The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The smell of burning, the pop of gunfire and a flood of rumors — surviving in Kazakhstan’s largest city during the unrest

The Kazakh flag is lowered to half-staff on the roof of the city administration headquarters in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 10. (Mariya Gordeyeva/Reuters)
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correction

Kassymkhan Kapparov is now the founder of the Ekonomist.kz think tank. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that he is still an activist with the Oyan, Qazaqstan civil rights group.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — For days, the streets of Kazakhstan’s largest city smelled of burned rubber tinged with the acrid stench of stun grenades. Inside their homes, people huddled, fed by rumors in an unnerving information vacuum from a cut Internet and limited mobile phone service — all accompanied by the steady pop of overnight gunfire.

On Monday afternoon, the Internet in Almaty came back — at least for a little while — as the smell of burned vehicles slowly dissipated. It was here that the most violent clashes amid Kazakhstan’s sweeping anti-government protests took place over the last week. Government officials said at least 164 people died during the demonstrations — and 103 of those fatalities were in Almaty.

Nearly 8,000 people have been detained across the country, Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry said Monday.

The streets of Almaty showed the aftermath of ongoing protests with burned-out vehicles and broken glass on Jan. 7. (Video: Reuters)

Kazakhstan officials say 164 are dead in protests, country now ‘stabilized’

Protests that started in Kazakhstan’s western regions last weekend because of a spike in energy prices morphed into a challenge of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime and spilled over into other parts of the country. Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old who ruled for three decades and maintained a “Father of the Nation” title that gave him sway behind the scenes, has not been seen in public since the demonstrations started.

On Monday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the events of the past week were an attempted coup d’etat and he would soon present proof to the international community.

On Jan. 5, Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance, to send in “peacekeeping” forces to help “stabilize” Kazakhstan. The approximately 2,500 troops remain in the country but are expected to soon depart, Tokayev said. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that the CSTO would not allow destabilizing “color revolutions.”

Color revolutions refer to the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe during the 2000s that Russian officials say were organized by the West to topple Moscow-aligned governments.

Tokayev and other officials in Kazakhstan’s government have repeatedly portrayed those who participated in the unrest as trained “terrorists,” in many cases from abroad. The government has not presented any evidence to substantiate those claims.

Kazakh embassies emailed reporters from foreign news organizations on Monday morning with statements from the Foreign Ministry branding the international coverage of the crisis as “clearly superficial and one-sided.”

“Currently, the law enforcement agencies and armed forces of Kazakhstan are confronting terrorists, not ‘peaceful protesters’ as some foreign media misrepresent it,” the ministry said in the statement, claiming, without evidence, that “the attackers include individuals who have military combat zone experience in the ranks of radical Islamist groups.”

After the country declared a state of emergency Wednesday, foreign journalists were denied entrance into Kazakhstan, and the Internet blackout further limited the flow of information.

Why is Kazakhstan claiming foreign links to the unrest? Here’s what we know.

In Almaty, people are largely divided into two groups: those who praise the protesters for standing up to the government and those call them “bandits” damaging the city. There remains confusion and speculation as to how peaceful demonstrations escalated into violence — and whether it was intentionally stoked by armed militants who hijacked the uprising for unclear reasons.

“There are two protests in Kazakhstan,” said Kassymkhan Kapparov, founder of the Ekonomist.kz think tank. “One was caused by a surge of price for [liquefied petroleum gas] in western Kazakhstan, which is a peaceful demonstration. And what we saw in Almaty is an attack of armed criminals on the city. We have no clue who are these people. Locals would never do such awful things.”

During the unrest, the capital of Nur-Sultan at times only had Internet for one hour a day — precious time to check in with family members. In Almaty, even those brief windows didn’t exist, and citizens were encouraged to stay home as security forces conducted an “anti-terrorist operation” in the streets. During a nationally televised address on Friday, Tokayev issued a “shoot-to-kill” order — although many people didn’t know about it because their home televisions depended on Internet.

With no access to the outside world, people read books and played board games. Neighbors talked to one another. Phone calls within the country worked, and that’s when the rumors were exchanged — some as extreme as talk of foreign snipers targeting civilians on the street.

A text message from the government told citizens that a handful of news websites were available despite the Internet blockade, so people checked those for updates. Still, it was unclear what information could be trusted.

On Monday, some people had started to venture out of their homes into Almaty’s strangely deserted streets. Stores were closed for several days last week, meaning it had been a challenge to get even basic food supplies. The few businesses that were open had long lines — and items such as bread, eggs, rice and flour were sold out. People relied on leftovers from their New Year’s celebrations.

How the crisis in Kazakhstan went from fuel protests to a ‘shoot-to- kill’ order by the president

As the clashes abated and the smell of burning in the city slowly drifted away, the signs of the unrest were still everywhere. A part of the city hall building was set ablaze. Stores and restaurants across the city had broken windows. Some have been looted.

There is worry that the original purpose of the protests will be lost amid the destruction and subsequent crackdown. Kazakhs say they have grown fed up with an authoritarian government that somehow isn’t able to translate the country’s immense wealth into an improved standard of living for anyone beyond a small circle of the elite.

“I wanted the government to hear us,” said Ulan Maratuly, a 23-year-old food delivery courier who protested in Almaty on Jan. 4.

“The authorities seem to have no idea how we live, how we survive with our small earnings as prices get higher and higher,” he said. “I work a lot every day and earn around $300 per month, spending all the money on food. Where do authorities waste all the money coming from oil exports? Why don’t they help people like me?”

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow.

Read more:

Top security official is detained as protest-roiled Kazakhstan settles into edgy calm

Putin dreams of a Russian ‘sphere of influence.’ Kazakhstan’s protesters are the latest to push back.

Here’s what you need to know about Kazakhstan’s unrest and Russian intervention

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