Interviewed by Dylan Rogers
Kazakhstan’s strongmen have long cast their country as a bastion of stability in an otherwise restive region. Yet in January Kazakhstan erupted in protest, as an increase in fuel prices combined with political concerns to drive nationwide demonstrations. To uncover what actually happened during what some Kazakhs are calling “Qandy Qangtar”, or “Bloody January”, I sat down with Lukpan Akhmedyarov (GS’13), an investigative journalist just released from prison for reporting on the unrest.
The state has tried to silence Akhmedyarov before. In 2012 he was shot and stabbed outside his apartment after writing articles that criticised President Nazarbayev and condemned his lethal crackdown on protesters in the western town of Zhanaozen. After Nazarbayev made a stage-managed exit from office in March 2019, President Tokayev continued his predecessor’s assault on press freedom, repeatedly detaining Akhmedyarov, who responded by staging a one-man protest with a placard reading “Police or Gestapo?” The stunt earned him another arrest.
As we talk, Akhmedyarov is almost nonchalant, his most recent detention described in a tone that makes it sound more like an administrative headache than a threat to his life and liberty. Yet it is this apparent indifference that explains why Kazakh authorities so want to silence him: there is nothing the state can throw at Akhmedyarov that he hasn’t already factored in.
You were just released from prison for your role in the protests that exploded across Kazakhstan this January. Why were you imprisoned, and what conditions did you endure during your detention?
The police arrested me on the 7th of January and held me for 10 days. I spent those 10 days in a single room. The police didn’t beat me during my arrest: instead they were quite careful. But for seven of the ten days I was kept in solitary confinement. I had no contact with my family, no information about the situation in my country, about the protests in Kazakhstan. I didn’t have a radio, access to a television or a newspaper.
The official version of why I was arrested is because I attended a protest, and addressed a crowd with a megaphone. A police car arrived and arrested me just for using a megaphone.
My version of why I was arrested is because those in power didn’t want me to continue my work as a journalist.
“Those in power didn’t want me to continue my work as a journalist.”
I was worried I would not be released after the 10 days detention that I was sentenced to. I thought that after 10 days, I would be told that there was some new criminal case which would mean I was kept in prison.
I talked to my family about this. My wife asked me what she would do if I was imprisoned for a long time. I replied that she should take some money and try to leave the country. I was worried because it is standard practice for the Kazakh government to intimidate the families of journalists.
The protests you were covering around the time of your arrest began in Zhanaozen, Western Kazakhstan, after a price cap on liquefied petroleum gas was removed. Price caps were reimposed just days later, but by that point unrest had spread across the country. So what caused the protests to grow? What issues did you see raised on the streets?
Zhanaozen is the home of anti-government dissent in Kazakhstan. It is a small city, but it is strong, and exerts a powerful influence over the country. It is very influential in Kazakhstan’s political system: everything that happens there has an effect on the government. It is possible that in the future it could help change many things.
All the protests began because people in Zhanaozen took to the streets against the high gas prices. They spread because people in other cities decided to support them by coming out onto the street and asking the government to listen to them. To ask for lower prices.
Yet in Kazakhstan, people also went into the street because they want a different government. They want transparency and free elections for parliament.
It has been suggested that criminal elements or competing political figures tried to take advantage of the unrest, encouraging increased violence in some cities. What are your thoughts?
In my city, in Uralsk, many people came out onto the streets to peacefully protest. It wasn’t violent, there was no aggression or violent action. Only peace.
“My wife asked me what she would do if I was imprisoned for a long time.”
But in other cities, such as Almaty and elsewhere, the peaceful protests were overtaken by some very aggressive characters. These people were not peaceful protesters. They were more aggressive, violent people. They weren’t together with the peaceful protesters. The peaceful protesters were on one side, the more aggressive people were on the other side. They did not know each other.
I don’t know where they came from, though I think there was some government influence. I think these other people may have been paid by the government. But I don’t have proof.
Amid the unrest President Tokayev invited Russian troops into Kazakhstan. These troops represented the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russia-led alliance of local powers that last year refused to aid Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan. What concessions do you think Tokayev made to encourage Putin to send military assistance? And what does this mean for Kazakhstan-Russia relations in future?
It was not necessary to invite the Russian military into Kazakhstan. Our problems in our country are our problems. The President should not have invited them to solve issues inside our borders.
In the future, it will be bad for our independence. We had normal relations with Russia, but now we have lost our autonomy. The Russians have an interest in this. Someday they could come in and change things in our government.
The protests have now been violently repressed, with official estimates suggesting over 225 have been killed. Yet at the same time Tokayev has shown some interest in heeding the demands of the protesters, announcing a new national development fund named “For the People of Kazakhstan” to which oligarchs are expected to contribute. Is this simply appeasement, or can we now expect meaningful change in Kazakhstan?
No. I think what Tokayev is doing is a form of populism. His promises of reform are not true, because Tokayev wants to conserve the political system in Kazakhstan as it exists now. He doesn’t want free and fair elections, he doesn’t want a free press, or freedom of speech. He wants to consolidate the Nazarbayev system. So what has changed is the people in charge, not the way that they govern.
By the Nazarbayev system, I mean the system that Kazakhstan faces now, one defined by a lack of fair elections, or a free press, and the constant arrest of political activists. These arrests are continuing now, showing that nothing has changed. The Nazarbayev system was before, but it is continuing now.
I think that the political situation in Kazakhstan will worsen. I think that in future there will be no free press at all, that every future protest will be broken up by force, because the “new” government under Tokayev is still corrupt.
This January is not the first time protests have started in Zhanaozen. You reported on protests there in 2011, and shortly afterwards you were stabbed outside your home by unknown assailants. What happened, and what drove you to return to journalism after less than a month in hospital?
I was attacked with a knife and stabbed around eight times, and then shot twice with a shotgun. I was in front of my home. It was dark and late at night. Two guys attacked me, one with a knife and the other with a gun. I fought them off, and they disappeared in a car. Then I went straight to hospital. I spent around 21 days there.
“I live like a journalist and I will die like a journalist.”
I went back to reporting after that just because it’s what I do. I am a journalist. I live like a journalist and I will die like a journalist.
In 2013 four men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 11 to 15 years for your attempted murder. What was your response to their sentences?
All of these people were just paid to carry out the attack. They weren’t the organisers. Two of them attacked me, one was the driver, and the last one just showed the others where I lived.
They have some responsibility for what they did, but they did not plan the attack. I still don’t know who planned the attack, who the organisers of this criminal action were. I don’t know who did this.
Do you think those who ordered the attack will ever be brought to justice? By the same token, will those families who lost loved ones during the most recent crackdown ever see justice?
In my case, the police at least found the men who carried out the attack. In the other cases in Kazakhstan the police have found nothing. The justice they will get is fool’s justice.