MOSCOW – A Russian-led military alliance said late Wednesday that it would send peacekeepers to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the country’s president to help beat a growing protest movement there.
The current chairman of the alliance, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said in a statement that the troops would only be stationed there “for a limited period” until order could be restored.
He did not elaborate on how many soldiers could be mobilized or how long they could stay. Russia is notorious for sending troops under the guise of peacekeeping missions that continue to establish a permanent presence in the host countries.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued the invitation earlier in the evening. Calling the protesters “a bunch of international terrorists”, he said he was turning to Russia’s version of NATO, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to “help Kazakhstan overcome this terrorist threat.”
The uprising began Sunday in western Kazakhstan as a protest against a rise in fuel prices. Four days later, with government buildings, television stations, the airport and several businesses stormed by thousands of anti-government protesters, the uprising has spread to a full-throated attack on an entrenched Kazakh elite who are widely denounced as autocratic and corrupt.
On Thursday, a police spokeswoman said dozens of people had been killed by authorities as they tried to storm government buildings, police headquarters and district police stations, the first widespread death involving protesters since the demonstrations began. The announcement came after previous reports in the local news media that the police had opened fire on protesters in the oil town of Atyrau and killed at least one person.
Footage posted on 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 news media reported, as did the former presidential residence.
News services reported renewed clashes between protesters and police, who used stun grenades and tear gas to quell the crowd. Protesters also set fire to the prosecutor’s office in Almaty before heading for the president’s residence.
Almaty police said protesters burned 120 cars, including 33 police cars, and damaged about 400 businesses, and that more than 200 had been detained. The country’s interior ministry said eight members of law enforcement had died in the clashes.
The protests began peacefully Sunday in the oil city of Zhanaozen after the government doubled the price of liquefied gas – used to burn vehicles in Kazakhstan – to about 100 tenge or 22 cents per liter. When the government announced on Tuesday that it would lift price increases, the protests had spread across the country with broader demands for increased political representation and improved social benefits.
Apparently unhappy with an announcement early Wednesday that the entire government would be fired and that new parliamentary elections were possible, protesters took control of the country’s main airport.
The protests resonated across the continent to Moscow, where President Vladimir V. Putin was forced to witness another uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-oriented nation, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020.
The protests represent a warning signal to the Kremlin, said Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Central Asia in Moscow, describing the government of Kazakhstan as “a reduced copy of the Russian.”
He added: “There is no doubt that the Kremlin does not want to see an example of such a regime starting to talk to the opposition and complying with their demands.”
The timing is particularly awkward for Mr Putin, who hopes to use three meetings next week with Western delegations to renegotiate post-Cold War international security agreements on Ukraine and what Russia sees as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The uprising also seemed to mark a crucial break with Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime, who resigned as president in 2019 but had still held hands in the country’s affairs.
Video footage showed protesters toppling a statue of Mr. Nazarbayev in the capital of the Almaty region, Taldykorgan, with people shouting “shal ket”, Kazakh for “Old man, go!” He has played no part in the fight against the protests and leaves it to his hand-picked successor, Mr. Tokayev.
While initially conciliatory, the government has taken an increasingly harsh line towards the protesters and imposed a strict state of emergency across the country.
Mr. Tokayev said Wednesday that he would take on all formal handles of power and promised to “act with maximum toughness.” Kazakhtelecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, shut down Internet access nationwide 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 more than $ 35 billion in reserves, but it was still possible for the country to develop into chaos in a matter of days.
The instability is a potential source of concern among foreign oil companies, especially in the US. 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 expand production on the Tengiz onshore oil field at an estimated cost of $ 37 billion, one of the largest single energy investments in the world today.
Many Kazakhs were outraged by the rise in gas prices because their country not only receives tens of billions of billions in energy investments, but also an exporter of oil and gas. The rise in prices added to the economic misery of a country where the coronavirus pandemic has helped underscore serious income inequality.
Mukhtar Umbetov, a rights activist who took part in protests in Aktau, said that although the unrest may have been triggered by economic complaints and the pandemic, the root cause was the absence of democratic processes. The Kazakh government, he said, “has removed all legal ways of engaging in politics.”
He spoke by telephone from Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, saying that “people have no political intermediaries who will solve problems that exist in the country.”
Nevertheless, he said, in a country where the average wage is $ 570 a month – and where many earn significantly less than that – economic anger should not be ruled out. “Kazakhstan is rich, but its natural resources do not work in everyone’s interest; they work in the interests of a small group of people. ”
As the protests have developed, the demands of the protesters have expanded to include broader political liberalization. Among the changes they are seeking is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders rather than the current system of presidential appointments.
Much of the anger has been directed at the country’s autocratic former ruler, Mr. Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for 30 years after independence in 1991. Mr. Tokayev became president after elections mocked by Western observers as flawed.
Thereafter, Mr. Nazarbayev was formally recognized as the “leader of the nation”, and the country’s capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. Until now, he had been considered Kazakhstan’s shadow leader despite the formal transfer of power to Mr. Tokayev.
But that seems to be changing. On Tuesday, Mr. Tokayev Samat Abish, Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, from the post of first deputy head of the country’s national security service, a successor to the KGB. And on Wednesday, Mr. Mr. Tokayev Nazarbayev as head of the country’s Security Council.
Speaking of the unrest, Mr. Tokayev that the protests were “highly organized” as part of a “carefully thought-out plan by conspirators who were financially motivated.” He said people had been “killed and wounded” and that “crowds of bandit elements beat and taunted soldiers, took them naked through the streets, abused women and robbed shops.”
The countries of the former Soviet Union are following the protests closely. For Russia, the events represent yet another possible challenge to the autocratic power of a neighboring country.
Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014 after pro-democracy protests broke out there, and the Kremlin offered support to Belarusian dictator Alexander G. Lukashenko as he violently crushed peaceful protests against his autocratic regime in 2020. The Kremlin currently has “peacekeepers” “forces stationed. in Transnistria and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 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.