A Year on From Kazakstan’s Bloody January

Murky investigation and lack of accountability followed violence that scarred a nation.

A Year on From Kazakstan’s Bloody January

Murky investigation and lack of accountability followed violence that scarred a nation.

On December 23, 2022, Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev inaugurated the Tagzym memorial in the country's largest city of Almaty. Meaning bowing in Kazak, the Tagzym honour the 238 victims of the unrest that swept Kazakstan in early January 2022.
On December 23, 2022, Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev inaugurated the Tagzym memorial in the country's largest city of Almaty. Meaning bowing in Kazak, the Tagzym honour the 238 victims of the unrest that swept Kazakstan in early January 2022. © Kazakhstan's presidential office
Wednesday, 11 January, 2023

Kazakhstan’s president Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev looked sombre as he presided over the inauguration of a minimalistic black and white stone memorial commemorating the victims of the January 2022 unrest that swept across Kazakstan.

One year since Qandy Qantar, Bloody January, as the worst violence since the country’s independence in 1991 is referred to, questions remain unanswered.

On January 2, 2022 peaceful protests began in the western region of Mangystau after a sudden increase in liquefied gas prices as the government lifted price caps on January 1. The protests spread across the country and turned violent, claiming hundreds of lives, leaving thousands injured and many buildings destroyed. Tokayev declared a state of emergency and called for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Moscow-led security bloc which deployed troops into the country in a matter of hours.

Official figures set the number of victims at 238, and Kazak authorities acknowledged that six more people died in police custody. Water cannons, tear gas and flash grenades were used against peaceful protesters and hundreds of detainees reported experiencing violence.  They recounted torture including being scalded with boiling water, burned with iron, Tasered, severely beaten or having teeth pulled out with pliers.

Tokayev has not given interviews about the events to any independent media, and updates on the investigation have been carefully managed. The US-based Human Rights Watch called the investigation “one sided” and ineffective, stating that families of those killed and hundreds of people who were injured or tortured have not received justice, an assessment the Kazak authorities dismissed.

The authorities have effectively monopolised the narrative about the riots, claiming that foreign forces were behind the violence.


The memorial in the heart of Almaty, the country’s largest city, was unveiled on December 23, 2022, with no previous announcement. Named Tagzym - bowing in Kazak - the steles honour the dead but do not name them and the carved quotes of Kazak thinkers have no relation to Qandy Qantar.

Relatives of the victims were not invited; the guest list was short, comprising largely of public officials bussed in to the area. Only state media journalists were allowed to attend.

Tokayev stated during the ceremony that “due to the solidarity of our people we were able to face all the challenges and demonstrate our unshakable determination and strength. We suppressed the actions of the conspirators [...]. Peaceful protests [..] turned into mass clashes and massacres. […] Innocent citizens have died as a result of their actions,”.

He added that “law and order should be at the forefront of our domestic policy… [to] ensure favourable conditions for the effective implementation of economic reforms”.

Addressing the parliament on January 5, prosecutor general Berik Asylov described the events as an attempted coup, mastermided by former government loyalists icluding Karim Massimov, former chairman of the National Security Committee.

Tokayev’s position was bolstered following the unrest. He quickly moved to announce political reforms, starting from constitutional amendments that removed all mentions of Nazarbayev as Elbasy, leader of the nation, and paved the way for snap elections. The vote secured Tokayev seven more years as head of state.

“First, he replaced Nazarbayev as head of the security council, then he removed from office all those appointed by Nazarbayev,” political analyst Shalkar Nurseitov told IWPR.

“Therefore, the key political consequence was the change of the frontman, the first person of the consolidated political regime. This year, according to media reports, the number of political prisoners in Kazakhstan increased fivefold, now the list has over 125 names.”

Nonetheless, many parliamentarians have hailed the reforms introduced by Tokayev since he took office in 2019, including the 2020 law on protests which requires giving notice to local executive bodies of any demonstrations.

“The reforms that were launched most likely resulted in the coup attempt with all the ensuing consequences,” Aidos Sarym, deputy of the parliament’s lower chamber told IWPR.

But deputy Arman Kozhakhmetov maintains that protesters wanted social issues to be addressed.

“People are most concerned about [their] income, affordable prices, supporting their families, and housing, and social issues always prevail,” he noted. “Chanting “Shal, ket” [old man, go away [in reference to Kazakstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev] was triggered by the allegation that all problems were related to that regime. In fact, if we all do not start to work now, the situation will not change, right?”

Indeed, former lawmaker Serikbai Alibaev said that one year on, many questions remained unanswered.

“We can expect changes in the country only if the events are given an objective political assessment. One year has passed, but we can see only manipulations and deception …Masimov was detained, but his actions were not assessed,” he told IWPR.

Alibaev himself was detained for his participation in what the police deemed an unauthorised protest on January 2 in the north-eastern city of Pavlodar.

“People who should have asked uncomfortable questions keep silent as if nothing happened.”

Recalling the events of that day, the politician said, “The imam and activists spoke…Hundreds of police officers were there, those 20 persons could be seized and taken away. But the police officers just rushed into the akimat and started throwing stun grenades at civilians, one person was wounded.”

Alibaev filed a complaint of police violence, but no one was held accountable.

Sociologist Yeset Yesengarayev said that, despite the trauma of the January events, most Kazakstanis remained apathetic about potential reform.

This was rooted in both the fear of security forces and the state narrative that demonised protesters as naïve people who took to the streets at the call of well-trained militants and terrorists.

“We are poor on empathy because we are a selfish nation, although we like to speak about our high spirituality… Why was Nazarbayev so popular for a long time? Because he was an enlarged copy of little Nazarbayevs who have filled and still fill our society,” he said.

The urban middle class, traditionally the source of systemic change, had settled for economic benefit in exchange for their loyalty to the political regime, the sociologist noted.

“People who should have asked uncomfortable questions to the regime keep silent and act as if nothing had happened,” Nurseitov said. “We can see this among big business owners as well. Now they understand that their principal has changed and they have to [adapt] to the new one."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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