The Kazakh cover-up

Historian Leonid Mlechin has written a book praising Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for dealing with the “thugs” during the January 2022 riots. We have read it — and recommend that you do not

The Kazakh cover-up

Rumours about Russian journalist Leonid Mlechin’s new book about the tragic events of January 2022, when mass riots broke out across Kazakhstan following protests that left 230 people dead, began circulating in Kazakhstan back in December — right after the book was presented in Moscow and long before it went on sale. Such interest was to be expected. Mlechin’s work was presented as a documentary study and “the first in-depth analysis of the January crisis”.
However, some suspected from the start that the book was commissioned by the Kazakh authorities and presented the reader with a picture of events that they found favorable. If this is true, it is nonetheless not a reason to abstain from reading it. It is another opportunity to examine the perspective that Tokayev’s team offers society on Bloody January (in Kazakhstan, it is called Qantar: this is both the name of the month in Kazakh and a play on words — “qan” means blood).

The book’s lengthy title is easily divided into two shorter ones — “Tragic January” and “President Tokayev and Lessons Learned”. Mlechin appeared in the media as the author of a study of Qantar, but only the first and fourth chapters of the book — its beginning and its end — are actually dedicated to the topic, creating a kind of portrait frame.

Inside the frame we have a new biography of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, from his childhood to the present day. Thus, Mlechin gives his own perspective on Tokayev’s image — one whose details do not lack interest. It is these two subjects that the book is devoted to.

The author is not involved in local political intrigues, but neither is he an outsider. He has interviewed Tokayev and written books about his predecessor.

Quite a fitting figure to play the part of an independent researcher. But, for better or for worse, his acting is not at all convincing.
The reason for this is the text itself, which makes Mlechin look at the very least like an ardent supporter of the president — one who even for the sake of camouflage will not dare say anything unflattering about Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Notably, this “independent researcher” does not even bring up the viewpoints of the relatives of those who died during the events of January. Instead, he gives the floor to several members of the riot police who fought off the protesters. The book does not mention names of the journalists and human rights activists who drew up an independent list of Bloody January victims. Most importantly, nobody would have forced Mlechin to completely agree with their stance on events. He could have discussed their viewpoints and presented his counterarguments, but instead he simply ignored their very visible activity in Kazakhstan.

Playing to lose

“Classical diplomacy presupposes understatement”, Mlechin lets slip as he is reflecting on Tokayev’s colleagues at the Foreign Ministry. In this regard, the book is quite closely related to classical diplomacy. Understatements and reticence are the main weapon of “Tragic January…” and, at the same time, its curse. The beginning of the narrative, contrary to all rumours, is hopeful: “The complexity of the events of January lies in the fact that everything is mixed up”. Yes, it is the relativistic “it is not all black-and-white” — and it looks quite appropriate for the topic. It may even seem that in the end we will get a balanced overview of events.

Leonid Mlechin. Photo:  Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 3.0

Leonid Mlechin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Mlechin identifies three main stages of Qantar. It all began as a peaceful protest against the sharp increase in liquefied gas prices, starting in the city of Zhanaozen and quickly expanding to the Mangystau region and then to the whole country. The economic demand “Gaz elu!” (“gas price at 50 tenge”) soon changed to the famous political slogan of “Shal ket!” (“leave, old man”) directed at the then still power-wielding ex-president Nazarbayev and his “family”. In broader terms, it was a protest against an authoritarian and unjust system.

Mlechin judges the reaction of the authorities to have been swift and almost flawless, which is, of course, an exaggeration. By the evening of 4 January, the government had agreed to return prices to their previous level in the Mangystau region, but this temporary concession could no longer stop the protests. However, the author is much less interested in the first stage of events than in the next one. That was when bandits and looters appeared on the streets, causing particularly heavy damage in Almaty. The third stage involved “well-trained militants” allegedly attempting a coup d'état.

