oDR: Interview

What really happened in Kazakhstan? A feminist perspective

The recent protests in Kazakhstan are over, but confusion reigns. Feminist and LGBT activist Zhanar Sekerbayeva gives her view of events

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Thomas Rowley Zhanar Sekerbayeva
19 January 2022, 12.00am
The city of Almaty, the epicentre of violence in early January, is famous for its apples - and its name comes from the Kazakh word for apple
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Illustration: Madina Zholdybekova

What exactly happened in Kazakhstan in January 2022? What forces were at play – and what will be the long-term effects? As the country’s communications shutdown ends and facts start to emerge, the scale of events becomes even harder to comprehend, and the gap between official interpretations and people’s experiences on the streets of Kazakhstan widens.

The ‘working version’ of the first week of January is as follows: protests over a fuel price hike quickly morphed into broader socio-economic and political demands in towns and cities across the country, which then moved into confrontations with the police, attacks on state administration buildings and looting.

The potential role of elite groups in the chaos remains unconfirmed, though a number of highly placed members of the family of the previous president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, have since lost or resigned their positions in state agencies and leading businesses. According to official figures, 225 people died in the events – 149 of them in the country’s business capital, Almaty, which became an epicentre of violence. To describe what happened in Almaty, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that the city had been under attack from "20,000 bandits and terrorists", but later removed the tweet.

openDemocracy spoke to Zhanar Sekerbayeva, women’s rights defender, LGBT activist, poet and co-founder of a Kazakhstani feminist group, Feminita, about her reflections on the protests that became known as the country’s ‘Bloody January’.

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Zhanar Sekerbayeva | Image: Veronika Lerner

Zhanar, you said recently that Almaty residents should have the “right to grieve” over what happened to their city in January. Could you explain what that means?

I mentioned this idea of “the right to grieve” because I saw people on social media saying that they are tired of seeing Almaty in ruins, or they are tired of hearing how events happened in Almaty and elsewhere. It felt as if they weren’t seeing the whole picture.

On 4 January, when the internet was turned off in Kazakhstan, we were shut off from the outside world. I remember, I was at home and I was thinking: OK, this is just for one hour, perhaps some internet providers went down. I was trying to understand what was happening.

With this “right to grieve”, I want to explain how, for people who were in Almaty at the start of January, we felt like something was happening to our personalities. COVID left us isolated. Then, with the information blockade over the protests, we experienced a new isolation. Only this time it was worse: we could hear the sounds of bullets and grenades outside. That is why it really was a time of state terror.

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6 January: Almaty after violence rocked the city
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

As activists, we knew people who were at the protests. For example, Zhanbolat Mamay [leader of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, an unregistered political initiative], who was attacked [on 4 January]. That was a new sign for us: why was he beaten by protesters?

What was unclear to you in the beating of Zhanbolat Mamay?

Mamay is one of the faces of serious civil protest in Kazakhstan. When it turned out that he was beaten not by the police – as we are used to – but by protesters, it was a sign that what was happening was not following the logic of peaceful protest.

You’ve criticised the blanket use of the term “terrorists” to describe people involved in Kazakhstan’s protests and the violence that happened around them.

We should be really careful about the names we use. Terrorists usually have demands, but on 6 January, we did not hear any demands from any groups. Look at what happened at Almaty airport: people just smashed up some shops and currency exchange points, they didn’t try to seize the control tower, for example. Young men joined in because they were angry over the social, political and economic situation, which is why they were, I think, maybe a little confused and just followed the crowd.

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A burnout car, flash grenades found on an Almaty street, security forces in central Almaty
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Images: Zhanar Sekerbayeva

You personally experienced violence last year, when you visited cities around Kazakhstan to give lectures on women’s rights. Several of these events were disrupted by groups of men and you were attacked. In a recent livestream, you linked the impunity of your attackers – the fact they have faced no investigation or punishment – to the violence that emerged in January.

Our events around the country were often interrupted. In certain places, groups of men shouted religious slogans. In one city, Shymkent, after we refused to cancel an event at a hotel following a request by state security, a group of men turned up and started harassing us. A police inspector grabbed me and took me to a car – on the way, I was punched by one of the men in the crowd.

