major intersections, protestors were unsuccessfully trying to block the roadway, throwing trash cans, branches, and chunks of curbs. Nearby were closed shops, including a market, where locals go to buy vegetables, and a KFC, which is usually crowded with couriers on scooters.
Several burned out police cars sat just a few blocks away. Demonstrators had written Kazakh on the side of a Kamaz military truck with flat tires. Several hours earlier there were clashes here with police, who tried to stop protesters from reaching Almaty’s main squares — Astana Square and Republic Square.
Another column of protesters passed by us. Men, and less often women, walked past on foot. Several cars drove ahead of the column in order to divert the oncoming traffic; several other cars blocked the intersections. Some drove in silence, others chanted “Forward, Kazakhstan!”.
Passersby filmed the column on their phones, but the protesters immediately asked them to put down their cameras — and, along the way, they knocked down the CCTV cameras at intersections with cobblestones and sticks.
‘Old man, leave!’
Closer to evening on January 5, the Internet was shut off in the city — it even stopped working at home. Taxi services were intermittent. So we just went outside and hitched a ride. For 2,000 tenge (a little less than $5), a driver agreed to take us directly to Republic Square.
On the streets we drove through absolutely nothing had happened. We got there fairly quickly, without running into any serious cordons. The driver literally drove us to the square, took the cash, and left.
Thus, we found ourselves in the middle of a sea of people — at least 3,000 people. To our left was the Almaty administration building, burning brightly with orange flames coming from inside.
Fluttering over the square were flags honoring the thirtieth anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, which the country celebrated last year. A large group of demonstrators had gathered near the Independence Monument, and another crowd had gathered across the road. Some people wore flack jackets (one of them had coffee stains), helmets, and protective masks. An eagle hunter (berkutchi) in a fur hat stood right there, with a bird sitting on his arm.
The police and the military weren’t on the square. One of the protesters told Meduza’s correspondent that she hadn’t seen any security officers at all. “They weren’t [here], they’re only firing back there [at the presidential residence] and that’s all,” she explained.
A makeshift podium had been set up nearby, from which a man called on the protesters to go to the presidential residence. The crowd responded enthusiastically and moved towards Nazarbayev Avenue.
As we made our way along the avenue towards the residence, shots rang out louder and more often. This part of the street was very dark — the streetlamps weren’t lit, the only sources of light were a bonfire at the intersection and the headlights of a few cars.
At some point, people began to chant “Old man, leave!”. In response, shots rang out from the presidential residence once again, drowning out the slogan more and more with each passing second. Many people ran back towards the square — so did we.
The intersections were just as crowded. Improvised barricades had appeared. Shots rang out from the presidential residence without stopping. When they started rumbling nearby, we took off again.
‘Don’t beat them, they’re just like us.’
We left the square along with a procession of people. Some had only come out to walk around and see what was happening, others had already been out for several hours. From the window of a residential building overlooking Nazarbayev Avenue, a woman shouted at the protesters, asking them to disperse — because of the noise, she couldn’t get her children to sleep. In response, the demonstrators invited her to join the protest.
The further we got from the square, the fewer people there were. On the trampled lawn lay a broken sign with the name of the avenue. At that same moment, somewhere in Taldykorgan, a monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev had been “toppled.”
On the next street, we encountered a group of young guys and girls who had left the square about an hour ago. They had come out to protest for the first time ever that day.
Nazgul (whose name has been changed at her request) said that she came to the square at the very moment when the protesters began to seize the city administration building: “It was unbelievably scary, because the aggression was strong, but it was manageable and humane somehow. It was clear that people were angry at the regime, but nice to each other.”
A few people in military uniforms were taken out of the building before her eyes:
“Some started getting beaten. People held them back from each other and said: ‘Don’t beat them, they’re just like us, they just followed orders.’ The wounded, including soldiers, were taken to hospitals by the protesters in their own cars. In fact, the rally was very organized. Yes, there were various people, but now they're starting to demonize everyone…People were very reasonable. They treated each other very respectfully, they didn’t allow looting.”
According to the protester, the looting started after someone broke into the cosmetics store MonAmie. “I saw that one person did it, and the others shouted, ‘Don’t, don’t.’ But at some point others rushed there too. We decided to leave after they got into the store and cars started bringing in weapons. It looked very suspicious: a car pulled up, opened the trunk, threw everything out, and immediately drove away. Usually cars drove [around] and took away the wounded…It seemed like some kind of plant,” Nazgul explained.
“Someone is painting a picture of wanton protesters, but there was no such thing,” she added.
“They bummed a cigarette from me and treated me to samsa,” confirmed Dmitry, another protester (whose name has been changed).
Another demonstrator, Aynur, told Meduza that on January 4, a crowd of several thousand protesters marched past her house. At first, Aynur was worried about her mother, who also wanted to go to the rally. But on January 5, she decided to go to the square herself.
“Today I woke up and realized that it was no longer possible to sit around, that all of Kazakhstan had gone out [in protest]. First of all, I wanted to go out because my friends and I stand for this: [things] need to change, we’re not satisfied with the regime. And right now is the very moment when you can go and defend your civic position. Secondly, in chat groups they began to write that this is a crowd, that they [the protesters] want to show their strength, [that they’re] such beasts. I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t the case. And I’ve become convinced that these are people who are demanding not survival, but a normal life. History is happening right now. No matter how it ends, this is a turning point.”
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Late in the evening on January 5, an “anti-terrorist operation” began in Almaty. On the morning of January 6, TASS and Sputnik Kazakhstan reported that there had been a shootout between hundreds of soldiers and armed protesters in front of the administration building on Republic Square. According to the city police, on the night of January 6, dozens of protesters who allegedly stormed the administration building and a police department were killed (the exact number of victims wasn’t given). According to official reports, 13 police officers have been killed amid the protests across Kazakhstan.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has already sent troops to Kazakhstan. This “peacekeeping contingent” also includes Russian military personnel. The Kazakhstani authorities continue to block communications.
Translation by Eilish Hart