In Kazakhstan, ‘Bloody January’ is still a taboo topic

Protesters in Almaty holding posters that say: “Tokayev, take away [foreign] soldiers! We are peaceful people!!! We are ordinary people, we are not terrorists!!!” during Qandy Qantar. Screenshot from CurrentTimeTV YouTube channel. Fair use.

The beginning of 2022 was unprecedented in the history of modern Kazakhstan, and it will long be remembered by everyone as “Qandy Qantar” (Bloody January). Small but well-organized protests in the city of Zhanaozen, located in the western Mangistau region, caused by a sharp rise in liquified gas prices, quickly grew into massive anti-government protests that swept the entire country. People protested not only in Astana, the capital, and Almaty, the country's largest city, but also in other major cities, some remote regional centers, and even small villages.

While the initial demands focused exclusively on social and economic reforms, political slogans were quickly added, the most famous of which was: “Shal, ket!” (Old man, go away!). This was addressed to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who became the president of the independent Kazakhstan after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite the fact that, in 2019, Nazarbayev voluntarily resigned from the presidential post and handed over the reins to the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev retained control over the important posts — first of all, the head of the country's Security Council. This gave the population and some experts reason to believe that the change of power was nominal, and the real levers of governing the country remained with Nazarbayev and his family members, who held high positions in large corporations and government bodies.

In most cities, the protests had little effect on the usual life routine. However, Almaty was engulfed in unrest and riots mixed with rallies and looting. Some protesters seized the city administration building and the local residence of the president, and significantly damaged these buildings, setting them on fire, while others tried to peacefully convey their demands to the authorities. On January 5, Tokayev appealed to the member countries of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with a request to help resolve the situation in the country, calling the protesters “international terrorists.” More than 2,000 troops from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia arrived to Kazakhstan under CSTO banners to protect critical infrastructure objects.

On the night of January 6, 2022, an anti-terrorist operation began in Almaty. According to eyewitnesses, people in military uniform opened fire on peaceful protesters on the city's central square on the next day. On January 7, Tokayev said that there were “20,000” terrorists and ordered the security forces to “shoot to kill.” The completion of the anti-terrorist operation was announced only on January 13. According to the authorities, 225 people died over these few days, but journalists and human rights activists believe that this figure is underestimated.

Portrait of Daniyar Moldabekov. Used with permission.

Global Voices spoke with one of the most famous independent journalists in Kazakhstan, Daniyar Moldabekov, who has been researching the topic of Qandy Qantar for the last two years, actively covering the stories of the survivors. At the beginning of January 2024, he announced the release of his book titled “God-Yanvar” (“The year of January”). In it, he shares reports from the sites of the protests and interviews with survivors of political repression that followed. However, after two weeks, Moldabekov announced that the printing house refused to print his book due to the attention from the authorities.

Ramil Niyazov-Adyldzhyan (RNA): Is the refusal to print your book censorship by security forces or self-censorship by printing houses so as not to “rock the boat” and not violate the status quo?

Данияр Молдабеков (ДМ): 5 января я сообщил о предзаказе своей книги – в тот же день мне написал директор издательства: «Акимат вышел на наше руководство, сказав, что к нам обратились из КНБ с просьбой предоставить аннотацию книги и контакт автора». Потом одна площадка, несмотря на договорённости, отказалась проводить презентацию. Через 2 недели мне звонят из издательства и говорят: «В типографию обратились представители правоохранительных органов с просьбой дать почитать текст». На следующий день я узнаю, что, со слов издателей, все типографии отказались печатать мою книгу, несмотря на то, что количество предзаказов моей книги чуть ли в первый же день побил их прошлый рекорд – предзаказы на мемуары Назарбаева. Всё это «дичь» короче, особенно на фоне заявлений Токаева о том, что в Казахстане нет цензуры. Я не вижу разницы между Назарбаевым и Токаевым – режим как был авторитарным, так и остался. 

Daniyar Moldabekov (DM): On January 5, I announced the pre-order of my book. On the same day, the director of the publishing house wrote to me: “The Akimat authorities contacted our management, saying that the National Security Committee had approached us with a request to provide an annotation of the book and the author’s contact.” Then, one venue, despite the agreements, refused to hold a presentation. After two weeks, they called me from the publishing house and said: “Representatives of law enforcement agencies contacted the printing house with a request to let them read the text.” The next day I found out that, according to the publishers, all the printing houses refused to print my book, even though the number of pre-orders for my book almost on the very first day broke their previous record — pre-orders for Nazarbayev’s memoir. All this is a “game,” in short, especially against the backdrop of Tokayev’s statements that there is no censorship in Kazakhstan. I do not see the difference between Nazarbayev and Tokayev — the regime was and remains authoritarian.

