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Kazakhstan’s Unrest Leaves Behind a Traumatized Society

Overloaded hospitals are struggling amid a coronavirus spike.

By , a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University who specializes in political regimes and geopolitics in Central Asia.
People protest energy price hikes in Kazakhstan.
People protest energy price hikes in Kazakhstan.
Protesters take part in a rally against a hike in energy prices in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 5. Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

The unrest in Kazakhstan has attracted global attention—but so far, little of it has focused on the costs paid by ordinary citizens. On Jan. 10, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev estimated the economic damage from the unrest at around $2 billion to $3 billion. He said that “about 1,300 businesses were affected, more than 100 shopping centers and banks attacked, and about 500 police cars burned.” But the actual damage goes far beyond monetary value.

On Jan. 2, mass protests erupted in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan, and quickly spread to many other cities. Triggered by a spike in gas prices against the background of long-standing socioeconomic grievances, the peaceful protests were met with a violent state response. The situation escalated with the emergence of rioters, looters, and unidentified nonstate armed groups. The government claimed these groups have ties to criminal, extremist, and terrorist networks—homegrown and foreign—though without providing any convincing evidence.

The state crackdown on peaceful protesters involved the use of water cannons, tear gas, and flashlight grenades. While some protesters dispersed at the first sign of escalation, those who stayed were caught in the crossfire between the police, who allegedly used both rubber and regular bullets, and nonstate armed groups on the night from Jan. 4 to Jan. 5. Fires set in small businesses and grocery stores grew to engulf entire residential buildings, with people trapped inside.

The unrest in Kazakhstan has attracted global attention—but so far, little of it has focused on the costs paid by ordinary citizens. On Jan. 10, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev estimated the economic damage from the unrest at around $2 billion to $3 billion. He said that “about 1,300 businesses were affected, more than 100 shopping centers and banks attacked, and about 500 police cars burned.” But the actual damage goes far beyond monetary value.

On Jan. 2, mass protests erupted in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan, and quickly spread to many other cities. Triggered by a spike in gas prices against the background of long-standing socioeconomic grievances, the peaceful protests were met with a violent state response. The situation escalated with the emergence of rioters, looters, and unidentified nonstate armed groups. The government claimed these groups have ties to criminal, extremist, and terrorist networks—homegrown and foreign—though without providing any convincing evidence.

The state crackdown on peaceful protesters involved the use of water cannons, tear gas, and flashlight grenades. While some protesters dispersed at the first sign of escalation, those who stayed were caught in the crossfire between the police, who allegedly used both rubber and regular bullets, and nonstate armed groups on the night from Jan. 4 to Jan. 5. Fires set in small businesses and grocery stores grew to engulf entire residential buildings, with people trapped inside.

The situation endangered ordinary civilians for several more days, with stray bullets occasionally hitting civilians, including children, even at locations far from city centers. Individual stories continue to emerge on social media describing tragic events of those dark days. On Jan. 15, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced there had been a total of 206 civilians dead and 960 wounded. It’s not clear how accurate those figures are yet. The government still has not released the names of the deceased civilians, despite civil activists’ demands.

Officially, 19 members of the security forces were killed, and over 3,393 wounded. (It’s not clear why there is such a disproportionate ratio of dead to wounded among police, especially when compared to civilians.) Many police and military officers were attacked while performing guard duties and trying to control the crowds. Witness reports have emerged describing beaten-up young army conscripts, many under 20 years old, running away, asking civilians to let them hide in their apartments and office buildings, and borrowing civilian clothes. A large influx of injured people has overloaded hospitals and put serious strain on medical staff already struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, currently showing a twentyfold spike in caseloads over a month, likely as a result of the omicron variant. Before the situation stabilized and order was restored in Almaty, armed groups reportedly shot at cars and stopped ambulances.

