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'They looted everything': Counting the cost of Kazakh protests

The sound of the broken glass echoed as Andrey Mikhaylovich walked inside a looted shopping mall on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city. Empty boxes, phone cases, shoes and other leftover goods were scattered everywhere.

Mr Mikhaylovich runs a clothing shop with his son inside that mall. This is the first time he has visited it since the unrest started in Almaty on 4 January. Upon seeing the destruction, he was left speechless.

“They looted everything,” he said. “In three days they took goods out and robbed the whole place. Our losses are massive. Many people are now left with nothing to live on.”


We were approaching a motionless escalator when several gunshots stopped us. It was soldiers trying to chase some curious onlookers out from the mall. The soldiers now guard the area to prevent any more looting.

But there is not much left to protect.

“The marauders smashed the glass, broke into the building and went to crack cash machines open,” said Yedil, a local resident, remembering the first nights of the clashes.

He came to help his friend protect his shop and goods.

“Of course, we were scared. They shot at us,” Yedil said. “The guards at the mall tried to defend it with a hose but it was useless”.

Yedil, a resident of Almaty, speaks to the BBC from a looted mall

Looters set the building on fire in several places. “It was all in smoke here. We tried to put it out. We tried to call firefighters but phone lines were dead,” Yedil remembers.

As I walked towards the main square of Almaty, I counted three dead bodies inside cars.

It is likely they were shot or died in a crash. One vehicle hit a tree and another one was lying in a ditch on its side. It looked like they suddenly lost control while trying to escape from something.

During the peak of the fighting, I sat in a hotel near the main square of Almaty and listened to the sounds of explosions, shooting and machine gun fire.

I watched how the sky flashed from stun grenades and like many in Kazakhstan I was shocked by how quickly the violence spread.

Who were those people who clashed with security forces? Were they really protesters?

The government calls them bandits and terrorists, and they were reportedly armed.

Some of them tried to storm police stations and military units, hoping to seize their guns. In some cases, they were successful. They also broke into several firearms shops and looted them.

Demonstrators in western Kazakhstan, where the movement started, insist that their protest is peaceful and they do not support aggression. They blame the authorities for provoking the violence.

Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst from Almaty believes that at the core of the violent mob that attacked security forces and seized buildings are unemployed young people from poor families who hijacked the protests.

“If you look around big cities of Kazakhstan, you will find a lot of unemployed young people and this is potentially an aggressive mass,” he says.

“And now these people tried to use the events in Almaty for their own interests.”

The aftermath of protests at a mall in Kazakhstan

Economic grievances were certainly one of the major factors that fuelled the protests in Kazakhstan.

The public’s anger with the authoritarian system, which has failed to improve the quality of life, has been growing over the past few years.

In 2019, when Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation after being in power for 30 years, there was excitement that change was imminent.

But Mr Nazarbayev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was seen as loyal to Mr Nazarbayev. This only increased public discontent and the January fuel price hike triggered the mass demonstrations.

But some observers argue that the public’s grievances do not explain why these protests turned so violent.

They believe it is the power struggle between current and former presidents that led to these clashes. While Mr Nazarbayev still holds such strong influence on the political stage, Mr Tokayev does not have full power.

Many also believe the recent arrest of Karim Masimov, a former secret service chief and a close ally of Mr Nazarbayev is an illustration of this power struggle.

The competition for power within the elite poses a serious threat for Kazakhstan’s stability, says Mr Satpayev. However the power struggle is not necessarily between the two leaders but perhaps among those who belong to their “inner circle”, he argues.


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