Russian troops move to put down violent uprising in Kazakhstan
Central Asian country is experiencing the worst street protests since gaining independence 3 decades ago
Fresh violence erupted in Kazakhstan's main city on Thursday after Russia rushed in paratroopers to put down a countrywide uprising in one of Moscow's closest former Soviet allies.
Security forces killed dozens of protesters and 18 police died during extraordinarily violent demonstrations in Kazakhstan that saw government buildings stormed and set ablaze, authorities said Thursday. Two police officers were found beheaded in escalating unrest that poses a growing challenge to authoritarian rule in the Central Asian nation.
Despite the severe response from authorities, protesters took to the streets again in the country's largest city, Almaty, a day after breaking into the presidential residence and the mayor's office there.
Police were out in force again, including in the capital of Nur-Sultan, which was reportedly quiet, and Russian troops were on their way.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said they were closely monitoring reports that peacekeeping forces of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have been deployed to Kazakhstan to put down the uprising.
The general secretary of CSTO told RIA news agency that the overall peacekeeping force would number about 2,500 and could be strengthened if necessary.
Washington would be watching for any violations of human rights and "any actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions," said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Troops, protesters clash
Thursday evening saw renewed battles in Almaty's main square, occupied alternately by troops and hundreds of protesters throughout much of the day.
Reuters reporters heard explosions and gunfire as military vehicles and scores of soldiers advanced, although the shooting stopped again after nightfall. TASS news agency quoted witnesses as saying people had been killed and wounded in the new gunfire.
It was not possible to determine if any of the Russian troopers were involved in Thursday's unrest.
Earlier, Russia's Sputnik news service reported that shots were fired as police surrounded one group of about 200 protesters in the city.
So far, 2,298 people have been detained, the Interior Ministry said.
In the unrest on Wednesday, "dozens of attackers were liquidated," police spokesperson Saltanat Azirbek told state news channel Khabar-24, using a term common to describe the killing of people thought to be extremists by law enforcement.
Protests expand beyond anger over fuel prices
Tens of thousands of people, some reportedly carrying clubs and shields, have taken to the streets in recent days in the worst protests the country has seen since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago.
Although the demonstrations began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of vehicle fuel, their size and rapid spread suggest wider discontent in a country that has been under the rule of the same party since independence.
The government on Thursday announced a 180-day price cap on vehicle fuel and a moratorium on raising utility rates — an attempt to address the economic issues that catalyzed the protests. It was unclear what, if any, effect the moves would have.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has vacillated between attempts at mollifying the protesters, including accepting the resignation of his government, and promising harsh measures to quell the unrest, which he blamed on "terrorist bands."
Worries that a broader crackdown could be on the horizon grew after Tokayev called on CSTO for help. Severe interruptions to internet and cell phone service also raised concern and made it difficult — sometimes impossible — for news of what was happening inside Kazakhstan to get out.
In other apparent attempts to seal the country off, the airports in Almaty and one other city have been shut.
The operation is the first military action by the alliance — an indication that Kazakhstan's neighbours, particularly Russia, are concerned that the unrest could spread.
Peacekeeping forces deployed
Russia and Kazakhstan share close relations and a 7,600-kilometre border, much of it along open steppes. Russia's manned space-launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is in Kazakhstan.
Russia has already begun sending forces, according to the CSTO, which includes Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But Kyrgyzstan's presidential spokesperson, Erbol Sutanbaev, said his country's contingent must be approved by parliament and said that the troops would not take actions involving demonstrators.
The swift deployment of Russian troops demonstrated the Kremlin's strategy of deploying force to safeguard its influence in the ex-Soviet Union.
Since late 2020, Moscow has shored up the leader of Belarus in the face of a popular uprising, intervened to halt a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and, to the West's alarm, massed forces again near Ukraine, which Russia invaded eight years ago.
U.S., China continue to monitor unrest
The unrest was also causing worry elsewhere.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with his Kazakh counterpart, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, and "reiterated the United States' full support for Kazakhstan's constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis," said Price, the state department spokesperson.
China is also likely to be concerned. Kazakhstan shares a 1,800 kilometre-long border with China's Xinjiang region, where Beijing has launched a campaign to quash separatist sentiment among Muslim minority groups who share cultural, religious and linguistic links with the peoples of Central Asia.
However, at a daily briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin appeared to dismiss any possibility of China becoming involved in the current crisis, in line with Beijing's strict, official non-interventionist policy.
"What is happening in Kazakhstan is the country's internal affair (and) we believe that the Kazakh authorities can solve the issue properly," he said.
Tokayev has imposed a two-week state of emergency for all of Kazakhstan, including an overnight curfew and a ban on religious services. That is a blow to the country's sizeable Orthodox Christian population, who observe Christmas on Friday.
Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and wealthiest, spanning a territory the size of Western Europe and sitting atop colossal reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals.
The country is also the world's second-largest miner of bitcoin, after the United States.
Anger directed at first president
Despite Kazakhstan's natural riches and a solid middle class, financial hardship is widespread, and discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country.
Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party, which holds more than 80 per cent of the seats in parliament.
The protests appear to have no identifiable leader or demands.
Much of the anger displayed in recent days was directed not at Tokayev, but at Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's first president who continued to wield enormous influence after his 2019 resignation.
Protesters shouted "Shal ket!" ("Old man go"), an apparent reference to Nazarbayev, who dominated Kazakhstan's politics and whose rule was marked by a moderate cult of personality.
After the demonstrations spread to Nur-Sultan and Almaty, the government announced its resignation, but Tokayev said the ministers would stay in their roles until a new cabinet is formed, making it uncertain whether the resignations will have significant impact.
At the start of the year, prices for liquified gas fuel roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls as part of efforts to move to a market economy.
With files from Reuters