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'The Fire Could Be Ignited At Any Point': Kazakhstan's 'Bloody January' Through The Eyes Of Those Who Covered It 

Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty on January 5.
Protesters take part in a rally over a hike in energy prices in Almaty on January 5.

"The circumstances which started the January protests are still there, and that fire could be ignited at any point," says Cheryl L. Reed, an American journalist, author, and Fulbright scholar who came to Kazakhstan to study the January events.

On January 2, 2022, a peaceful protest against an increase in fuel prices turned into widespread anti-government demonstrations that culminated in a deadly "shoot-to-kill" order. Kazakh authorities say 232 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed across the country, and six persons were tortured to death in custody.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed activists and journalists for "inciting" the protests, which many in Kazakhstan now refer to as Qandy Qantar (Bloody January). He also claimed that "20,000 extremists trained in foreign terrorist camps" attacked Almaty, without providing any evidence.

How did a peaceful protest in Kazakhstan turn so violent? Why have the authorities refused to allow an international investigation of the events? And how did the January unrest change the public's view of the government?

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service discussed these questions with Reed, who is a winner of the Goldsmith Award for Best Investigative Journalism. Reed spent four months visiting areas in Kazakhstan where the protests erupted and interviewed local journalists who covered them. A series of articles by Reed, which recount the events of January as seen by journalists, appeared last week in the current affairs magazine The Diplomat.

RFE/RL: There are different versions of what really happened a year ago. Toqaev spoke about the "terrorist" attack on the country. At the same time, he stated that there were traitors among high-ranking officials who wanted to remove him from power. The idea of an "elite struggle" is quite popular among the people in Kazakhstan. Was it an attempted coup or a rapidly erupting, chaotic, popular protest? What really happened?

Cheryl L. Reed: Almost everyone I interviewed -- including people of good standing, people of very high reputations, people who are activists running NGOs -- all have these vast conspiracy theories. Сoming from the U.S., I'm not interested in conspiracy theories. My country has already dealt with lots of conspiracy theories, and they don't ever pan out. When I would hear these conspiracy theories, I just didn't believe it.

Cheryl L. Reed
Cheryl L. Reed

It was interesting to me because the foreign journalists I talked to, none of them believed the conspiracy theories. The local journalists I talked to all did. But the machinations -- how this was supposed to work -- just made no sense to me. Maybe it's because I don't live in the country. I think I understand the politics of Kazakhstan fairly well, but I just found it really hard to believe all the things that they were suggesting.

My focus in this project was really to listen to what the journalists were saying in terms of their own freedom of speech. How were they able to communicate, especially at a very critical time when the entire country really needed to know what was going on? Many of them were in an information vacuum. The police were not only trying to deter the protesters, but they were trying to deter the journalists, in some ways very physically.

So my interest was in how did these journalists report and deal with the repression from the police, the authorities, and what did they see, what were they feeling, what were they thinking, what they left behind, and the risks they were taking. And what that risk meant to them.

RFE/RL: What was the most challenging thing while you were working in Kazakhstan, interviewing people and gathering data?

Reed: I would say that the KNB (National Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB) tracked me, filmed me, contacted and harassed my translators, followed me, followed the people that I interviewed, and tried to prevent me from getting the story.

You know, that guy has been filming us. I don't care because I'm used to it, I'm an independent journalist.

I could tell you one anecdote: I'm sitting in Aqtobe interviewing a journalist in a hotel that I stayed at -- in a tent, you know, they have these, like, cabanas. One guy is walking back and forth filming us very openly. And the journalist says: 'You know, that guy has been filming us. I don't care because I'm used to it, I'm an independent journalist.'

But by that point, I had been openly filmed by so many people, it was so irritating to me. I went over to that guy and started yelling at him, and he was so unnerved by it that he left.

But they tried to do it in such obvious ways. They have the gardener walking around our table with a camera in his pocket. We went to a cabana where nobody could actually come by, but there was a window, and suddenly it opened. I mean, every which way they could try to listen in. On one hand, it's comical, and on the other hand, it's just irritating.

The Almaty mayor's office burns after being set ablaze by an angry mob over on January 5.
The Almaty mayor's office burns after being set ablaze by an angry mob over on January 5.

RFE/RL: Going back to the topic of your research, in your view, how did the protests that started peacefully in different regions of Kazakhstan over fuel prices and social issues turn to violence? Was it organized?

Reed: I think it was definitely grassroots in Zhanaozen and Aqtau. I think that some people co-opted it and tried to do what they wanted to do. Generally, what I hear from journalists is most of the protests were very peaceful. But when the police reacted to the protest, that's when it became violent.

If someone shooting at you, regardless of what they're shooting, even if it's rubber bullets, you're going to defend yourself.

