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Skepticism in Uneasy Kazakhstan as President Promises Reform

kAzachstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who last week at the height of the unrest said he had ordered troops to shoot to kill without warning, has softened this week, promising real reforms.

With thousands of people still in custody and a behind-the-scenes power struggle still not fully resolved, many have expressed skepticism.

“People who have committed serious crimes will be punished in accordance with the law,” Tokayev said. wrote on Twitter on Friday. “For others, I order the prosecutor to determine their level of guilt and, if there are no aggravating circumstances, to mitigate their sentence.”

More than 10,000 people have been detained in the past two weeks. At the height of the protests, Tokayev said “20,000 terrorists” had attacked Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, but these numbers appear to have been quietly revised.

The prosecutor’s office said on Thursday that 494 criminal cases had been opened, including 44 for terrorism. Most detainees instead faced administrative costs with a maximum of 15 days in prison.

Journalists and human rights activists say there is little transparency about criminal charges and still no reliable figure for the number of people killed in the violence. An earlier figure of 164 published by a government-linked source was later retracted.

CSTO soldiers attend a ceremony in Almaty on January 13 in preparation for their withdrawal from Kazakhstan. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Even in the west of the country, where protests started over a sharp rise in fuel prices, and where events remained largely peaceful, police have detained hundreds of people involved in the demonstrations.

Max Bokay, a longtime human rights activist in the western city of Atyrau, said by phone that about 500 people had been detained in the region, often by police who came to their home after Tokayev imposed a state of emergency last week. He knew of only one case in which criminal charges had been brought, but said people detained on administrative charges had spoken of intimidation and beatings.

Bokay, who was arrested during a protest in 2016 and spent five years in prison before being released last year, said he had not been detained this time, although he had been detained during the days of protest. “And today, a few hours ago, there were people kicking my apartment door, probably because today I had a one-man protest against torture in prisons, I think it’s an intimidation tactic,” he said Friday.

The protests, over economic and political demands, were apparently hijacked by an intra-elite struggle between Tokayev and figures close to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s president from its founding in 1991 until 2019, when he chose Tokayev himself as his successor.

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Karim Masimov, head of the KNB security services and former prime minister under Nazarbayev, has been arrested on treason charges and charged with attempted seizure of power, along with two of his deputies. He has not been heard from or seen since the protests began.

Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a former minister and adviser to Nazarbayev, blamed “reactionary and conservative forces of the Nazarbayev clan” for fueling the unrest. “I think negotiations are underway and a compromise is being sought,” he said.

At the height of the protests, when Tokayev’s hold on Kazakhstan seemed shaky, he called on a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to intervene. More than 2,000 mostly Russian troops arrived, helping to bolster Tokayev’s position, and have already begun their departure.

Observers say the mission, though brief, brought Tokayev to Vladimir Putin and put Kazakhstan more firmly in Moscow’s orbit. Putin has described the unrest as a “colored revolution” backed by nefarious forces in the west, leading many to fear a crackdown on what’s left of Kazakh civil society.

Following Putin’s lead, Tokayev accused the independent media of fomenting protests.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev holds a meeting at his emergency operations center on January 13. Photo: President of Kazakhstan News Agency

“We were very disappointed to hear those words,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, the editor-in-chief of the news portal Vlast.kz. “It is very clear that it is not the media, it is not civil society, who are responsible for the crisis – it is the people in power.”

So far, Tokayev has not acted against the media and has announced a series of measures to win popular support, including the creation of a new public interest fund to which oligarchs and wealthy businessmen will have to contribute.

Abramov said there are now three possible scenarios: “The first is that we act en masse, like in Belarus; the second is that we are going back to where we were before the crisis; and the third we are moving towards real reform.” The third option seemed the least likely, he added.