Deep Dive

The Other Jan. 6

One year on, events in Kazakhstan that cemented its president’s grip on power remain shrouded in mystery.

Damage is seen in the aftermath of protests in Kazakhstan.
Damage is seen in the aftermath of protests in Kazakhstan.
Damage is seen in the aftermath of protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 11, 2022. Pavel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
By , a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington and NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief.

Under a dull December sky, a goose-stepping honor guard laid a bouquet of roses at a monument of black, gray, and white stone slabs. In the first days of 2022, Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, was ground zero for violence that swept the nation and took more than 200 lives nationwide. Less than a year later, on Dec. 23, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev unveiled a memorial to the victims of his country’s worst civil unrest since its independence in 1991.

“It was a time of trial for our people. The foundations of our statehood were under threat,” Tokayev said. “But thanks to the unity and solidarity of our people, we were able to confront all challenges resolutely.”

What Tokayev called “Tragic January” at the unveiling is also known by Kazakhs as Qandy Qantar, or “Bloody January.” In a matter of days, peaceful protests over fuel prices spiraled into pitched street battles, a cloak-and-dagger power struggle, and the deployment of a Russian-led peacekeeping force. Exactly what happened is still barely understood, even in Kazakhstan.

Under a dull December sky, a goose-stepping honor guard laid a bouquet of roses at a monument of black, gray, and white stone slabs. In the first days of 2022, Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, was ground zero for violence that swept the nation and took more than 200 lives nationwide. Less than a year later, on Dec. 23, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev unveiled a memorial to the victims of his country’s worst civil unrest since its independence in 1991.

“It was a time of trial for our people. The foundations of our statehood were under threat,” Tokayev said. “But thanks to the unity and solidarity of our people, we were able to confront all challenges resolutely.”

What Tokayev called “Tragic January” at the unveiling is also known by Kazakhs as Qandy Qantar, or “Bloody January.” In a matter of days, peaceful protests over fuel prices spiraled into pitched street battles, a cloak-and-dagger power struggle, and the deployment of a Russian-led peacekeeping force. Exactly what happened is still barely understood, even in Kazakhstan.

Tokayev claims that a government investigation has provided an “objective picture” of events but nebulously refers to unnamed “conspirators” and “bandits” as the instigators of the bloodshed.

Perhaps the only clarity about Bloody January is that Tokayev, 69, emerged from the chaos as Kazakhstan’s undisputed leader. When the dust settled, Tokayev, the country’s titular president, had sidelined his mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had reigned over the Central Asian nation since the dying days of the Soviet Union. Practically everything else remains shrouded in secrecy, including who was responsible for the violence and why so many people ended up dead.

Tokayev has rejected calls for an independent investigation with the participation of international experts. Kazakh human rights defenders fault the government’s investigation for focusing on individual criminal cases and missing the bigger picture. Moreover, court cases involving state security officials or the use of lethal force are often classified.

The dramatic events in Kazakhstan last January were soon overshadowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But oil-rich Kazakhstan, which shares an almost 5,000-mile border with Russia, has only grown in stature as the Kremlin’s most important treaty ally and its conduit to the outside, unsanctioned world. Tokayev, a former diplomat, has used his new position to cement power at home while performing a delicate balancing act between Russia, China, and the West.

“A year after January, we still have no answers to millions of questions,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, founder of the independent Kazakh news site vlast.kz. “It’s important for the future of the country to understand what happened.”


Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev casts his ballot at a polling station.
Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev casts his ballot at a polling station.

In a handout photo released by his press office, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev casts his ballot at a polling station in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Nov. 20, 2022. Kazakhstan’s President Press Office via AP

Tokayev’s deftness in the past year came as a surprise to both his enemies and well-wishers. Before the unrest, Tokayev was seen as a wooden official who had loyally served in the highest posts of Nazarbayev’s regime. Although Nazarbayev, then 78, formally handed over the presidency to Tokayev in 2019, Tokayev was derided as Nazarbayev’s “furniture” because Nazarbayev remained in control behind the scenes.

