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Life returns to normality in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as Russian troops leave city

While markets, cafés and fruit stalls are open, the charred windows and walls of City Hall and the broken doors and windows of looted shops and department stores serve as reminders of recent violence.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A train slowly rolls into town on a foggy, gray but unusually warm winter day with the mercury hovering above zero Celsius (32 F). It was the only reliable way to travel from Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, known as Astana by many, to its largest city and commercial capital, Almaty, this month.

The city’s airport remained closed until Jan. 13 after it was attacked Jan. 5 by people whom officials called terrorists as peaceful demonstrations against rising prices and economic hardship turned violent. The explosion of violent protests — the worst in the 30 years of independence and that officials said killed 227 people — appeared to shock the government and sent ripples of alarm through the region where Kazakhstan was long seen as a stable country in the hands of an authoritarian government.

Whether it was the damage that these men inflicted on the airport equipment or the need to service troops sent by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, that kept Almaty’s airport closed longer than other airports in Kazakhstan is not clear. 

But to compensate for the suspension of flights, the local railway company increased the number of trains between the two cities. Because of this, a slower, 20-hour train ride seemed more empty than full. The atmosphere in Almaty seemed not to resemble the eerie one the state propaganda wanted to show to the rest of the country after the violence.

Image: A view shows the burnt office of Mir TV channel in Almaty
A view from the office of Mir TV, which was vandalized and set on fire during recent violence in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

Buses, banks, shops, markets, cafés, restaurants, coffee shops and fruit stalls have all opened by now, and only the charred windows and walls of the Almaty City Hall and the broken doors and windows of looted shops and department stores serve as the reminder of the recent violence. There were few people on the streets because of the cold weather and, perhaps, because schools and colleges were closed for the break, while workers were switched to working from home. 

“Everything is working as usual, and life is coming back to normal,” a man in his mid-30s, who was waiting on the platform for his relatives, said when asked about the situation in town. Like other people NBC News interviewed in the aftermath of the protests, the man spoke on condition of anonymity or partial anonymity out of fear of government reprisals for talking about a politically sensitive topic. 

Of everything, the complete lift of the blackout of all communications, including the internet, on Jan. 11 is the most telling indicator of the country returning to normality. The telecommunications, including nonstate television, were cut off to prevent exchanges of information and to push through the government view of the events.

The return to normality for the general public and businesses masks concerns and uncertainty that the country’s independent journalists and civil society activists face. On Jan. 7, President Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev accused “human rights activists” and “free media outlets” of taking part in the events that led to the deadly protests. 

The Almaty-based Adil Soz (“Just Word”) foundation for freedom of speech reported Monday that 11 journalists had been detained and four journalists had been arrested for administrative offenses between Jan. 4 and 12. 

“I can see that my journalist colleagues are now afraid of writing about the events because they fear they would be summoned for questioning and accused of inciting or provoking violence,” Almaty-based independent journalist Bagdat Asylbek said.

But these tensions are not immediately obvious on the street. Last week, a young woman strolling on the square adjacent to the charred Almaty City Hall with her husband and a toddler son said she and her family were frightened when the violence started on the square in the early hours of Jan. 5, so they didn’t dare to go out for a couple of days. 

On Jan. 13, the CSTO troops started pulling out of the city, but they were not seen moving around the city that day or before. Groups of three to four servicemen in heavy military gear patrolling the central streets were locals, as the mandate of some 2,500 troops — mostly from Russia but also from member states Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan — was to guard important government buildings and strategic facilities.

Image: Ceremony marking the beginning of the withdrawal of the CSTO peacekeeping troops from Kazakhstan, in Almaty
A Russian serviceman at a ceremony marking the beginning of the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops from Kazakhstan in Almaty on Jan. 13.Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

There have been initial concerns in certain quarters in Kazakhstan that Russian President Vladimir Putin would use the Kazakh president’s request to deploy CSTO troops to clean the city of the “terrorists” as an opening to place the Russian military in the Central Asian country forever amid his standoff with NATO over Ukraine. 

“I believe that the troops will be withdrawn, and they are already being withdrawn,” Indira from Almaty said. “We are an independent country and we have our own development path, so there are no grounds to worry that the troops have come to stay.”

The withdrawal completed by this week when the nationwide state of emergency and curfew gradually imposed on Jan. 5 ended. 

On Tuesday night, authorities released a prerecorded video message in which former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev absolved himself of any responsibility for the events, claiming he was just a “pensioner.” The 81-year-old former Communist boss, who assumed the helm of Kazakhstan in 1989 before the country received its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, admitted that Tokayev was in full charge of the country, even though Nazarbayev chaired the omnipotent Security Council until the violent events.

By holding the chairmanship of the Security Council, Nazarbayev had been able to override national security and domestic policy decisions by the president, thus constraining Tokayev in exercising all powers as president. 

So when the state of emergency ended at midnight Tuesday, not only was it a return to some sort of normality, it marked the symbolic end of Nazarbayev’s long rule in Kazakhstan.