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12 Jan, 2022 09:35

As dust settles in Kazakhstan, locals left wondering why violence broke out

Groups of rioters appeared to be well-coordinated, residents tell RT
As dust settles in Kazakhstan, locals left wondering why violence broke out

As Kazakhstan recovers from a wave of street violence, RT spoke with residents of the country’s largest city, Almaty, who say they are frustrated and confused about why peaceful protests turned into unprecedented unrest.

After a few days of relative calm, the center of the metropolis still resembles a war zone, with burnt-out husks of government buildings, boarded-up looted shops, and damaged vehicles lining the streets.

The city is patrolled constantly by heavily armed police and military officers, but locals are still wary of authorities and struggling to come to terms with the speed at which the chaos unfolded, RT’s correspondent on the ground, Igor Zhdanov, has reported. Weapons and uniforms were looted during the unrest, prompting concern from law enforcement that they could be attacked by criminals impersonating officers.

Protests broke out in Almaty and across the country after the government scrapped a cap on the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG), used by many to fuel their cars, sending prices skyrocketing. At the same time, slow economic growth and living conditions are also said to have helped build discontent. However, what began as peaceful demonstrations descended into violence, with attacks on government buildings and officials reporting hundreds of law enforcement officers injured or dead.

In the wake of the unrest, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev branded those responsible foreign terrorists. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has also said that the clashes are a form of “aggression” leveled at the country, while warning that the threat comes not from peaceful protestors but from those who hijacked demonstrations.

Irina Vitovtoava, a woman living in central Almaty, said she watched events unfold from her apartment window, and alleges those behind the carnage were well-organized. While protesters seemed to be peaceful at first, they were joined by armed people kitted out with what she insisted was stolen riot gear, she said.

“Some people from the crowd rummaged in bushes and picked something up from the ground. It wasn’t rocks, it wasn’t iron bars – they were looking for something small, they had something small in their hands. I think it might have been some kind of drug because it was something very small,” Vitovtoava said. She offered no evidence to support the assertion, nor did she elaborate on what sort of substance may have been used. 

Many of the rioters donned matching outfits, favoring dark colors and covering their faces, apparently making it harder to identify them, she added.

“They were wearing black clothes, some were wearing masks, hats, and we noticed white gloves,” another witness claimed.

Vitovtoava also suggested that the crowd was directed by “handlers” equipped with headsets and walkie-talkies. Some of these were dressed in red – in stark contrast with the vast majority of the crowd in dark clothes, she noted.

“The bulk of the people were in black, grey, but, notably, people in bright red jackets stood out. I immediately wondered, who would want to stand out like that at an event like this,” the eyewitness said.

The violence prompted the Kazakh authorities to seek help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which promptly deployed peacekeeping forces in the country. The mission was declared a success on Tuesday, with the allied deployment expected to begin a gradual withdrawal in two days.

There have been claims from Kazakh officials that up to 20,000 “terrorists” took park in the violence. However, no evidence has been offered to support this figure, and Tokayev’s claims that the assailants could have broken into morgues to steal the bodies of their comrades and “cover their tracks” were met with derision by analysts.