The cover of Leonid Mlechin’s book “Tragic January. President Tokayev and Lessons Learned”. Source:  Meloman

The cover of Leonid Mlechin’s book “Tragic January. President Tokayev and Lessons Learned”. Source: Meloman

Mlechin found that to describe the peaceful protests he needs neither to talk to people nor to give the events colour. It is all quite straightforward: a few dissatisfied people went out and protested, the authorities listened to them, but they did not really listen to the authorities.

Details appear in the discussion of the violent phase. Mlechin’s interviewees (mostly from the police) recount violent clashes, and their confused speeches mix up “protesters” and “militants” until the two are indistinguishable. Burning cars, stones being thrown around, law enforcement beaten up by a ruthless mob. Then suddenly come the shattered shop windows and the looting — a picture completed with employees recounting their losses. The book does fully convey the primal chaos that indeed ruled the streets of Almaty. But this seemingly erratic section has a hidden structure.

Mlechin writes: “A real war? Yet the police are still unarmed. Their entire arsenal consists of non-lethal weapons.” Later, he continues: “But the police were still most of all scared of shooting into the crowd and killing innocents. The police did not shoot and it was perceived as weakness”.

Several pages later, we encounter a sentence about a police force that is defenceless because it is “unarmed”. Finally, there comes a quote from an anonymous eyewitness, who wrote Mlechin a very strangely worded letter on the evening of 5 January: “The city administration building has been seized. The city is at the mercy of looters. The protesters have learned that Tokayev has given the order not to fire live ammunition. Tokayev is an intellectual and will not sign the order to use live rounds. And this is not good.”

We already know how this line of events ends. On 7 January, Tokayev broadcast a completely different order: “Use lethal force without warning”. Mlechin “legitimises” this in the following fashion: “Somebody was indignant: President Tokayev gave the order to shoot, but this is inhumane! Meanwhile, many people in Almaty said something different: it was too bad that force was not used from the very start, and this was why in the end so many people died”.

There is no doubt that many people in Almaty did indeed think along such lines — we need only to scroll through Facebook to see this. Not all of them thought this way, of course.

However, pitying looters, bandits, and provocateurs is not customary, so Mlechin has to solve another problem: convincing the reader that those who died deserved it:

“The demonstrators, who the day before had taken to the streets with various demands, were themselves frightened and stayed home. Others were in charge of the city now.” Here, Mlechin is articulating what the authorities have been saying for the past year. By “everything is mixed up” they apparently meant “religious radicals, political extremists, outlaws, hardened criminals, looters, and petty hooligans”.

And yet lacking in this mix-up are the peaceful protesters — Mlechin puts the first phase in a rigid time frame, and he certainly does so for a reason. There are sufficient witnesses to the fact that, on 6 January, the police fired on peaceful demonstrators holding a banner with an appeal to the president: “We are not terrorists. We are ordinary people”. Whereas many of those killed in the days of the ensuing purges cannot conceivably be suspected of attempting a coup — they were children, retirees, and passengers of cars that happened to be near the square at the time.

Clashes between demonstrators and Kazakh police during a protest against rising energy prices in Almaty. 5 January 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER KUZNETSOV

Clashes between demonstrators and Kazakh police during a protest against rising energy prices in Almaty. 5 January 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER KUZNETSOV

There is still much to be explained concerning Tokayev’s infamous order. Could the president really have believed that there were only “armed bandits” left on the streets, that only they would be shot at, and that there would be no civilian casualties in the chaos?

Or did he see civilian deaths as negligible collateral? However that may be, Tokayev chose perhaps the harshest of all the options for suppressing the riots. Human Rights Watch described it as the use of “excessive force”. The people of Almaty (and in many respects probably of the whole country) split into two factions primarily divided by personal experience.

Some, who had seen looters and “coup plotters”, supported the president. Others, aware of the shooting of peaceful protesters and bystanders, considered his decision criminal. The former group is often unable to separate the protests from the pogroms. And the latter sometimes seems to underestimate the danger of the forces that supposedly tried to take advantage of the protest. Radicalism on either side, regardless of its justification, is not conducive to cohesion. By showing a truly complex picture of events, Mlechin could have invested in a welcome consolidation of society. But his selective view, on the contrary, helps reinforce division.

