By Olzhas Auyezov and Mariya Gordeyeva
ALMATY – Some anti-government protesters in Kazakhstan, angry at a steep rise in car fuel prices, said their peaceful demonstrations this month were hijacked by mysterious masked men and that they feel they were tricked into fuelling a clan power struggle.
The protests erupted after a doubling in car fuel prices felt especially strongly in the west of the vast oil-rich Central Asian nation where most drivers use LPG rather than gasoline.
Discontent quickly escalated into the most serious unrest since Kazakhstan broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, with Russian-led peacekeepers drafted in to stabilise the situation.
The aftermath has seen President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cement his authority, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev appear to lose influence and Nazarbayev’s relatives squeezed out of power.
Gaziz Makhambetov, who took to the streets in the western town of Zhanaozen on Jan. 2, said he felt he had been used.
“Now I think that they did it (hike fuel prices) on purpose, to provoke the people,” he told Reuters.
He said the protests, which swiftly prompted the authorities to cancel the price hike, look to have been engineered as part of what he and many other Kazakhs say looks like a power struggle between the Nazarbayev clan and the president’s allies.
In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city where protests turned violent, Alibek, a taxi driver, said he had taken part in a peaceful demonstration only to watch as highly organised armed men hijacked the event.
“They looked as if they were well-trained state security or military operatives. They moved around the square in small groups, constantly contacting someone by phone.”
Tokayev has spoken of an attempted coup and blamed what he called foreign-trained terrorists. He has also criticised the actions of the police and security forces who he said had mishandled the situation. On Friday, he praised Nazarbayev as the founder of modern Kazakhstan.
Zhanbolat Mamai, an opposition politician, said people wearing black and camouflaged clothes and masks attacked him on Almaty’s main square on Jan. 5.
“They looked trained and organised,” he said.
A dissident in Aktau, a Caspian port city about 2,100 km (1,300 miles) west of Almaty, described a group of men dressed in black and wearing masks.
“They did not fear anyone,” said the man, who asked not be identified.
Hundreds of masked men also took over Almaty airport on Jan. 5 and Reuters correspondents saw people dressed in black and camouflage and wearing balaclavas on Jan. 6 inside the presidential residence near Almaty mayor’s office.
In Aktau, the dissident said the police at one point encouraged protesters to seize the local government building.
Almaty saw the heaviest fighting and destruction. Almaty province is home to the village of Shamalgan, Nazarbayev’s birthplace, and is regarded as his clan’s stronghold.
Shortly after security forces subdued the unrest, a grim-faced Nazarbayev appeared on state television saying Tokayev had full powers.
“I handed over my powers to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019 and have since been a pensioner, and I am now (living) in retirement in Kazakhstan’s capital and have not gone anywhere,” he said, addressing rumours that he was abroad. “President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has full powers.”
Although he said there was “no conflict or confrontation within the elite”, a number of Nazarbayev’s relatives have since been removed or resigned from key positions in state security, government, state companies and lobby groups.
Tokayev said on Friday the authorities were still working to establish those responsible for the violence. He also dismissed “insinuations” about Nazarbayev and praised him as the founder of modern Kazakhstan.
“Let us give due credit to the historic achievements of the first president, focus on his undeniable successes and virtues, and regard the possible mistakes as lessons for the future rulers of our country,” Tokayev’s office quoted him as saying.