From the evening of January 4 to the present day, my access to information about events in my country has been rationed.
That is not only because of the Kazakh government’s days-long blockade of the internet, but because on the day when the protests spiraled into a national crisis, police confiscated my only outlet to the world beyond my small steppe town – my telephone.
What follows is the story of how Stepnogorsk, a former Soviet closed city in northern Kazakhstan, experienced the most turbulent events in my country’s 30-year history, and how I came to be the subject of a criminal investigation that could see me jailed for up to seven years.
As everybody now knows, on January 2, hundreds of demonstrators outraged by rising prices for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) took to the streets in Zhanaozen, in the western Mangystau region, and remained there overnight.
In subsequent days, solidarity protests rippled across the country.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has said that he understands the socioeconomic concerns that underpinned the initial protests, which he claimed were hijacked by “terrorists.”
Berik Uali, his spokesman, clarified on January 14 that Tokayev believes “participants in peaceful demonstrations…should not be criminally prosecuted.”
On January 4 I headed to the central square of Stepnogorsk, a town around 100 kilometers from Kazakhstan’s capital, and began a live broadcast.
I called my YouTube post – which my Eurasianet editor tells me was imprudent – “Stepnogorsk in support of Zhanaozen.” In the half-hour video, I tried to give my town an objective rundown of what was happening in their country because the local media were not covering the unrest.
I did not shout any slogans. I did not hold up a placard or call for anybody to join me. But I wanted Stepnogorsk to know how people in Zhanaozen were spending a second night out on the street in the cold, fighting for a more affordable life.
Strolling around the windy, snow-swept square completely alone, I gave my viewers a rundown of the situation as I saw it.
I explained how the sudden spike in prices for LPG would affect every facet of life for Kazakh families in the west – prices for food, the cost of visiting relatives over long distances.
I listed where solidarity rallies had already taken place and noted northern Kazakhstan’s passivity.
“People are out there protesting peacefully. There is no aggression,” I said. I commented that the police were also showing restraint. Based on what I had seen at the time, this was true.
After 30 minutes, six police officers approached me and told me to follow them for a “discussion.” I refused, as I did not see any reason for a discussion.
They explained that since I had refused their request, they would be forced to detain me.
At the police department, representatives of the mayor’s office and the prosecutor’s office lectured me on the law.
They suggested that I delete the video. I said that I would not, as I did not want to practice self-censorship.
The police then determined that I had called on people to join an unsanctioned rally. They opened a case against me under article 174 part 1, “Inciting social, national, tribal, racial, class or religious hatred.”
My telephone was taken from me as evidence.
My first interrogation was on January 5 at 10 am. It lasted two hours and 20 minutes.
On my way out, I learned from another man who had been detained that Stepnogorsk had witnessed a rare rally during the time I was inside the police station.
A small group of people, including the man, had gathered near the city administration. The police had detained all of them.
During his detention, the police had asked him if he knew me, he said. He had replied that he didn’t.
Walking home from the police department, I noticed that my city had changed. The area around city hall was now surrounded: eight police cars, four buses that had brought in soldiers, and a military vehicle filled with shields and helmets.
As many as 50 protesters were rumored to have been detained that day before being released.
A video posted on YouTube on January 9 shows some of the detentions.
Many of the protesters were miners from the neighboring village of Bestobe, people said. Hundreds are facing unemployment there due to a restructure at the local gold mine.
WhatsApp groups with titles like Rally 1 and Rally 2 and Alga (Forward) Stepnogorsk! had popped up.
Here, apparently, locals were discussing events in the country.
Even if I had wanted to report on the groups, I could not, since I did not have a telephone.
Media outlets in the city did not cover the protests – most probably at the request of the authorities.
The city hall’s Instagram account issued a warning to the population: “Do not succumb to provocations from figures who don’t live in our region!”
My next interrogation had been scheduled for the evening, but it did not take place. Internet was becoming infrequent for everyone else, too. I had no idea at that time about the violent escalations in Almaty or other cities.
But I overheard police who were patrolling the city talking to one another as they prepared for a difficult night: “They will attack when it is dark, they might try and gouge out our eyes […] those bastards.”
Who were they talking about?
On January 6, the internet was shut down completely and would only become available for short periods between January 7 and January 11.
My last interrogation was on January 6.
It lasted 50 minutes and ended abruptly.
The interrogating officer suddenly had to be somewhere else in a hurry. He gave no explanation.
Since then, I have been hanging.
On January 14, three police searched my flat, confiscating the camera that I use for my video blogging.
One of their colleagues, armed with an automatic rifle, waited outside the apartment building, which frightened the neighbors.
On January 16, using my relative’s internet, I sent an appeal to the state prosecutor: “I am a blogger, I make reports about environmental and socio-economic problems in our region and participate as far as is possible in their solution. I am not associated with any destructive organizations.”
Until 2020, I lived an unremarkable life. I worked as a maintenance man in a factory, I played football, I went out, I helped my parents at their dacha.
That was all before companies affiliated with former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s third daughter Aliya Nazarbayeva decided it would be a good idea to transport toxic waste to Stepnogorsk, and burn it in a factory close to our city without asking our opinion.
Aged a little over 30, I abandoned my fence-building project at the dacha and threw myself into documenting protests against the plant. Following a hundreds-strong rally that was without precedent for our town, the companies decided not to build the plant near Stepnogorsk.
Like many people, I am shocked and saddened by the events that took place across Kazakhstan and especially in Almaty.
There are so many victims and so many unanswered questions.
But at the same time, I feel deeply bothered at the message that the government is planting like a chip into our mass consciousness: Peaceful protests lead to terrorist attacks.
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.