So there would be masses of people -- 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 people -- gathered together in this country where you're not allowed to protest or gather, and the police are just freaking out. That's when they start shooting these grenades and rubber bullets, and that's when the protesters retaliated.

So, it was like the police were overwhelmed with the masses and then tried to disperse them. And then if someone shooting at you, regardless of what they're shooting, even if it's rubber bullets, you're going to defend yourself. So that seemed to accelerate the situation instead of what I think the intention was, just to disperse people, and that didn't really happen.

RFE/RL: What was the perception of people on the actions of local authorities? How did they assess the way local authorities communicated with them?

Reed: Well, I think in some regions, definitely Zhanaozen and Aqtau were much more positive. And as you can see, the result was no one was killed. And there was a direct relationship between the lack of communication from authorities and the deaths.

Now, I think in Qyzylorda, the mayor came out and did try to speak to them, and that didn't help. So, in some cases, it didn't help because the crowds were just too inflamed. And in some of the other cities where no one responded -- definitely in Almaty -- it was a factor, when the journalists kept saying that the protesters were just so upset by the fact that no one was addressing them, that that was one of the reasons why they used force.

RFE/RL: What was the perception of people whom you interviewed about Toqaev's order to shoot without warning?

Reed: A few people mentioned it. I mean, there was the fear of it. And so I think there was a lot of self-censorship as a result of that. A lot of journalists pulled back as a result of that and then other activists were very critical of it because you're shooting without knowing who these people are. And people who are passing on the street, legally driving on the street.

Most people were highly critical of it. And then also many of the journalists said that...they feared that soldiers and police who knew who they were would use that to kill them.

RFE/RL: International rights organizations and the European Parliament are among those who have pushed for an international investigation into the violence. However, the Kazakh authorities rejected any international probe. Why did the authorities reject the call for an international investigation?

Reed: In general, people who have something to hide are not going to want someone from the outside coming in. Also, the president gave an amnesty. So he sort of quashed any sort of investigation. There are a lot of people in power and probably a lot of police who would have been held responsible for the shooting. But where does that responsibility end? The president said "shoot to kill." Then I guess it would end with him because the soldiers were acting on his orders.

RFE/RL: Public discussion about the January events usually covers Toqaev's order and those who are responsible for that and the people who are involved. But do you believe that the angle of the discussion should be changed for other issues as well, or how should it be changed, in your view?

Reed: Well, he talked a lot about the 20,000 "terrorists." I mean, there's a lot of discussion about that, too, and theories about why he said that. I think there should be some discussion in every city: How do you respond to civil unrest? I mean, there should be an established procedure. Do you cordon off the area? Do you allow the people to have their say?

Generally, and I'm speaking as someone who's covered many, many protests in America, people who are protesting have something they have to get out. You trying to stop them, as the government, it isn't going to help anything. I mean, generally, if you let them protest, they go home. Nobody gets killed, nobody gets hurt. And you trying to stop them, it isn't going to help anything. The minute you start shooting at people, they're going to respond.

Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government in Almaty on January 6.
Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government in Almaty on January 6.

I think, in terms of a protest, allowing people to have their freedom of speech, allowing them to say what they want to say, as long as they're not destroying property or hurting people, why do you care? Trying to control everything doesn't end well. People have this pent-up frustration that they need to get out in some way.

These were just ordinary people who were fed up.

What I heard about the January protests over and over again is that these were ordinary people who started this protest. These were just ordinary people who were fed up. And that when you get to that level, where people are really willing to risk arrest, they're just so fed up, then you've got a real problem on your hands and you see this in a lot of places. Look at Iran right now. Some of these countries where you have no freedom of speech, you have no ability to protest, you have no ability to have civil disobedience, what ends up happening is then you have civil unrest and people respond, and it's not always peaceful.

RFE/RL: The January events were the second time in the history of independent Kazakhstan that the authorities used force against people. How have the January events changed the attitude of society toward the authorities? Did people you interviewed talk about it?

Reed: I didn't interview common everyday people. But I asked everyone whom I interviewed, how did this change the country? Some people said it didn't change it at all, and other people felt that it made people more open to discuss things that were controversial and that made them feel freer to be able to discuss those things.

But what I can tell you from having traveled 20,000 miles all over the country interviewing all these people [is that] I wouldn't be surprised if another protest happens. Because what did this protest achieve? I mean, a lot of people would say that it didn't change anything. And it maybe allowed Toqaev to have more power, and it got rid of [former longtime President Nursultan] Nazarbaev and his family and their control. Maybe some people would say that, but other people would say they're in the same situation.

I definitely feel that the situation and the circumstances which started the January protests are still there, and that fire could be ignited at any point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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