A curious detail: at the end of the book, Mlechin once again mentions the order “to use lethal force” (in an attempt to soften it, he omits the “without warning”). Here, he writes: “…from 4 to 6 January 2022, Tokayev found himself isolated from information by security forces. The President was intimidated by the scale of the unrest, the number of thugs that attacked major regional centres, their plans to attack Akorda (the presidential residence — translator’s note)…”

This line contrasts rather oddly with the first chapter, in which Tokayev’s decision was presented as strong and the only correct one. Mlechin now justifies the order by saying that the president was deliberately misled. He goes on to mention the arrested former Minister of Defence Murat Bektanov, who “clearly exceeded his authority and used force even when there was no need to do so”.

If we are to believe that the book was commissioned by the authorities, an interesting picture emerges. Tokayev’s order and the ensuing purges are the sore point of Qandar both for the authorities and for a significant part of the public. It is a much more sensitive point than the intervention of CSTO troops — and not without reason. The authorities, on the one hand, are trying to hush up some of the harsher episodes, and, on the other, are trying to prove their decision was right, all the while attempting to justify a mistake without calling it a mistake. They are not yet ready to clearly acknowledge their share of the blame for the deaths during Qantar, and they are not prepared to openly apologise (will they ever be?). That may be why they ate so insistent in their attempt to force their own perspective on the public and remain silent about the alternative interpretations, which are usually “inconvenient” . And this, of course, is a very dangerous path as it greatly irritates the active parts of society.

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No relapse for Nazarbayev

Mlechin’s book is also replete with possible “spoilers” of the outcome of the official investigation. It was to be expected that Mlechin would name the former chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB), Karim Masimov, as one of those responsible for the attempted coup. He and several of his deputies had long been under investigation. The main mystery was whether Mlechin would discuss the alleged involvement of Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family in the coup. After all, Masimov is known as Nazarbayev’s man and is widely regarded as unlikely to be an independent player. Nazarbayev is described quite favourably on the book’s opening pages, so much so that it is not even clear how the public could have tired of him in a mere 30 years. But the conclusion is unexpectedly harsh. Mlechin cites the opinion of some “knowledgeable people” who “very confidently” recount the planned coup as described by defendant Masimov. Nazarbayev allegedly planned to return for another three years and then choose a more suitable successor. Masimov acted at his behest and was to receive the post of prime minister with unlimited powers. At the same time, what matters is psychological contrast — the ex-KNB chief appears as a person personally loyal to Nazarbayev, although not without self-interest. Whereas the former “leader of the nation” is quoted in the book as cynically denying any connection with his comrade-in-arms: “Masimov worked with me for many years, but how do you know? Did Jesus Christ know about Judas who was sitting next to him?”

However, the finale of the anti-Nazarbayev line, scattered throughout the various chapters, offers the reader yet another surprise. Mlechin explains that to bring charges against “the founder of the modern Kazakh state” would be “to discredit the very idea of state independence”.

There is a line in the book that aims strictly at the Russian reader. Scattered throughout the work are criticisms of nationalist ideas.

This criticism is primarily related to the threats of certain Russian officials and propagandists to annex Northern Kazakhstan. Mlechin explains to the readers agitated by the idea of imperialism that nationalism is not a problem in Kazakhstan, and that ethnically Russian Kazakhs are full members of a civic nation, not a “minority”. He also warns Russians about the “Chinese threat”. Mao Tse Tung had territorial claims against the USSR in his time, and every call to “bring home” some desired piece of land reminds China that they can also theoretically bite off something from Russia.

A short but remarkable story line is linked to the “latent Stalinism” of which the Kazakhstani president is often suspected. This has to do with ambiguous characterisations of Tokayev as well as several phrases attributed to Stalin that he unsuccessfully quoted last year. This was very unnerving, especially after Qantar. But this criticism appears to have been heeded by the president. His “updated” assessment of Stalinism prioritises the repressions and Asharshylyk, the monstrous famine that killed over a million Kazakhs in the early 1930s.

