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Bloody 2022 How Kazakhstani journalists went from covering a national uprising to reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine

Source: Meduza

By Valentina Michelotti for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

On a gray day last December, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took part in the unveiling of a new monument in Almaty's Republic Square. The ceremony had been announced that very morning and only journalists from state media outlets were permitted to attend, along with a crowd of onlookers who were reportedly brought in by bus. In his speech, Tokayev explained that the “Reverence” memorial — a collection of stone slabs engraved with quotes from prominent Kazakh figures — was dedicated to the victims of the 2022 “January events.” Also known as Bloody January (Qandy Qantar in Kazakh), the anti-government protest wave that spread across Kazakhstan began peacefully and then devolved into the most violent unrest in the country’s modern history as the authorities took drastic measures to quell the demonstrations. Tokayev personally authorized law enforcement to use lethal force, and, in a highly controversial move, asked the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send in troops. Weeks later, Moscow deployed some of the very same units in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a war that continues to send shockwaves through other former Soviet states. For The Beet, writer Valentina Michelotti spoke to Kazakhstani journalists who went from covering a national uprising to reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine.

This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

On January 4, 2022, journalist Timur Nusimbekov was out in Almaty, documenting the protests unfolding on the streets of his beloved city. The demonstrations had started two days earlier in Zhanaozen, an oil town some 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) away in Kazakhstan’s far west. These local rallies in response to a sudden rise in fuel prices turned into anti-government protests that spread countrywide. “Thousands of peaceful and unarmed people began to gather around [Almaty’s] main square,” Timur wrote in a report for Adamdar/CA, the media outlet he co-founded in 2018. “Many of them had no idea what was ahead of them, so the mood was festive as they walked.” 

Then came the riot police. According to the journalist’s account, clouds of tear gas and the sound of flashbang grenades filled the air into the next morning. “I have never seen so many people on the streets of my city screaming from horror, pain, explosions, and rage, as on the night of January 4-5,” Timur recalled.

“We’re just people, not terrorists.” Independence Square, Almaty. January 6, 2022.
Timur Nusimbekov

The violence had only just begun. To quash the protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev authorized law enforcement to “shoot to kill” and appealed to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help. To justify the intervention, he blamed the demonstrations on “terrorists.” By January 6, around 2,500 CSTO troops, including hundreds of Russian soldiers, had arrived in Kazakhstan. Over the following week, the government crackdown turned what began as peaceful protests into a waking nightmare of mass arrests, looting, torture, and protesters shot dead, events now referred to in Kazakh as Qandy Qantar — Bloody January. 

The CSTO contingent completed its withdrawal from Kazakhstan on January 19. A little over a month later, on February 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, beginning one of the deadliest European land wars in decades. By summer, Timur had left behind a still-grieving Kazakhstan to report on the ground in Ukraine. “I decided to go because Ukraine is one of my favorite places,” the journalist tells The Beet. “I wanted to see with my own eyes what was happening there, to try and document it with my notebook, pen, and camera, as well as to volunteer and be helpful in whatever way I could.”

Official confirmation 

Immediately after the February invasion, Kazakhstani journalists and activists began posting expressions of solidarity, foreign news clips, and commentary on what the war would mean for Kazakhstan on social media. State news sources, however, remained silent. “There was a kind of period where the media was waiting for, let's say, official confirmation on whether they’re allowed to write about this,” recalls political journalist and EurasiaChat podcast co-host Aigerim Toleukhanova

The first pro-government media outlet to start running regular stories about the Russian invasion was Khabar — a network once run by ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Both the coverage and its tone came as a surprise, says Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a prominent Kazakh journalist who has been reporting from Ukraine since last November. “These were flat-out objective, generalized reports where the journalist didn’t take either side,” he recalls. 

In fact, this relatively neutral reporting style in the state media has remained a hallmark throughout the war. According to Aigerim, even pro-government outlets in Kazakhstan, which would typically be more invested in maintaining a cautiously diplomatic relationship with Moscow, write about Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure (though often cloaked in passive language, referring to “the situation” or “what’s happening” in Ukraine). Of course, not everyone is trying to appear neutral. Outlets like or TengriNews, for example, report on the war with a clear pro-Russia bent. Lukpan also notes that the state media isn’t publishing anything that’s too sensitive for the Kremlin, such as coverage of international war crimes investigations into the Russian army’s atrocities in Bucha, Izyum, and other Ukrainian cities. 

In turn, independent Kazakhstani journalists reporting on the ground don’t hide their pro-Ukraine position. “Of course we do fact-checking and naturally we don’t publish explicitly tendentious things or unverified information. But even in our vocabulary we use words like ‘Russian occupiers’ or talk about Russia as the ‘aggressor country’ — words and phrases that the Ukrainian media probably uses more than the global media,” Lukpan explains. Timur goes even further, employing the term “Putler” (a portmanteau of “Putin” and “Hitler”) and referring to Russian soldiers as “the fascists” in his reports

‘The propaganda they’ve been swallowing doesn’t work’

The battle for solidarity with Ukraine goes beyond the reporting front. Lukpan, who co-hosts a YouTube channel called Just Journalism, says “90 percent of the comments” on his posts in the first few days of the full-scale war were “hate and negativity,” mostly from Russian-speakers. But, with time, there’s been a shift: the vast majority of the comments on his reports and interviews — with figures like Jasulan Duysembin, a Kazakhstani national fighting with Ukraine’s armed forces — are now supportive of both his work and Ukraine’s resistance. Lukpan chalks this up to an “emotional crisis” among the pro-Russia camp: “Evidently, the propaganda narratives they’ve been swallowing from the TV don’t work anymore.”

