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'We Are Not Terrorists!': Kazakh Protesters Try To Make Their Voices Heard Amid The Chaos

Protesters rally on January 5 outside the Almaty mayor’s office, which was on fire.
Protesters rally on January 5 outside the Almaty mayor’s office, which was on fire.

ALMATY/NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan -- Aigerim Tuleuzhanova, an activist with Kazakhstan’s unregistered Democratic Party, was in a crowd of some 200 protesters at Almaty’s Republic Square on January 6 when a group of soldiers opened fire with live ammunition.

The large crowd was standing within view of the Almaty mayor’s office, which was still smoldering after being set ablaze by an angry mob the previous day, when the shooting began.

But the bloody incident has gone unreported because with access to the Internet severed across the country and mobile-phone services cut by the state-run KazakhTelecom, the voices of the protesters in Kazakhstan have effectively been silenced in international media reports.

That has left the government’s version of events as the dominant narrative -- despite the lack of any evidence supporting President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s claim that the protests have been driven by “international terrorist bands who had undergone special training abroad.”

Demonstrators clash with police in Aqtobe on January 5.
Demonstrators clash with police in Aqtobe on January 5.

To be sure, there was gunfire near Republic Square on January 6 amid reports of ongoing clashes between security troops and armed demonstrators.

The Interior Ministry says it “liquidated” more than 26 “armed criminals” and arrested more than 3,000 people in recent days. It said 18 police and national guard troops had been killed. Some reports claim dozens of demonstrators have died since the protests began.

Tuleuzhanova insisted in an interview with RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that those who were fired upon at Almaty’s Republic Square shortly after sundown on January 6 were young, unarmed Kazakh activists.

Attempting to push back on Toqaev’s narrative, the group had unfurled banners declaring “We are not terrorists!” and “Toqaev: Don’t shoot us!”

From the "crisis center" -- the temporary place Tuleuzhanova’s group had set up on the square for protesters to gather -- the group had earlier announced its demands.

They called for the complete resignation of Toqaev’s government along with the creation of an interim administration headed by a representative of civil society.

To bolster security amid the chaos, they demanded the immediate deployment of foreign peacekeepers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- the Russian-led security group that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Interestingly, Toqaev also requested and has since received CSTO troops.

The protesters also called for the formation of local militia units to protect people from what they described as “provocateurs.”

In fact, the demands of demonstrators have proliferated as the protests have spread across the country since a low-key January 2 demonstration was staged in western Kazakhstan against fuel price hikes.

One key demand by many people for democratic reforms would force regional officials to have to take part in elections instead of being appointed by the presidential administration in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

But critics note that Kazakhstan has never had an election deemed as “free and fair” by Western observers since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the January 2021 legislative elections, no opposition groups were voted into the Kazakh parliament. That’s because attempts to register for that vote by opposition groups like the Democratic Party and Nurzhan Altaev’s El Tiregi (National Reliance) party were all rejected.

The only officially registered political party that calls itself opposition, the All-National Social Democratic Party, boycotted the vote as a sham.

Rights activists say Toqaev’s administration has effectively removed all legal ways for citizens to participate in politics -- leaving Kazakhs without any political intermediaries to resolve the country’s economic problems.

Former Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)
Former Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)

Mukhtar Ablyazov, leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement that was banned in 2018 as an “extremist” group, rejects Toqaev’s claims of “foreign-trained terrorists” being behind the protests.

Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan's BTA Bank who has been accused of crimes in Kazakhstan and Britain, says Toqaev is trying to distract attention from the fact that Kazakhstan’s unrest is the result of internal problems created by the government.

Activist Marat Turumbetov told RFE/RL that is why he was protesting at Republic Square on January 6.

Shortly after sunset, Turumbetov says the troops that approached Republic Square in armored personnel carriers from Nazarbaev Avenue opened fire on the crowd using machine guns and live ammunition.

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Bella Orynbetova, an activist living near the square, counted five police patrol cars, three armored personnel carriers, and military trucks with dozens of soldiers advancing along Satpaev Street to the square.

Other nearby residents said they could hear grenades exploding and bullets whizzing through the air.

RFE/RL correspondents report that one 20-year-old man was shot in the chest and died while others tried to transport him to a hospital.

Turumbetov says he also counted five other wounded demonstrators on the square who were waiting to be taken to a hospital. But he said there were no ambulances for them.

Within an hour, the troops cleared the demonstrators from Republic Square, along with the temporary headquarters they had set up.

But correspondents report that sporadic gunfire and explosions continued throughout the night in central Almaty.

In a statement condemning the incident, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted reports that said “intense shooting” had erupted on January 6 between “the military and armed individuals in front of Almaty’s city hall” near Republic Square.

Bachelet urged all involved -- “including security forces, protesters, and others” -- to “refrain from violence and to seek a peaceful resolution” to their grievances.

“International law is clear,” Bachelet said. “People have the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. At the same time, protesters, no matter how angry or aggrieved they may be, should not resort to violence against others.”

Bachelet also reminded the Kazakh authorities that lethal force, in particular live ammunition, should only be used as a last resort against specific individuals to address an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

But on January 7, authorities in Nur-Sultan doubled down on Toqaev’s claim that the protests across the country were the work of foreign-trained “terrorist gangs.”

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry’s statement on the Almaty shootings claimed early on January 7 that Republican Square had been cleared of “criminal groups.”

Meanwhile, Toqaev himself announced on January 7 that he had given an order to Kazakh police and the army to "shoot-to-kill without warning."

Toqaev also rejected the idea of talks with protesters, saying it was not possible to negotiate with criminals and murderers.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondents in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.