The split president

The second and third chapters focus entirely on Tokayev’s biography, with the rest of the book also devoting considerable space to his image. The biographical narrative frees the reader from the sickeningly sweet taste of propaganda. The plot drowns in countless and very detailed digressions. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating to read this part. What is disappointing however, is that the information is secondary. If you have an idea of Tokayev’s life from newspaper publications, memoirs of colleagues, or his own books, Mlechin is not likely to notably supplement it. “Tragic January…” is replete with quotations (especially from numerous presidential publications), and at times they seem to enlighten the reader far more than the author’s comments.

The image of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is ambiguous, and this largely explains the different attitudes to his figure at home and abroad.

Foreign politicians usually see Tokayev as an experienced and successful official on the international level — he was a Soviet diplomat in Singapore and China during a period of intense reformation in both countries, then became one of the authors and driving forces behind the foreign policy of independent Kazakhstan. For a long time, he headed the Foreign Ministry, and eventually rose to the post of UN Deputy Secretary General (2011-2013) and head of its Geneva office. The not completely banal image of an intellectual president also fits into this picture. Kazakhstanis, on the other hand, tend to see a pale official from the Nazarbayev system who has been, until recently, totally loyal to it. Both portraits are justified. In a sense, the country’s prospects depend on which one gets the upper hand inside the president himself. In Mlechin’s book the former image, of course, dominates the latter, which is absent. But far more interesting are the new images prepared to replace him.

It is, first and foremost, the image of a “strong leader”— resolute, cold-blooded, iron-willed. Mlechin points out particularly frequently that, during the tragic events of January, conspirators from the KNB had persuaded Tokayev to leave the country to save himself and even offered him a large sum of money “for a fresh start”. As we know, however, Tokayev did not leave the country. Another popular contrast: conspirators, Kazakhstani citizens, foreigners — all of them thought Tokayev was a weak intellectual, yet he stunned them with the bravery and toughness with which he “defended the country against bandits and traitors from the power bloc”. Those who had hoped to see Tokayev as a reformist-democrat will likely be disappointed by this image.

Mlechin’s most impressive and timely move is creating the image of an “empathetic president”. It obviously stems from the “Hearing State” concept proposed by Tokayev back in 2019, which in turn was a reaction to the growing rift between government and society. The country’s leadership is even referred to as “The Matrix”, walled off from the people and deaf to their needs.

An “empathetic president” is, of course, valuable in its own right. But in Mlechin’s book, he has another mission. This image should contrast Tokayev with Nazarbayev’s elites, discreetly banishing the memory of him as a loyal Nazarbayev official and successor from the readers’ minds.

Occasionally, Tokayev almost looks like Robin Hood, coming to power to defeat kleptocrats, corrupt officials, and all those who were “used to living outside the law” and who “did not like his idea of a ‘Hearing State’ because the president demanded that government officials attend to the needs of the people”. An additional touch to the myth of Qantar: “Why did the conspirators lose? Firstly, the people were protesting against the establishment, against those who have amassed all the wealth, and not at all against Tokayev…”.

This interpretation is, of course, rather deceitful. Yes, the protests were against Nazarbayev, but at the time very few people perceived Tokayev as an independent figure, and most considered him a part of the unjust system. Now, this memory seems to need correcting. In a sense, it is also part of the “de-Nazarbayevisation”.

In March 2022, Tokayev spoke about the lack of social justice and the persistent distrust in institutions of power that is associated with it.

Leonid Mlechin’s biased book, like any blunt propaganda about Qantar, is also a step towards the final rupture of the “diplomatic relations” between government and society. If one steps too far away, nobody might want to hear and support Tokayev’s version of the truth. After all, “…escalation — from loss of trust to being sure of the hostility of your rival’s plans — happens instantly".

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