“When Nazarbayev resigned, it created hopes,” said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asia program at Harvard University’s Davis Center. “He sort of left but didn’t really. He was still the power center. Because hope had emerged, the disappointment was even bigger.”

Discontent with Kazakhstan’s political ossification combined with frustration over corruption, economic inequality, and inflation. When the government lifted price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, used to power cars, demonstrations broke out in western Kazakhstan, a region prone to protests because of simmering labor disputes. Peaceful rallies quickly spread across the country and took on a very clear political demand. “Shal, ket” (“old man, out!”), the protesters shouted, referring to Nazarbayev.

As pent-up anger with Nazarbayev spilled into the streets, a brewing inter-elite conflict also came to a head. Despite Tokayev’s junior position, his power tandem with Nazarbayev threatened the former president’s entourage. Nazarbayev’s inner circle wanted him to rethink his transition plan and replace Tokayev with a family member, said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They added flames to angry protests,” Umarov said.

On the night of Jan. 4, 2022, the rallies became violent when police used tear gas and rubber bullets on a crowd in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. The next day, there was gunfire and the mayor’s office was set on fire. In the capital of Astana, about 600 miles away, Tokayev vowed not to leave the country and declared that he was replacing Nazarbayev as the head of the country’s powerful Security Council. That night, unknown people seized Almaty International Airport.

On Jan. 6, amid an internet blackout, Tokayev said Kazakhstan was under attack by foreign-backed “terrorists” and that he was calling on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet republics—for assistance. The following day, the authorities announced that Kazakhstan’s constitutional order had been restored. Adding to the confusion, Tokayev said he had given law enforcement the order to shoot without warning and blamed 20,000 terrorists for attacking Almaty—a number that Kazakhstan’s chief prosecutor would later retract. As the violence abated and the death toll rose, Tokayev claimed he had survived a coup attempt.

In a yet unpublished report, Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, found that the violence initially broke out in Almaty when “marginal youth”—disaffected young rural men in search of work—joined peaceful demonstrators, scuffling with police and looting stores. Yet, according to Zhovtis, the protests only descended into mass riots when armed, organized groups showed up and attacked police stations and government buildings. Law enforcement was absent in many locations, including Almaty’s airport, he writes, “leaving the impression that police and national security agencies were either in a state of confusion” or inactive for some other reason.

“There is no evidence of a terrorist attack on Kazakh cities, including one organized and with the participation of ‘terrorists’ from abroad,” Zhovtis concludes. “Similarly, I have doubts about the version of an organized coup attempt.” For one, the violence took place mainly in Almaty, and there was no unrest in the capital, where Tokayev was located. Also unusual for an attempted coup, there were no public announcements by any plotters, and the riots did not appear to have been centrally coordinated. Although it is entirely plausible that Nazarbayev’s entourage used armed rioters and connections to the security services to pressure Tokayev, Zhovtis says, there can be no conclusive evidence without an independent international investigation or public trials of the alleged conspirators.

One reason for Tokayev’s caginess about what happened last January is that he, himself, is a product of Nazarbayev’s system, which he is now abandoning. By raising the specter of an outside terrorist attack, Tokayev provided a legal basis for Kazakhstan’s CSTO allies to intervene. As the Kremlin was preparing to attack Ukraine, the primarily Russian contingent seemed poised also to threaten Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. But the 2,500-strong peacekeeping force maintained a low profile and withdrew within two weeks of its deployment.

Tokayev’s appeal to the CSTO was needed as “a signal to the Kazakh security apparatus,” Kassenova said. “Tokayev didn’t have a powerful status; that’s why he appealed to Putin. He couldn’t count on the security services beyond his own guard service.” The foreign troops stayed just long enough to give Tokayev a decisive edge over his rivals. The day before the last CSTO soldier departed, Nazarbayev went on national television, announcing his retirement and denying speculation about a conflict between his entourage and Tokayev.

At the time, it appeared that Tokayev’s need for Russian help would make him indebted to the Kremlin. But Putin had his own reasons to intervene, Umarov said. “We need to understand this action was not about saving Tokayev,” he said. “Russia was really scared it would lose an ally and friendly regime. Sending troops wasn’t about Kazakhstan in the first place but about Russia.” Whatever leverage the Kremlin did hold over Tokayev soon evaporated once the invasion of Ukraine isolated Russia and forced it to turn to the few allies it still had.

