By Nico Lethbridge
LGBT+ activist Zhanar Sekerbeyeva takes us through Kazakhstan’s recent violent uprisings and explains how women were central to the story.
For the last few months the world’s gaze has been firmly fixed on Ukraine. In the weeks running up to Putin’s invasion, as fears of European war grew, few paid much attention to the events taking place in Kazakhstan, Ukraine’s fellow former-Soviet nation. As Putin massed his army on the Ukrainian border, Kazakhstan, the world’s 9th largest country, underwent the most violent period of unrest in its 30 year history. The period is known already as ‘Bloody January’. Hundreds were killed and thousands more detained in violent clashes between protesters and the state. Innocent bystanders were shot and many more were tortured to death in police custody. The story that has been told about that brutal period, like many accounts of conflict, tells only part of the picture. I spoke to a Kazakhstani LGBT+ and women’s rights activist Zhanar Sekerbeyeva about her experience of the turmoil and how the role of women in the unrest has been ignored.
Zhanar is an experienced protester and activist, far from a safe occupation. In May last year she and a fellow activist were attacked after speaking at a conference. She was dragged by the hair and punched in the face before being arrested. However, the dangers do not dissuade Zhanar and she remains committed to her cause. Most of all she remains committed to peace. When protesting, Zhanar and her colleagues go to meticulous lengths to attain permits and ensure everybody stays safe and peaceful at their protests. She was organising one for International Women’s Day as we spoke and she told me it was exhausting work.
The violent uprisings in January came as somewhat of a surprise. Zhanar certainly hadn’t organised them. They burst out of nowhere, spilling onto the streets. They represented a deep groundswell of anger that was far beyond the careful control of seasoned activists.
The protests initially began peacefully. People gathered in city streets throughout the vast country, furious about a rise in fuel prices. Within a couple of days, Kazakstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had completely shut down the internet and ordered the police to shoot anyone they chose. Total chaos ensued. Zhanar recalls the mayhem as confused people rushed onto the streets. They flocked to Republic Square in Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, hoping to glean some idea of the situation. Here they were met with shocking scenes of violence as protesters clashed with riot police. Many innocent onlookers, merely confused by the information blackout, were shot in the madness. One 12-year-old boy mistook the gunfire for fireworks and began filming on his phone. He was shot in the back of the head.
Zhanar felt sure the chaos was caused by the dire economic state of the country. “We are a failed state,” she said remorsefully. The political situation in Kazakhstan is much like Russia’s: several oligarchs have become immensely rich and powerful since independence in 1991. The foremost among them is Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is Kazakhstan’s richest man and was president from 1991 until 2019. During those three decades, Nazarbayev and his family amassed enormous personal wealth, much of which is safely stored in London. Chatham House reports that Kazakh oligarchs, most of whom are Nazarbayev’s family, have around $530m worth of property in Britain’s capital. The figure is likely much higher as much of it will be registered in untraceable shell companies. Nazarbayev’s son-in-law even bought Prince Andrew’s old home, Sunninghill Park, in 2007. In recent weeks there has been a great deal of posturing about ridding London of Russian oligarchs’ dirty money but the problem is more systemic and goes well beyond Russia.
Despite handing over the presidency in 2019 to Tokayev, Nazarbayev was evidently still wielding the power. Anger towards him lingered and protesters in January chanted “Shal ket” at the wall of riot shields facing them. It loosely translates to “old man out” and was a slogan Zhanar herself had invented at a protest all the way back in 2014. She’d certainly never imagined that it would be shouted as protesters hurled molotov cocktails at the presidential palace, eventually succeeding in burning it to the ground.
30 years of misrule led to this moment, but Zhanar stressed to me that the catalyst was economics. The rise in fuel prices was the final straw after years of unaccounted inflation had gnawed away at wages and the poor’s patience. “We’re all tired of the Nazarbayev regime,” she explained, “but the first thing that takes you to the street is your pocket.”
Zhanar also understood that the narrative surrounding the unrest was skewed and ignored the role played by women. “The face [of the uprisings] were Kazakh males,” she told me, “but there were also women there.” She continued, “Mothers of many children were active before the January events. They were very angry because of the socio-economic situation.” She began to outline how the government had strongly encouraged mothers to have lots of children since independence. “They are saying, ‘we have so many children, so now I should be a very honourable person in Kazakhstan’. But they are not.” The measly support from the government is not nearly enough. “They are poor. That is why they’re so angry… They are vulnerable.”
Unable to support the large families they were told to have, many women took to the streets. Soon they were joined by violent young men protesting about fuel prices. Despite the women’s peaceful protestations, their anger was met with brutal force. During the tumultuous January a great number, like Nuraliya Aitkulov, a civic activist, were killed. “What about the children?,” she asked, distressed, “are they in an orphanage?” Her tone suggested they probably weren’t. Zhanar’s account is a reminder of the tendency of news outlets to gender the narratives, obscuring real stories and crucial causes.
Zhanar is not overly hopeful for the future of her country. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is a stark reminder of Kazakhstan's geographic reality: it’s nestled between Putin to the north and the brutally oppressed Xinjiang region of China to the east. Being a former Soviet state Kazakhstan aligns more with Russia, although Zhanar is quick to point out the imperial nature of this relationship. Nevertheless, many of the older generation still watch Russian news channels and believe much of the propaganda that comes with it. “Maybe they feel nostalgia for one authoritarian leader - Stalin,” she suggests, "They saw something really, really, really inhuman in Stalin and that is why they are a little more okay with Putin. He’s strong, he’s making everybody feel fear and so on.
Maybe you should read some sociological researchers. But I guess.”
The propaganda portrays Russia as a benevolent neighbour, there to protect and help Kazakhstan. Zhanar thinks the invasion of Ukraine will unveil the reality: “People will rethink how this big brother or ‘big person’ will help us.” Nevertheless, Kazakhstan finds itself in a difficult situation: any attempt to become more liberal or democratic may well invite a retaliation from Putin - not an enticing prospect.
“I think if Russia decides to attack Kazakhstan they will do it successfully because our power, our military power, economical power, is really weak.” She continued to explain the extreme reliance the country has on Russia, selling its products and resources overwhelmingly to its neighbour. Proper resistance, she suggested, would be nearly impossible. “I am not afraid. I will protect me, my parents, my people around me, to the end. I will not leave the city. I will defend for all my efforts.” She spoke with a resolve that left me in little doubt. As an eminent powerlifter she would certainly be a formidable opponent, “But what can we do? Only some people? So it’s the same situation in Kyiv.”
Kazakhstan’s future is murky yet Zhanar’s resolve is inspiring. Whether it be detained activists, LGBT+ people or mothers, she does her utmost to try and improve people’s lives even at risk to her own. With the shockwaves still reverberating from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the uncertainty suddenly thrust on the world, we can learn a great deal from Zhanar’s constant, strong and crucially peaceful resilience.