MOSCOW – Russia has sent paratroopers to help the leader of Kazakhstan quell a wave of protests, as Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the West, faces the United States and its allies over the future of another former Soviet republic, Ukraine.
Dozens were killed in clashes between protesters and Kazakh security forces in the early hours of Thursday morning, including 18 law enforcement officers, according to Russian state media. Initially triggered by a sharp increase in fuel prices at the start of the year, the protests quickly escalated into a broader outpouring of frustration with the resource-rich country’s authoritarian leaders. Protesters accuse them of squandering their wealth, echoing the uprisings that ousted a follower of Mr Putin in Ukraine in 2014 and a wave of protests against the pro-Kremlin Belarus leader in 2020.
More than 2,000 people were arrested when President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attempted to retake Almaty, the country’s largest city, calling on a Moscow-led security coalition to help quell what he called a terrorist insurgency, a common accusation made by Hezbollah. Leaders of the former Soviet countries.
Putin deployed paratroopers to Kazakhstan on Thursday, where they began work, according to the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. The CSTO said forces from members Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will join them for a limited period to stabilize the situation.
It was the first time troops from the bloc had been deployed in this way, underscoring the importance Mr Putin places on maintaining stability along the southern fringes of the old Soviet Union as he tries to reverse what he says is the West’s encroachment on traditional Russia. influence in Ukraine.
The Russian leader has amassed tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, which seeks closer ties with the West. Mr. Putin has demanded that the United States and its NATO allies abandon any attempt to expand eastward toward Russia’s borders, in what is turning into a major security challenge for the Biden administration. Moscow and Washington agreed to hold talks on the issue next week.
Speaking with his Kazakh counterpart on Thursday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated a peaceful, rights-respecting solution to the crisis,” according to a State Department spokesperson. .
The night before, authorities ordered people to stay at home in Almaty as security forces moved to regain control after a day of violent unrest. In a video clip shown by Russian state news agencies on Thursday, dozens of soldiers fired bursts of automatic rifles. It was not immediately possible to determine what they had shot. Videos on social media showed violent clashes between protesters and riot police. Locals said the internet was cut off, public transportation was down, and the streets were largely empty as residents stayed home.
“Injustice is the root cause,” Valery Mikhailov, writer and former editor of the Russian literary magazine Prostor, said, speaking by phone from his home in the city. “There is despair among the young people who can’t get an education, they can’t get a profession, they can’t get a normal job and they can’t live for themselves. They have no prospects, but they see the elite getting richer. It’s social discontent.”
The United States once hoped to promote democracy in Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan. But its influence waned and Chinese participation grew, particularly through economic investments, which increased the importance of oil and other resources, such as uranium, some of which saw production disruptions as the unrest spread.
American oil giant Chevron corp.
, which owns 50% in the joint venture that operates the giant Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan, said on Thursday it had cut production due to logistical issues after protests erupted at the facility.
“Production operations are continuing, but there has been a temporary production adjustment due to logistics,” a Chevron spokeswoman said. She added, “A number of contractor employees gathered in Tengiz Square to support the protests taking place across Kazakhstan.”
The worst violence came when demonstrators stormed the administrative buildings and the police headquarters in Almaty. The Russian state news agency TASS reported that dozens of people were killed in the clashes.
“They have been eliminated and their identities are being verified,” Sultana Azerbek, a spokeswoman for the city’s police department, told Kazakhstan television, according to TASS.
TASS, citing the Kazakh authorities, also reported that law enforcement officers were killed and more than 700 were wounded. The Russian Interfax news agency, citing Kazakhstan’s state media, reported that one of the officers had been beheaded.
Almaty residents described chaotic scenes in recent days, with the melting of state power.
“There are gangs of armed young men roaming,” said Mikhailov, a resident of Almaty. “In the city center, shops, clubs and restaurants were looted. Many cars were burned. The Internet does not work. The transport does not work. People will not go to work. It is better not to go out into the street.”
Although the sharp rise in fuel prices was the cause of the protests in Kazakhstan, they quickly swelled amid public discontent with the regime that has seized power since the fall of the Soviet Union. The demonstrations targeted the country’s economic problems and authoritarian political system, which allows for little opposition.
Economic protests in recent years have taken on a more political tone after former President Nursultan Nazarbayev left office in 2019 after nearly three decades as a leader. He appointed Mr. Tokayev, the former Prime Minister and Speaker of the Senate, as his successor, while retaining his influence as President of the Security Council.
Tokayev renamed the country’s capital, Nursultan, after Mr. Nazarbayev and appointed the former president’s daughter to the post of powerful senate speaker. Opposition parties remained largely excluded from political life, and protests were frequently banned and activist leaders arrested.
Kazakhstan’s government has repeatedly promised to tackle high-level corruption, as well as improve the sharing of the country’s natural resource wealth and reform its authoritarian political system. Nothing happened. Repeated promises of mass privatization of state assets, which the West touted as signs of reform, have failed.
On Thursday, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the attacks on government buildings at the height of the protests as evidence of a high level of coordination and planning, noting how the protesters briefly seized the airport and disrupted flights. She added that it proved that the country “faced an armed incursion by terrorist groups trained abroad.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry agreed, describing the protests as “an attempt from abroad to undermine the security and safety of the state by force using trained and organized armed formations.” She said Russia will continue to consult with Kazakhstan and other allies on how to assist Kazakh security forces in combating the alleged threat.
Rakim Ushakbayev, director of TALAP, a non-governmental think tank in Nur-Sultan, said troops from CSTO countries will provide logistics and support to the Kazakh Armed Forces as well as separate units aimed at guarding the country’s strategic infrastructure. Their presence can also provide moral support to the Kazakh security forces in the defense of the government.
“The main task is to stabilize the situation as much as possible,” said Mr. Ushakbayev. “In Almaty there is no police or army… It seems that the army is not working and there is no law enforcement.”
– Thomas Grove and Georgie Kanchev contributed to this article.
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