1. What started the protests in Kazakhstan at the beginning of January?
Since its independence more than 30 years ago, Kazakhstan has been a stable and extremely safe country.
At the start of 2022, the government lifted its price cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), leading to the overnight doubling of prices in a society that had become highly reliant on this type of fuel. Demonstrations initially broke out in Zhanaozen in response, but quickly spread across the country as broader anti-government protests against allegedly corrupt officials and maladministration.
2. Were the protests violent?
Although the protests began peacefully, they quickly escalated into violent riots with, in some places, tragic consequences on human life and property.
In the biggest city, Almaty, and several regional towns, protesters seized and set government buildings ablaze, and disrupted transport infrastructure.
The website gulagu.net, citing FSB sources, revealed that prisoners were purposefully released to carry out property destruction, looting, and to target law enforcement.
According to official sources, 227 people died, including nineteen members of the security forces, and more than 4,500 were wounded or injured. Independent sources suggest these numbers are in reality significantly higher.
The General Prosecutor’s office has since announced they will not disclose the final number of people who died during the January events, nor their names, as this is part “of the ongoing investigation and continues to be top secret”.
3. How did the government react to the protests?
President Tokayev unsuccessfully attempted to ease the crisis through the announcement of a 180-day cap on fuel prices. The government was dismissed for failing to carry-out one of their main duties – “keeping inflation in check” – according to President Tokayev. As early as 5 January, the President announced that he would discuss the possibility of a snap national election.
Influential government officials once considered close allies of First President Nazarbayev were dismissed and arrested. According to President Tokayev, his predecessor encouraged the emergence of an “elitist class” who dominated and benefited from the State, at the expense of ordinary Kazakhs.
A state of emergency was introduced across the country on 5 January, followed by the commencement of an “anti-terrorist operation”. This resulted in the government blocking access to the internet, putting in place curfews, banning mass-gatherings, and the armed forces being empowered to shoot without warning.
Characterizing the protesters as foreign-trained “bandits and terrorists,” President Tokayev requested military assistance from Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-dominated alliance comprising of six Eurasian states. 2,000 troops were initially deployed to Kazakhstan in a supporting role to protect critical infrastructure.
The post-protest operation led to the arrest of some 12,000 people allegedly linked to the perpetration of violence during the unrest.
4. What is Karim Massimov accused of?
Karim Massimov was arrested on 6 January on uncorroborated charges of treason following nationwide anti-government protests. His arrest came soon after he was dismissed without explanation from his post as Chairman of the National Security Committee by President Tokayev. His case has since been classified as “top secret”, meaning no information regarding the pre-trial investigation has been made available. He is represented by a state-appointed attorney, and is prevented from meeting or engaging with his own private lawyer.
5. Why does this case matter?
President Tokayev has positioned himself as a modernizer who is committed to fundamental reform. His success in achieving this will depend on his ability to govern within the expected minimum human rights norms and adherence to due process of the law. This has been overshadowed by widespread reports of arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture.
Karim Massimov’s case also has constitutional implications and consequences for Kazakhstan’s international commitments.
6. What evidence is there to support the government's claim that foreign terrorists were behind the unrest?
President Tokayev initially claimed on Twitter that “20,000 terrorists” from overseas had attempted to take over Almaty. Other government figures and statements echoed similar claims. President Tokayev’s tweet was subsequently deleted.
To date, the authorities have not provided any evidence to support their claims that foreign trained bandits were behind the January events, except for pointing to one Kyrgyz jazz musician who was detained. Similarly, allegations that the dead bodies of foreign extremists were then stolen from morgues have not been corroborated.
Organized crime leader Wild Arman was detained on 7 January on suspicion of having travelled to Almaty from abroad in December, and of involvement in the unrest. Subsequent media articles suggested he had ties to Turkish political figures, however the government has not commented on this.
Independent analysts agree that it would have been impossible for 20,000 foreign fighters to enter the country’s borders undetected. President Tokayev’s claim can only be understood as a pretext for inviting CSTO troops into the country to restore order.
During President Tokayev’s February 2022 visit to Moscow, the Kazakh Foreign Intelligence Services Chief Sergey Naryshkin nuanced the claims by stating that “militants from ISIS gangs and other terrorist groups that were defeated in Syria have been going to Central Asian countries. It was not a secret either for us or the intelligence services of these countries. It was also known under whose patronage such movement took place”.
7. Did the government respond legally to the January 2022 protests?
Analysis by independent legal experts suggest that President Tokayev breached the Constitution of Kazakhstan in several respects through his actions in January 2022.
President Tokayev breached articles 42.4 and 44.4, according to which he appoints and dismisses the head of the National Security Committee with the vote of the Senate (Upper Chamber of Parliament). The President, when appointing the new chairman of the National Security Committee and dismissing Karim Massimov, did not receive any approval from the Senate.
President Tokayev breached articles 1.2 and 1.3 of the constitutional law on the Security Council by taking over its chairmanship.
President Tokayev breached law 24.2 on the National Guard, where it is stated under which conditions the National Guard can use lethal force without warning.
According to article 44.17 of the Constitution, if there is a foreign threat the President should inform the Parliament of a state of emergency and mobilize internal forces, but not invite foreign forces. By inviting foreign forces (through the CSTO) into the country, President Tokayev set an unsought precedent. The President breached his constitutional duty to mobilize internal military force.
