ORAL, Kazakhstan -- Growing up in the small, remote town of Zhalpaqtal in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich northwest, Aslan Zhamaliev wasn't interested in politics.
After studying telecommunications and working in mobile-phone stores in West Kazakhstan Province, Zhamaliev ended up getting a job in the oil and gas sector -- just like many others in recent years.
It was during his work in the oil industry that Zhamaliev, 39, says he began questioning why in a country with enormous natural resources the majority of people “earn just enough to buy food.”
I joined the protests because I’m fed up with the government. It’s about poverty, but there are many other political and economic issues that anger people.”-- Oral resident Aslan Zhamaliev
Zhamaliev says his job in the neighboring Atyrau region involved long shifts and hard work. But he was paid about $230 a month, not even half of the official average salary of $570 a month.
“I'm educated. I’m experienced. Why should I work for only $230? Actually, what the employer offered me was even lower -- it was $160 a month,” Zhamaliev says. “These wages aren’t enough for anything.”
Zhamaliev lost his job after falling ill with COVID-19 last year.
He was among thousands of Kazakhs who took part in anti-government protests in early January that turned violent after being met by a heavy government clampdown. Dozens were killed, hundreds were injured, and nearly 8,000 people were detained across the country of some 19 million.
The unprecedented nationwide demonstrations involving tens of thousands of unhappy Kazakhs began with a peaceful protest against a hike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the western town of Zhanaozen on January 2.
In Oral, where Zhamaliev now lives, demonstrations started on January 3, initially with about 80 motorists demanding the government cancel the increase in prices for the fuel used by most for their cars.
But as the demonstrations grew, so did the demands of the protesters, who began calling for broader political changes.
“The protests were not just about the gas prices,” says Zhamaliev. He said that was just a trigger for people to voice their growing discontent with the country’s political elite who controlled the country’s riches while the rest of the nation lived in poverty.
“I joined the protests because I’m fed up with the government,” Zhamaliev says. “It’s about poverty, but there are many other political and economic issues that anger people. I want to live in a normal, democratic country.”
Zhamaliev says he believed that political changes in Kazakhstan could happen through the ballot box but was disillusioned after the country’s last two elections -- the presidential vote in 2019 and parliamentary polls in 2021.
Zhamaliev joined a local group of independent monitors in both elections.
Ahead of the parliamentary elections, Zhamaliev began hanging posters on the streets of Oral, urging people not to vote for the ruling Nur Otan party.
After my experience with the elections last year, I couldn’t stay indifferent to the [politics] anymore."-- Aslan Zhamaliev
But he says the elections were "rigged” and activists and independent monitors were "threatened,” as Nur Otan went on to win the vote and maintain the majority it always held in parliament.
The outcome didn’t come as a surprise in a country that has no history of free and fair elections.
Zhamaliev, meanwhile, was ordered by the Oral city court to pay a fine of $170 for illegally “producing and spreading” propaganda.
“After my experience with the elections last year, I couldn’t stay indifferent to the [politics] anymore,” he says.
'Provocateurs Sent By Authorities'
Zhamaliev said he joined the demonstrations in Oral on the city's central Abai Square near the local government headquarters on January 4. He described the crowd as peaceful and well-behaved. He said some people brought tea and food and that “everyone cleaned up after themselves.”
But he said that when the protesters moved toward the government building, a group of “aggressive, young people -- most of them drunk,” came out of nowhere and tried to provoke the demonstrators. They started “dragging” people, “jumping on” them, or trying to take loudspeakers away from the activists.
Zhamaliev claims that he saw some of the same young men at a 2021 rally when they tried to interrupt that gathering with similar tactics.
Kazakh authorities have accused demonstrators of being responsible for attacking police, setting fire to government buildings, and looting businesses. But Zhamaliev claims the government deliberately tried to incite chaos and conflict among the crowds.
“I believe that these young people were provocateurs sent by the authorities to provoke fighting among the gathering so that police had a pretext to disperse the protesters,” Zhamaliev said. “But we tried to avoid them.”
By the morning of January 5, police had dispersed the demonstrators and detained hundreds of people.
Zhamaliev says three officers grabbed him on the square and shoved him into a police vehicle. “They beat me with batons and fists inside the van,” he says.
The “beating, kicking, and swearing” continued after he was taken to a police station, he says. Zhamaliev says he was set free after being forced to sign a letter prepared by police but “without even reading it.”
“One officer told me that they would kill me if they see me again [at a protest],” Zhamaliev says.
But Zhamaliev said that what struck him most were the complaints of the police officers about their own plight while they were beating and swearing at protesters inside the police van.
“One of them said, ‘I work for $260 a month and I don’t see my family because of my work, while people like you complain about your lives,’” Zhamaliev claims.
Local officials said on January 5 that some 360 people were detained in Oral in connection with the unrest. Many of them were later released.
The Kazakh government says order has now been restored across the country after the unrest, which it has blamed on foreign-trained “terrorists” and “bandits.”
But for Zhamaliev, the fight for a better future is far from over. He believes that the people of Kazakhstan will return to the streets.
“I am not even angry with the officers who beat me. They’re just some miserable people who by their own admission work for meager wages,” Zhamaliev told RFE/RL. “But that’s their choice. We will continue our political activism.”