For Tokayev, his triumph as Kazakhstan’s new supreme leader is the lasting outcome of Bloody January; the gory details of how he got there are uncomfortable. In June, Tokayev told Russian state television that the organizers of the January events had been so professional and covered their tracks so well that no big revelations were forthcoming. He also said he had been urged by unnamed people to leave the country but refused to do so.

The role of Nazarbayev and his family is one unsolved mystery. Although Nazarbayev’s relatives have lost positions of power and seen their fabulous wealth come under the scrutiny of prosecutors, nobody in the family has faced charges related directly to Bloody January. Instead, Tokayev has targeted former Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov, a member of Nazarbayev’s inner circle who headed the National Security Committee, the KGB’s successor agency, at the time of the unrest. Since Massimov’s trial is closed, little is known about the case.

Another mystery is who bears responsibility for the deaths of so many people. In August, Kazakhstan’s chief prosecutor published a list of 238 people killed during Bloody January, including 19 law enforcement officers and six people in police custody. “There is no clarity, or at least no publicity, about who was shooting and under what circumstances,” Zhovtis writes in his report. “In the vast majority of cases, bystanders, peaceful protesters, and persons who did not pose an immediate threat to life and health died.” Only one military service member has so far been convicted for a wrongful killing, according to Zhovtis.

The Zhovtis report also establishes that Kazakh police widely used torture against suspects arrested during the unrest, though only two torture cases have made it to court.


A person surveys the damage to a charred building in the aftermath of protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2022.
A person surveys the damage to a charred building in the aftermath of protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2022.

A person surveys the damage to a charred building in the aftermath of protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 11, 2022. Pavel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tokayev is in a hurry to make a clean break with the past and cast himself as a reformer. He has pushed through constitutional changes stripping Nazarbayev of his privileges, reestablishing the Constitutional Court, and limiting a president’s tenure in the future to a single seven-year term. In November 2022, Tokayev held a snap presidential election that served as a referendum on his continued rule. He took 81 percent of the vote in an election that the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe criticized as devoid of meaningful competition and constrained by limitations on Kazakhs’ basic freedoms.

While Tokayev has presented a vision of a country that is democratizing and providing more economic opportunity to its citizens, the legacy of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule looms large. “If you go deeper, many reforms are cosmetic or very small. It’s still a super-presidential system with lots of control in the hands of the president,” said Abramov. “There will be positive changes. But I’m absolutely sure it’s not enough for Kazakhstan.”

Like other autocrats in the post-Soviet space, Tokayev can argue that only his steady hand will guarantee the independence of his nation. Kazakhs’ growing fears of an unpredictable, revanchist Russia further strengthen his authority at home. Tokayev has skillfully taken control domestically, using a combination of ambiguity and action to keep potential rivals off balance, Kassenova said. “It’s the same way he’s behaving with Russia,” she added. “Careful but decisive at the right time—nobody knows what he’s going to do next.”

Russia’s growing isolation has forced Putin to seek out Tokayev’s company, meeting with him on almost a dozen occasions in 2022. But Tokayev has withheld support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and allowed tens of thousands of Russian draft dodgers to find refuge in Kazakhstan. Continuing with Nazarbayev’s “multi-vector” foreign policy—designed to maintain friendly relations with all major powers—Tokayev hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in September on his first foreign trip since the pandemic. And after visiting Moscow upon his reelection, Tokayev quietly met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Last month, as Tokayev opened the memorial to the January unrest in Almaty, his words took on a double meaning when he said: “We need to constantly guard our independence and statehood. We have grasped the true meaning of the saying, ‘Do not say there is no enemy. He is hiding behind the rock.’”

Tokayev was calling on Kazakhs to rally behind him—and, at the same time, bury the secrets of his origin story under a monument of stone.

Lucian Kim is a journalist who has covered Russia since 2003, most recently as NPRs Moscow bureau chief. He is currently a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @Lucian_Kim

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