8. Was Almaty airport seized by terrorists during the January unrest?
President Tokayev has claimed that the main airport in Almaty was seized by foreign agents, disguised as migrant workers arriving on international flights, on 5 January, before being quickly retaken by the authorities.
However, according to FlightRadar24, normal flight operations continued throughout the day. Requests by journalists and local activists for further information have been ignored. It would appear the airport’s operations only ceased for three hours on 5 January.
9. Have the protests concluded?
Although the situation appears more stable, and the initial wave of unrest has been quelled, smaller protests continue across the country throughout January and February.
In Aktau, mothers came onto the streets and blocked roads to call for help with housing. In Zhanaozen, residents continue to protest late into the night, either in response to their unemployment or demanding higher salaries and better working conditions.
Almaty businessman Bolat Abilov called for citizens across the country to honor the memory on 13 February, 40 days since the outbreak of unrest, of those who died during the protests – leading to rallies in Almaty’s Republic Square.
10. Why is the gas industry so important in Kazakhstan?
The gas industry in Kazakhstan is a major source of income for the country’s economy, but one that has not benefitted from extensive regulatory or transparency efforts.
Kazakhstan places 15th on the world gas stage. The reserves in Kashagan include 3 trillion cubic meters, of which 1 trillion cubic meters of extractables. The biggest confirmed reserves are situated in Karachaganak. In addition to natural gas, oil and associated gas are also extracted in several locations.
The actions of the government in this industry have mostly been unsystematic and inconclusive in recent decades. The industry has been liberalized, regularized, transferred to foreign investors, then bought back; there has even been a national operator.
Despite modernization efforts, some installations such as the Atyrau oil refinery only work with technical difficulties. The construction of the integrated chemical-gas complex has still not been finished, despite over a decade of work.
Despite large natural reserves, the country has not been able to secure production or respond to the issue of shortages, which have occurred in several regions due to increased demand.
Overall, the internal market has increased by 40% – from 12 to 17 billion cubic meters of gas. Additionally, 90% of transportation in the Mangystau region uses liquified petroleum gas.
In the summer of 2021, there was already simmering public discontent related to gas shortages. President Tokayev pointed the figure at low prices – some of the lowest in all of the post-Soviet region, he said – and the Cabinet was directed to act on the question of price regulation in the internal gas market. This new regulatory model took effect at the turn of the new year and led overnight to a two-fold increase in gas prices.
An investigation is ongoing targeted at the main six operators of liquified petroleum gas (KazMunayGas, Pereosun, SNPS-Aktobemunaygas, Kazgermunay, KazakhOil Aktobe, and KazGPZ) and 180 retail subsidiaries.
11. How do recent events link to previous protests in Kazakhstan?
According to President Tokayev, all protests and recent events that took place in Kazakhstan are links in the same chain, which is to say that since 2019, allegedly, preparations have been underway for a coup attempt.
2019 was marked by protests in Kazakhstan. One of the most resonant issues was the renaming of the capital to Nur-Sultan. It was Tokayev’s initiative, announced on the first day of his appointment as successor, and turned parts of the population who were hoping for change against him.
On 20 March 2019, Kazakhstan was gripped by protest. National security and law enforcement agencies turned off Internet access and many people were arrested. On 1 and 9 May 2019, mass anti-government protests calling for the boycott of early presidential elections were held in the two largest cities – Almaty and the capital.
The most significant actions in 2019 were on, and directly after, election day on June 9, where protesters disagreed with the course of the elections and their results. According to the Ministry of the Interior, around 4,000 people were detained in Almaty and Nur-Sultan, and more than 1,000 were brought to administrative responsibility.
This action accelerated the mobilization of organized youth protests, primarily in Almaty. On Constitution Day and 9 November, marches for political reforms were held by the civil movement “Oyan, Qazaqstan”, created that year and uniting young people.
2020 saw inadequate action from the authorities in the fight against the coronavirus, a huge number of resulting deaths, the lack of a single and proper treatment protocol, the lack of medicines and protective masks in pharmacies… all of this contributed to the discontent of the population, which may not have transformed into open protest, but foretold the intensity of the reaction triggered by the socio-economic standing of the population.
Prior to the introduction of coronavirus quarantines, the ‘Korday event’ took place on 7 February whereby a household conflict in the village of Masanchi seemingly escalated into riots which spread to other villages. Rioters resisted police with metal objects, stones, and firearms. Ultimately eight people were killed and 40 injured.
As Gulnara Bazhkenova notes, during the police raids there were 15 patrol cars in Masanchi that arrived at the same time, which after the incident suddenly disappeared, and three hours later disorder started in an organized manner. So, it appears the bulk of the rioters arrived in cars and came from other districts and cities.
In 2021, societal tensions continued to increase, notably due to the deteriorating economic situation of the population following drought, loss of livestock, food shortages, and rising prices. Against this backdrop, there was also a depreciation of incomes of the population, primarily in those cities where the cost of living is high: the capital, Almaty, Aktau, Atyrau.
The potential for protest was therefore already significant. Local observers predicted that sooner or later the people would take to the street en masse. The new gas price regulation model, introduced at the start of January 2022, was the trigger.