Lukpan Akhmedyarov’s interview with Jasulan Duysembin
Prosto Zhurnalistika

“These two sectors of [Kazakhstan’s] population, Russian-speaking and Kazakh-speaking, are literally living in parallel information bubbles,” says Aigerim. Indeed, the medium is also the message. Recent research shows that young Kazakhstanis are more likely to support Ukraine, whereas older people tend to believe Kremlin propaganda narratives about Russia being at war with NATO or conducting a righteous “special operation” in defense of the Donbas. The older generation, Aigerim adds, is more likely to be getting its information via television, and the Russian state media remains widely broadcast in Kazakhstan. 

This linguistic division and its social, cultural, and political consequences are nothing new. But the deeply traumatic events of January 2022 (and Russia’s role in them) have deepened the rift. Tokayev’s decision to call in Russian-led “peacekeeping” forces was controversial to say the least. According to Lukpan, the division that emerged in response to the CSTO mission was along linguistic lines — something that would be mirrored in the response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

“On the Kazakh-speaking side, the January events were known as a ‘national uprising,’ the largest protest in Kazakh history against totalitarianism, authoritarianism, dictatorship,” Lukpan explains. Kazakh-speakers, he continues, tended to see the Russia-led CSTO intervention as “foreign meddling” in Kazakhstan’s domestic affairs, whereas Russian-speakers echoed official narratives about how “Putin helped” Tokayev’s government restore order in the wake of “mass riots.”  

By comparison, the February invasion is far less ambiguous. “In general, I would say that society and journalists in Kazakhstan understand that it’s black and white, that Russia attacked [Ukraine],” explains Aigerim. Timur Nusimbekov says, “[Kazakhstan’s] people are on the Ukrainian side, but the government and the cops are on Putin's side.” “As usual,” he adds.

‘People don’t want to make peace with the repressions’

More than a year on, the events of Bloody January remain murky. The authorities intermittently blocked the Internet and social media sites throughout the protests, heightening the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. The government didn’t release the names of the 238 victims until August, and many believe the official death toll is too low. The official narrative is also vague, particularly with regard to the fierce protests and repressions in Almaty: the authorities blame the bulk of the violence on armed “bandits” hijacking initially peaceful demonstrations, while Tokayev claims to have weathered an attempted coup. And although officials are prosecuting more than 300 torture cases, the Tokayev government has impeded attempts to launch an independent inquiry and been accused of granting police officers amnesty as a means of preventing further investigation into the civilian deaths.

A burning car seen near the mayor’s office in Almaty. January 5, 2022.
Valeiry Sharifullin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Not everyone is on board with the government’s attempts to close the book on Bloody January, says Timur. “There’s a growing number of people in Kazakhstan, especially among the youth, who want real democratic reforms [and] honest elections,” he explains. “And these people don’t want to make peace with the repressions and the political killings that the country endured in January 2022.” 

Aigerim remains hopeful that the Tokayev government will learn from the events of 2022, but she fears the worst if they don’t. “[The] Kazakh people are patient, but I'm afraid that something similar to January events will happen again if the government keeps arresting activists and not allowing [them] to speak out and for civil society to develop,” she warns. 

In this context, the February invasion has only provided further impetus for people in Kazakhstan — and other countries across the former Soviet Union — to reassess their ties with Russia. “[Former adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff] Oleksiy Arestovych raised an interesting point [when he] said that Putin’s assault on Ukraine was rehearsed in January in Kazakhstan,” says Timur. Indeed, some of the Russian paratrooper units that played the role of “peacekeepers” in Kazakhstan’s Bloody January were later deployed to fight in Ukraine.

“In Europe, it’s like Ukraine is fighting [for] Europe, but in Kazakhstan and other countries, it’s that Ukraine is fighting for its own independence and for all those post-Soviet countries that were under Russian rule,” Aigerim explains. 

As such, the future trajectory of the war is likely to have a massive influence on social processes in Kazakhstan, Timur maintains. The fact that “decolonization” was among Kazakhstan’s buzzwords for 2022 speaks for itself. However, Timur suspects that this process will move slowly, given the Russian state media’s prevalence in Kazakhstan’s information sphere. 

That said, a Ukrainian victory could speed things along. “The defeat of Putin’s Russia in the war will accelerate tectonic changes on the continent and in the world,” underscores Timur. “For Kazakhstan and other governments of Central Asia and the Caucasus, there’s a small window of opportunity opening — a chance for full-fledged independence, development, [and] democratization. Whether we’ll take advantage of that opportunity is an open question.”

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By Valentina Michelotti for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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