Allied forces of Russia to step in amid unrest in Kazakhstan


MOSCOW – A Russian-led military alliance announced Wednesday evening that it will send peacekeepers to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the country’s president to help quell a growing protest movement there.

The current alliance chairman, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said in a statement that the troops would only be stationed there “for a limited period of time”, until order could be ordered. be restored.

He did not specify how many soldiers could be mobilized or how long they could stay. Russia is known to send troops under the guise of peacekeeping missions which then establish a permanent presence in host countries.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev extended the invitation earlier in the evening. Calling the protesters a “bunch of international terrorists,” he said he was looking to the Russian version of NATO, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to “help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat.”

The revolt began on Sunday in western Kazakhstan to protest against soaring fuel prices. Four days later, with government buildings, television stations, the airport and numerous businesses stormed by thousands of anti-government protesters, the uprising turned into a loud assault on an entrenched Kazakh elite. widely vilified as autocratic and corrupt.

Images published online Wednesday showed thousands of people storming the main government building in the country’s largest city, Almaty.

Smoke billowed from the building that afternoon as the crowd began to disperse. The regional branch of the ruling Nur Otan party was also set on fire, local media reported, as was the former presidential residence.

News services reported further clashes between protesters and police, who used stun grenades and tear gas to quell the crowds. Protesters also set fire to the Almaty prosecutor’s office before heading to the president’s residence.

Almaty police said protesters torched 120 cars, including 33 police vehicles, and damaged around 400 businesses, and more than 200 were arrested. The country’s interior ministry said eight law enforcement officials died in the clashes. Local media reported that police opened fire on protesters in the oil town of Atyrau, killing at least one person.

Protests began peacefully in the oil town of Zhanaozen on Sunday, after the government doubled the cost of liquefied petroleum gas – used to power vehicles in Kazakhstan – to around 100 tenge, or 22 cents, a liter. By the time the government announced on Tuesday it would reverse the price hike, protests had spread across the country, with broader demands for increased political representation and better social benefits.

Apparently dissatisfied with the announcement early Wednesday that the entire government would be sacked and that new parliamentary elections were possible, protesters took control of the country’s main airport.

The protests reverberated across the continent as far as Moscow, where President Vladimir V. Putin was forced to witness another uprising against an authoritarian nation aligned with the Kremlin, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020.

The protests are a warning signal for the Kremlin, said Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert in Moscow, describing the government of Kazakhstan as “a scaled-down replica of the Russian government”.

He added: “There is no doubt that the Kremlin would not want to see an example of such a regime start talking to the opposition and giving in to their demands. “

The timing is particularly delicate for Mr Putin, who hopes to take advantage of three meetings next week with Western delegations to renegotiate post-Cold War international security agreements on Ukraine and what Russia sees as his sphere of influence. in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The revolt also appeared to mark a decisive break with the regime of former Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down as president in 2019 but still kept control of the country’s affairs.

Video footage showed protesters toppling a statue of Mr Nazarbayev in the capital of the Almaty region, Taldykorgan, with people chanting “shal ket”, Kazakh for “Old man, go!” He played no role in fighting the protests, leaving that to his hand-picked successor, Mr Tokayev.

Although initially conciliatory, the government took an increasingly harsh line against protesters, imposing a strict state of emergency across the country.

Tokayev said on Wednesday that he would assume all the formal levers of power and pledged to “act with maximum tenacity”. Kazakhtelecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, cut off nationwide internet access on Wednesday afternoon.

Kazakhstan, with a population of 19 million, is by far the richest country in Central Asia, with a GDP per capita of $ 27,000 and over $ 35 billion in reserves, but it was still possible for the country to sink into chaos within days.

Instability is a potential source of concern for foreign oil companies, especially in the United States. ExxonMobil and Chevron have invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this month. A Chevron-led consortium is in the middle of a project to boost production from the Tengiz onshore oil field at an estimated cost of $ 37 billion, one of the largest energy investments in the world today.

Many Kazakhs have been exasperated by the increase in the price of gas because their country is not only the recipient of tens of billions of energy investments but also an exporter of oil and gas. Rising prices have compounded economic misery in a country where the coronavirus pandemic has helped highlight severe income inequalities.

Mukhtar Umbetov, a human rights activist who participated in the protests in Aktau, said that while the unrest may have been sparked by economic grievances and the pandemic, the root cause was the lack of democratic processes. The Kazakh government, he said, “has suppressed all legal means to participate in politics.”

Speaking by phone from Aktau on the Caspian Sea, he said “people do not have political intermediaries who will solve the problems that exist in the country”.

Nonetheless, he said, in a country where the average salary is $ 570 per month – and where many earn considerably less than that – economic resentments should not be ignored. “Kazakhstan is rich, but its natural resources are not working for everyone’s benefit; they work for the benefit of a small group of people.

As the protests unfolded, protesters’ demands broadened to include broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders, rather than the current presidential nomination system.

Much of the anger was directed against the country’s former autocratic ruler, Mr Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for 30 years after independence in 1991. Mr Tokayev became president after elections ridiculed by observers Westerners as imperfect.

After that, Mr. Nazarbayev was officially recognized as the “head of the nation” and the country’s capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. Until now, he was widely regarded as the shadow leader of Kazakhstan despite the official transition of power to Mr Tokayev.

But that looks set to change. On Tuesday, Mr. Tokayev sacked Samat Abish, the nephew of Mr. Nazarbayev, from the post of first deputy head of the country’s national security service, successor to the KGB. And on Wednesday, Mr. Tokayev replaced Mr. Nazarbayev as head of the country’s Security Council.

Speaking of the unrest, Tokayev said the protests were “highly organized” as part of a “carefully thought out plan of conspirators, financially motivated”. He said people had been “killed and injured” and “mobs of bandits beat and mocked soldiers, took them naked to the streets, mistreated women and robbed shops.”

The countries of the former Soviet Union are closely monitoring the protests. For Russia, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country.

Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014 after pro-democracy protests erupted there, and the Kremlin offered its support to Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko as he violently crushed peaceful protests against his autocratic regime in 2020. The Kremlin currently has “peacekeeping” forces stationed in Transnistria and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, as well as supporting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. It also occupies parts of Georgia and Abkhazia.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.


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