RNA: Can we say that we accurately understand what happened during Qandy Qantar?

ДМ: Конечно, только надо понимать, где и когда. В Алматы кто-то митинговал на площади и требовал политических реформ, и погиб в результате расстрела или же был запытан после, а кто-то грабил магазины. Параллельно с искренними мирными протестами гражданского населения, чья цель была надежда на перемены, была какая-то грызня в верхах – например, мы видим, что после Қаңтара Назарбаев начал реально терять власть. Поэтому тогда было много всего: и расстрелы, и пытки, и игра элит какая-то, и вдохновляющие примеры гражданской солидарности, и вера в лучшее будущее, и это всё я пытался передать в своей книге. В отличии от гос. пропаганды – на телеканале Хабар недавно вышел документальный фильм про Қаңтар, и там всё преподносится исключительно как попытка гос. переворота (но кто именно за ней стоит не называется). 

DM: Of course, you just need to understand where and when. In Almaty, someone protested in the square and demanded political reforms and died as a result of execution or was tortured afterwards, and someone robbed stores. In parallel with the sincere peaceful protests of the civilian population, whose goal was hope for change, there was some kind of squabble at the top. For example, we see that Nazarbayev began to lose power after Qandy Qantar. Therefore, there were a lot of things back then: executions, torture, some kind of elite game, inspiring examples of civil solidarity, and faith in a better future. I tried to convey all this in my book, which is unlike the state propaganda displayed in the new documentary about Qandy Qantar that was recently released on the Khabar TV channel. Everything there is presented exclusively as an attempt to overthrow the government, but there is no information on who exactly was behind it.

RNA: From the perspective of international politics, the most important event during Qandy Qantar was the first and so far the only deployment of the CSTO troops. How do you assess their role during the January events?

ДМ: Крайне негативно, потому что это неприемлемо, когда вооружённые иностранцы – и неважно, как они называются: ОДКБ, НАТО, ООН – по твоей земле ходят. Необходимости в их присутствии не было. Более того, во время работы над книгой я сталкивался с людьми, бывшими в Алматы на площади Республики 6-го января, которые решили не пытаться убежать подальше от летящих в них пуль, а спрятаться и провести ночь в торговом центре “Алмалы” [на той же площади]. Они утверждают, что слышали армянскую и кыргызскую речь, а говор того русского языка, на котором говорили между собой некоторые солдаты, был явно не местный. Причём, мне также разные люди говорили, что видели ОДКБ в центре города, а не только возле гос. объектов. Пусть читатели сами судят о достоверности рассказов моих собеседников. По-моему, просто один авторитарный режим помог другому авторитарному режиму. 

DM: Extremely negatively, because it is unacceptable when armed foreigners — and it does not matter what they are called: CSTO, NATO, UN — walk on your land. There was no need for their presence. Moreover, while working on the book, I came across people who were in Almaty's central square on January 6. They decided not to try to run away from the bullets flying at them and spent the night hiding in the “Almaly” shopping center located on the same square. They claim that they heard Armenian and Kyrgyz speech, and the dialect of the Russian language that some soldiers spoke among themselves was clearly not local. Moreover, various people also told me that they saw the CSTO in the city center, and not just near the critical infrastructure objects outside the city center, as claimed by the authorities. Let the readers judge for themselves the reliability of the stories of my interlocutors. In my opinion, it was simply that one authoritarian regime helped another authoritarian regime.

RNA: Despite the enormous importance of Qandy Qanter, it is not often covered on the state broadcast channel. What do you think about this?

ДМ: Властям мусолить эту тему не надо, потому что им-то это зачем? Они людей убивали, пытали – зачем? Государству это просто не нужно: они знают, что значительная часть населения сама всё видела и сама всё понимает. Властям некого переубеждать: люди смирились с пытками и убийствами – даже многие из тех, кто от них пострадал, тоже смирились. Никто ничего от властей не требует, вот они и не отвечают. 

DM: The authorities do not need to dwell on this topic, because why would they? They killed people, tortured them — why [would they revisit this]? The state simply does not need this: they know that a significant part of the population has seen everything themselves and understands everything themselves. The authorities have no one to convince: people have given up about cases of torture and murder — even many of those who suffered from them have also given up. Nobody demands anything from the authorities, so they do not respond.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.