There has also been extensive material damage. Protesters and rioters attempted to seize government buildings around the country, including akimats (city halls) in Aktobe, Kostanay, Semey, and Atyrau. Three floors of the regional akimat in the western city of Aktobe were destroyed. The regional akimat and three police buildings were destroyed in Taraz. In Almaty, which saw most of the violence and looting, rioters broke into the city akimat, knocked out the doors and windows, threw around documents, and destroyed offices. A fire that broke out on the first floor quickly engulfed the entire building. A picture of the burned-down Almaty akimat has become a symbol of tragic large-scale destruction and violence that many refer to as Qandy Qantar—Bloody January. Buildings used by the ruling party Nur Otan and a prosecutor’s office were set on fire. Armed groups also took control of several hospitals and the airport.

In addition to the direct damages to state property, mass looting affected hundreds of banks and shopping malls, as well as more than 1,300 businesses. Looters broke into the buildings, seizing anything from retail products and electronics from stores to furniture, coffeemakers, and groceries from restaurant kitchens, wrecking interiors and occasionally setting those buildings on fire.

The arson of residential buildings has forced some families into internal displacement. The closure of destroyed businesses and banks left many without income, as their workplaces were no longer operating. The families of victims lost breadwinners and are struggling to pay rent and utilities. While the government has pledged to compensate the families of deceased law enforcement officers and pay for funerals, the families of deceased civilians have not received any support. The looting of grocery stores left some neighborhoods in Almaty without access to basic necessities, a situation that made life particularly difficult when it was still dangerous to go outside or drive to other parts of the city.

In the aftermath of the unrest, the police have reportedly been wrongly detaining civilians on charges of participation in the violent riots and looting. Many of them report grave violations of human rights, including brutal detention, prolonged interrogation, beating, torture, and pressure to confess. Police are harassing people on the street, demanding that they show photos on their phones to check if they were out on the night of the protests. Detained peaceful protesters need legal support—as do small businesses trying to request state assistance.

The chaos has also inflicted a deep trauma on the public. Those directly affected by the violence and consequences of the unrest describe it as being close to the experience of war. Some Almaty residents living in the affected neighborhoods still fear going outside due to the lingering sound of grenades exploding. Others, who stayed at home, disoriented, with no understanding of what was happening and unable to contact their loved ones to confirm they were safe, are still in shock over the scope of violence and destruction and are anxious about the future of the country.

Kazakhstan has been through much hardship. However, what is notable and admirable is how people have been mobilizing en masse to help society recover. Thousands of grassroots volunteer groups have organized on messaging platforms to address various issues on the path to recovery. Once it became safer to go outside, young volunteers organized to clean the streets of Almaty left littered with broken glass and debris from looting and destruction. Cleaning companies are offering small businesses free cleaning to facilitate faster recovery and reopening. Therapists are holding free group therapy sessions to provide psychological support to anyone in need.

Given the information vacuum caused by the internet outage and limited mobile service, a volunteer society “Bauyrmen Bailanys” (Connect With Your Relative) organized a call-around system where one could leave a request for a tech-savvy volunteer with access to a virtual private network to check on their family and report back. A volunteer movement called Lider.kz, joined by other volunteer groups, has organized a search of missing persons. The Red Crescent of Kazakhstan has encouraged people to donate blood as well as distributing first aid kits and medicine to lonely seniors and vulnerable populations. A local organization Ya Almatinets (“I Am an Almaty Resident”) has delivered hot meals to law enforcement and medical staff working around the clock. Club Dobryakov (“Kind Souls”) Almaty has distributed groceries and basic necessities to affected communities.

These are just a few examples of the wide range of self-organized ad hoc and preexisting volunteer communities, as well as local and nationwide nongovernmental and charity organizations that mobilized in response to the current humanitarian crisis. In addition to these more centralized responses, a database Asar was created to allow direct support for affected families. The database registers requests for health, grocery supplies, and financial assistance, which allows others to directly contact and help those in need.

It will take many years for the Kazakhstani people to recover from the economic, social, and psychological consequences of the January unrest. Yet the unified response of society to this collective tragedy inspires hope and belief in its resilience.

Akbota Karibayeva is a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University who specializes in political regimes and geopolitics in Central Asia.

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