Accessibility links

Breaking News

After Kazakhstan's 'Bloody January,' Can Toqaev Ever Gain The People's Support?

With his predecessor now seemingly out of the picture, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev appears set to rule Kazakhstan as he pleases. But will anything change?

From the moment Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev became Kazakhstan's acting president in March 2019, many believed he was president in name only and that his predecessor -- Nursultan Nazarbaev -- continued to run the country.

In early January, Toqaev used force to put down massive nationwide protests that severely threatened his rule amid allegations that Nazarbaev supporters also wanted to oust him.

In the nearly three years that Toqaev has officially been president, some have wondered if such a veteran politician would govern differently if he was not standing in the shadow of Nazarbaev. After purging the government offices of Nazarbaev family members and loyalists and taking many powers away from his influential predecessor, Toqaev now has a chance to show how he will rule.

But his government's drastic actions in the first weeks of 2022 may have irreparably damaged his credibility with the people of Kazakhstan.

'Shoot To Kill'

The peaceful nationwide anti-government protests that grew out of a single demonstration against a fuel-price hike in western Kazakhstan on January 2 were hijacked in some cities by unidentified armed groups.

It was the start of what some in Kazakhstan are calling "Qandy Qangtar," or Bloody January.

The authorities responded to the initial protests by turning off the Internet and announcing a state of emergency and strict overnight curfew.

By January 5, there was shooting in several cities across the country and, in the biggest city -- Almaty -- administrative buildings were being torched and stores looted. Toqaev also announced that day that he had accepted the government's resignation.

A burnt-out car is seen by the mayor’s office in Almaty as protests spread across Kazakhstan on January 5.
A burnt-out car is seen by the mayor’s office in Almaty as protests spread across Kazakhstan on January 5.

In a national address on January 7, Toqaev said he had given security forces an order to shoot to kill without warning.

That evening in Almaty, 73-year-old Kuat Bitkenbaev and his 64-year-old wife, Gulzifa Kulsultanova, were heading home after visiting relatives. They were still driving after the 11 p.m. curfew came into effect and their vehicle was hit by bullets without warning and caught on fire, killing them.

Their tragic deaths were just one case of many reported at the time.

Earlier that evening, Babakhan Zholbaryskhanuly, 21, and his neighbor were taking their garbage out from their Almaty apartment building in the early evening when three police cars pulled up and uniformed men jumped out and opened fire. Zholbaryskhanuly was hit and died.

On January 8 in Taldyqorghan, some 225 kilometers northeast of Almaty, Nurbolat Saytkulov, his wife Altynai Yetaeva, and their 15-year-old daughter Nuray were driving home when they were shot dead in their car, allegedly after a new, earlier curfew had been imposed.

Erlan Zhagyparov
Erlan Zhagyparov

Archaeologist Erlan Zhagyparov left his Almaty home on January 6 to check on events at a nearby square. He called a friend before 8 p.m. to say he was being detained by National Guard soldiers. But there was no sign of him for days afterward despite an exhaustive search by his friends and relatives.

On January 12, a morgue called and said they had Zhagyparov's body. His brother went and said Erlan had signs of having been beaten and that he was still handcuffed with a bullet wound to his chest.

Similar stories such as these continue to emerge each day and point to a heavy-handed approach to putting down the demonstrations.

The authorities so far say they have information about 227 people who died during the unrest, including 149 civilians and 11 members of law enforcement bodies just in Almaty.

A soldier patrols a street in Almaty on January 14 as relatives of those arrested during and after the protests gather near a police station.
A soldier patrols a street in Almaty on January 14 as relatives of those arrested during and after the protests gather near a police station.

More than 10,000 were detained during the unrest and there are reportedly several hundred still in custody.

Among those who have been released, many say they were beaten in custody, like Kyrgyz jazz pianist Vikram Ruzakhunov, who was also forced to make a videotaped confession shown on state television saying he was unemployed and came to Kazakhstan after being offered money to participate in anti-government meetings.

Ruzakhunov recanted the alleged confession after he was released and said he had been badly beaten while detained.

Another Kyrgyz citizen, Cholponbek Sydykov, who worked in Almaty, said he was beaten violently when he was detained, suffering multiple fractures. Others have told similar stories or said they were tortured while in custody, such as activists Aset Abishev and Kuat Shamuratov, who suffered a concussion.

There are also reports of police and security forces coming to hospitals and taking away suspects, who in some cases had recently undergone surgery.

Interior Ministry representative Nurdilda Oraz said on January 24 the ministry was checking into seven reported incidents of torture among people detained in the January unrest.