We wrote statements to various police forces about these incidents across Kazakhstan. We sent them videos we found online, on social media accounts of people who were threatening our lives. But the police said they did not have enough information – despite the fact that the faces of the men who punched me in Shymkent and Karaganda are visible in the videos. One of our allies in a city we visited in 2021 saw a man who had attacked us in the city square during the protests in January.

It seems to me like the police and state security officials have groups of men who a ready to use force, titushki [a Ukrainian term referring to violent groups who attacked protesters during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution] – and not face punishment for what they do. But this is a supposition.

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July 2021, Karaganda: a group of men harasses and attacks a women's rights event
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Source: YouTube / Aisultan Zhakupov

I want to ask about one of the main slogans of the January protests: “Shal, ket!” or “Old man out!” Is this a feminist slogan?

In February 2014, we were involved in a protest against the devaluation of the tenge [Kazakhan’s unit of currency]. We were standing near the statue of Abay Kunanbayev [a Kazakhstani writer] in Almaty, trying to figure out what we wanted to express.

Of course, the protest was about devaluation, the economy, our pensions. But we needed to find a common slogan. We were thinking about all the men who were in power – Nazarbayev [then president] and other politicians. People who look like they’re not really interested in govenring the country or in what people need. For us, the typical image of a patriarchal figure in Kazakhstan is an old man who cannot do anything, including reproduce.

This was the first time the “Shal, ket!” slogan was used. But the slogan is not just against the regime, against Nazarbayev. It’s also become an image of a person in power – who needs to make space for active young women and men.

Could you talk about the role of women during the protests? Initial analysis suggested that Kazakh men aged between 20 and 40 were the driving force behind events in January – and we have seen many photos and videos of men in city squares across the country.

Actually, women did join the peaceful protests in Almaty. But a friend of mine, when she saw the anger on the street, when people started to smash buildings, she decided to leave. She saw something that really scared her, and after she saw someone giving out alcohol, she understood that it was no longer a peaceful gathering.

So, of course, women were there. You can find their names in the lists of people who disappeared.

As an aside, in 2021, we held a feminist march in Almaty: 1,000 people came and it ended peacefully. We were prepared, we had an organising committee, we had manifestos. And there were no incidents.

When the protests in January started to change, from a peaceful gathering to a more chaotic, violent one, it was a signal for women not to participate. Because women also take care of grandparents, children, cousins and other relatives. Sometimes they are the main breadwinners in a family.

But if you watch videos of the protests on Telegram, you can hear not only male voices, you can hear female voices too. Perhaps some were wives of protestors, others were thieves – theft is not about gender.

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4 January, Almaty
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Some women came to the protests because they are tired of living in poor conditions. Some of them are mothers with many children – and they’re now being punished by the police for organising protests. One of these mothers even said we should start a political party for mothers and women. As feminists, we’re supporting this step, because we need different parties; different groups should be represented in political parties. She only said this after she’d been detained by the police.

Sometimes, for people to wake up, we have to go through really scary and terrifying events. I don’t want anyone to experience violence, detention or physical brutality. But I have to say, when we made peaceful demands, held peaceful gatherings, the government would give us only a third of what we wanted.

The government should see that you cannot ignore people. The situation is becoming physical because these people are poor. For the last 30 years, in our oil- and gas-rich country, they have been given only empty dreams.

Since the protests, President Tokayev has made a series of commitments to socio-economic welfare, which appear an attempt to answer some of the demands that drove the January events. What do you make of them?

I cannot speak for all activists, but some have said that there should be new parliamentary elections, and people who society knows should be involved. Right now, all the deputies we have in parliament are still from the Nazarbayev era. Where is the proof that the president really would like to start political modernisation in Kazakhstan? Elections would be a very peaceful method of making this happen.

We have had no new political parties registered in the past ten years. None of the current three parties represent people’s interests. The first two, Nur Otan and Ak Zhol, represent the state apparatus and ‘official’ businessmen, and the third recently changed its name from the Communist Party to the People’s Party. They should have kept ‘Communist’ in the name – at least, that term refers to social problems and gender representation.

Illustration: Madina Zholdybekova

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