Calm has returned to Kazakhstan; at least, for now. The authorities faced down nearly two weeks of rioting that left its former capital, Almaty, looking like a war zone. The reasons for the violence and the forces behind it seem to remain a mystery.

Disturbances began on Jan. 2 in the oil town of Zhanaozen with protesters angry about a spike in fuel prices. Those protests spread to Almaty and, for the first three days, were peaceful. Protesters sang the national anthem and chanted “Shal Ket” (“Old Man Out”), referring to Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who despite resigning in 2019 after a rule of three decades still held considerable power. But then, on Jan. 5, new groups appeared in the streets armed with various weapons, including metal rods, sledgehammers and guns. They looted businesses, stormed government buildings, set the mayor’s office and presidential residence alight, and seized Almaty International Airport.

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev shut down the Internet, labeled the protesters “terrorists,” gave his troops orders to “shoot to kill without warning” and requested help from neighboring Russia.

Russia, which shares a 4,750-mile border with Kazakhstan, sent in some 2,500 troops through its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CIST), a Moscow-led security alliance.

As many as 12,000 people have been arrested so far, the Associated Press reported. Kazakhstan’s health ministry said on Sunday that the death toll stood at 164, including a young Jewish man—Levan Kogeashvili, 22, originally from Ashdod, Israel—who was shot twice, not as a participant in the riots but while driving to work.

Kazakhstan isn’t used to such violence. Its chief rabbi, Yeshaya Cohen, who is based in Almaty, told JNS that everyone was “shocked” by the scenes. Describing Kazakhstan as a “peaceful and tolerant” country, the Israeli-born rabbi is convinced the violent actors were foreign elements. “For sure, this was not Kazakh people who were responsible for the violence. It was outsiders. I don’t know who. Maybe some people hired them,” he said.

‘It’s not over, but we see things are stable’

Media reports have suggested at least some foreign elements were involved in the riots.

As to the reasons for the chaos and who was behind it, there are as yet no definitive answers. “The best answer I can give you is that no one knows,” Zvi Magen, a researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told JNS.

Magen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia (1998-1999) and Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine (1993-1997), said there are four possibilities: 1) an internal conflict—more specifically, a clique led by Nazarbayev attempted to topple current Tokayev; 2) an outside job—for example, Russia is acting as it did in Ukraine, Belarus and other places; 3) Islamist groups—namely, the Taliban and others, or maybe Turkey, “which is interested in everything that happens in Asiatic countries,” acted to create a more Islamic-minded Kazakhstan; and 4) a combination of No. 1. and No. 2—in the form of Nazarbayev and/or Tokayev, in their battle for supremacy, inviting in foreign elements to help.

Magen said if he had to choose one of the four possibilities, it would be No. 4: “This resembles more of an internal conflict, in which all sorts of foreign elements are exploited.”

Lending credence to the proposition that the violence stemmed from internal squabbles, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from the country’s security council on Jan. 5 and the next day arrested Karim Masimov—a longtime ally of Nazarbayev who headed the country’s intelligence agency—and charged him with treason. Masimov was replaced at his post by an ally of Tokayev.

Cohen approved of the steps Tokayev has taken to restore calm. “It’s not over, but we see things are stable, and he’s very strong and he’s fighting back to protect the citizens of his country,” Cohen told JNS on Jan. 11.

He said that many Jewish businesses, though not specifically targeted as such, were wiped out during the looting. “People lost their businesses. They put their whole lives into it, and in one day, it’s gone,” he said, noting the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, a group that serves Jews in Muslim-majority countries, has been enormously supportive.

Although the situation has calmed down for the present, Magen said he would not take the quiet for granted. “The bottom line is that Kazakhstan is a very problematic country. Why? Because basically, it’s a target of many important global players, including Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and China, not to mention Islamist groups. They all have interests there,” he said.

Both Cohen and Magen agreed that relations between Kazakhstan and Israel are good. Cohen said he has traveled the country while easily identified as a Jew and never once encountered a problem. Magen said Kazakhstan is important to Israel, which is looking for relations with Muslim countries.

“In this sense, it’s definitely a friendly country, an important country,” said Magen, adding that “if, God forbid, it turns in an Islamic direction, it will be bad for Israel.”


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