'20,000 Terrorists'

Toqaev's "shoot-to-kill" order was made because he said the violence that broke out was being instigated by foreign-trained terrorists, although this description changed to foreign terrorists or, more vaguely, people who spoke non-Kazakh languages, presumably meaning not Kazakh or Russian. He also put the country on a red alert for terrorism.

Toqaev said some 20,000 of these terrorists had gathered in the area around Almaty and was the basis for his order to shoot to kill. He didn't offer any proof of the claim. Many protesters were angered that they were being deemed terrorists and held small protests to vent their displeasure.

The "terrorist" threat was also Toqaev's official reason for appealing to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help to restore order. An external force was threatening Kazakhstan and the country needed help to repel it, he claimed.

After calling in the CSTO, will Toqaev now be in the debt of Russia's Vladimir Putin? (file photo)
After calling in the CSTO, will Toqaev now be in the debt of Russia's Vladimir Putin? (file photo)

The CSTO agreed for the first time in its 30-year history to send troops to a member country to fend off a foreign force, with some 2,000-3,000 soldiers, mostly from Russia, coming for about two weeks.

Some analysts felt the CSTO force was not sent to restore order but was instead a sign of the Kremlin's support for Toqaev in an alleged power struggle with Nazarbaev supporters. But the deployment caused resentment among many in Kazakhstan, who felt Toqaev was damaging the country's sovereignty by bringing in foreign troops.

In hindsight, it is difficult to see why the foreign troops, who had all departed Kazakhstan by January 19, were needed at all.

Toqaev quickly stopped referring to thousands of terrorists being on the loose in Kazakhstan, and while officials continue to claim terrorists were involved, they are not providing any numbers. With some 711 people nationwide still in detention as of January 24, it seems there never were thousands of terrorists in the country.

Subjects Of Public Ire Go Unpunished

By the time the peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan had made their way across the country, they were about much more than the cost of fuel.

"Shal ket," or "get out, old man" had become a common chant during protests in the days after Toqaev first became president and it was heard around the country during the peaceful protests in January. The old man is Nazarbaev, the 81-year-old former president who is also known as "Elbasy," or "leader of the nation" -- a term Nazarbaev himself seems to prefer being called.

Nursultan Nazarbaev -- out of power, but not going anywhere.
Nursultan Nazarbaev -- out of power, but not going anywhere.

Constitutional amendments made in the early 2000s granted Kazakhstan's first president broad powers, even after he officially stepped down from office, and the post of secretary of the powerful Security Council was given even more powers just before Nazarbaev finally left as president and was appointed head of the council.

It was easy to see why many could not see any difference in the way the country was run or who was running it after Toqaev formally assumed the role of president. But "Shal ket" was directed not only at Nazarbaev, but more generally at the system of government he created that benefited Nazarbaev's family and friends, many of whom are now billionaires.

Toqaev removed Nazarbaev as Security Council secretary on January 5. Nazarbaev's three sons-in-law all abruptly vacated prominent posts in major Kazakh companies and organizations shortly thereafter. Nazarbaev's nephew, Samat Abish, was also dismissed as the deputy chairman of the Committee for National Security (KNB).

Toqaev also announced the creation of a special fund and said those who had enriched themselves during Nazarbaev's years as president would be expected to contribute to it. This implies it will be possible for those who have skimmed off the profits of the country for 30 years to pay back some of what they have taken to stay out of prison.

Although members of Nazarbaev's family seem to be taking a financial hit in the wake of Toqaev's victory in the intra-elite fighting, there is no indication they will be investigated or held responsible for their years of avarice. In fact, constitutional amendments from some 20 years ago prohibit the investigation of Nazarbaev or his immediate family members.

Nazarbaev himself is without a state position for the first time in the country's history and in his videotaped January 18 message to the nation he described himself as a pensioner.

While the turn of events is undoubtedly a huge blow to Nazarbaev's ego, there is no hint that "Elbasy" will be facing any punishment for the money he is alleged to have moved into foreign bank accounts and holdings, or more serious crimes in which he is alleged to have been involved.

A New Era?

So Toqaev is finally unshackled from Nazarbaev and seemingly free to chart his own course as president. But he does so after giving law enforcement bodies the green light to use whatever force necessary against the country's citizens to restore order and creating a fictitious threat to justify it.

He's also in debt to the Kremlin for sending in troops to prop him up when his position as president seemed precarious.

And it appears Toqaev has no intention of bringing to justice Nazarbaev's family members or supporters who the people of Kazakhstan believe have cheated and stole from them for 30 years.

There are also all the socioeconomic and political reforms some people have been demanding he make since Toqaev first became president but have not been made.

So although Toqaev has recently promised that changes are coming, the first days of his solo presidency will long be remembered as the blackest days of Kazakhstan's independence.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


Blog Archive