Russian paratroopers have flown into Kazakhstan as part of a Kremlin-led ex-Soviet military alliance to help quash an uprising by armed protesters who have torched Kazakh government buildings and chased the police off the streets.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation said it had deployed peacekeeping troops to Kazakhstan after local security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest since the fall of the Soviet Union thirty years ago.
Airborne troops from Russia, as well as contingents from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, will take part in the operation.
Overnight, Kazakh special forces also deployed into central Almaty, the leafy crucible of middle-class life in Kazakhstan, fighting gun battles with the protesters.
“Dozens have been liquidated. The identities are being established”, Saltanat Azirbek, an Almaty police spokesperson, told media.
Photos from Almaty showed Kazakh soldiers wearing balaclavas and full combat kit patrolling through the empty streets of Kazakhstan’s normally bustling commercial hub.
Troops are seen at the main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government, after authorities’ decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas Credit: Reuters
There have been days of protests over rising fuel prices in energy-rich Kazakhstan. Police said dozens of people were killed in battles with security forces at government buildings in the country’s largest city, Almaty.
“Last night, extremist forces tried to assault administrative buildings, the Almaty city police department, as well as local police commissariats. Dozens of assailants were eliminated,” police spokesman Saltanat Azirbek was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Kazakhstan, Tass and Ria Novosti news agencies.
Videos on social media on Thursday showed pillaged shops and burned buildings in Almaty, automatic gunfire in the streets and residents screaming in fear.
#Kazakhstan Armed security forces are in Almaty. There are also armoured personnel carriers, armoured vehicles, and military trucks. Local police reported that dozens of protesters had been killed. pic.twitter.com/h1vzkKdmjV
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) January 6, 2022
Anti-government protests, which started in West Kazakhstan after a spike in fuel prices, have rocked the country this week, forcing the resignation of the government and the unloved elite to flee.
The growing unrest is presenting a major challenge to the authoritarian regime of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and has raised international concern, especially with key ally Moscow.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president for 28 years, quit as head of the Kazakh Security Council and was reportedly preparing to leave the country.
President Tokayev, Mr Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, has vowed to remain.
On Wednesday, he asked the CSTO, which is led by the Kremlin, to intervene against what he called “terrorist groups” that had “received extensive training abroad”.
The CSTO has previously declined to intervene in domestic unrest and its agreement to send forces to Kazakhstan shows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nervousness over the near-collapse of what had been considered to be one of his strongest allies.
Now Russian media has reported that Russian paratroopers have flown into Almaty with other soldiers from other former Soviet states.
Announcing the deployment, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s Prime Minister and the current chairman of the CSTO, said that the alliance will send “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan ” for a limited period of time in order to stabilise and normalise the situation”.
Later, in Moscow, Leonid Kalashnikov, the chairman of the Russian Duma’s Committee on CIS Affairs, said that CSTO forces will focus on guarding strategic assets.
“The CSTO will basically only ensure the safety of facilities, infrastructure, and so on,” he was quoted as saying.
Analysts have said that although a fuel price spike in West Kazakhstan sparked the initial anti-government protests, they spread quickly because of deep-rooted frustration at a lack of political rights, a stagnating economy and elite corruption
Security forces arriving en masse Credit: Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images
The protests had spread across the nation of 19million this week in outrage over a New Year increase in prices for liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is widely used to fuel cars in the west of the country.
Thousands took to the streets in Almaty and in the western province of Mangystau, saying the price rise was unfair given Kazakhstan’s vast energy reserves.
Protesters were reported to have stormed several government buildings on Wednesday, including the Almaty mayor’s office and the presidential residence, with both said to be on fire.
Protesters broke into the Almaty mayor’s office and set it on fire Credit: Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images
As of late Wednesday, at least eight law enforcement officers had been killed and 317 wounded in the violence, according to the interior ministry quoted by local media.
The full picture of the chaos was unclear, with widespread disruptions to communications including mobile phone signals, the blocking of online messengers and hours-long internet shutdowns.
The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Mr Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favour of Mr Tokayev.
Mr Tokayev tried to head off further unrest by announcing the resignation of the government headed by Prime Minister Askar Mamin early on Wednesday, but the protests continued.
He also announced he was taking over from Mr Nazarbayev as head of the powerful security council, a surprise move given the ex-president’s continued influence.
State of emergency extended nationwide
With protests escalating, the government said late on Wednesday that a state of emergency declared in protest-hit areas would be extended nationwide and be in effect until Jan 19. It imposes an overnight curfew, restricts movements and bans mass gatherings.
Much of the anger appeared directed at Mr Nazarbayev, who is 81 and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 before handing power to Mr Tokayev.
Many protesters shouted “Old Man Out!” in reference to Mr Nazarbayev and images posted on social media showed a statue of the ex-president being torn down.
A statue of Kazakhstan’s first president and until recent head of the Security Council Nursultan Nazarbayev after it is torn down in Almaty Credit: Bakhti Nishanov
The EU and the UN called for “restraint” on all sides, while Washington urged authorities to allow protesters to “express themselves peacefully”.
Kazakhstan’s government tolerates little real opposition and has been accused of silencing independent voices.
Spontaneous, unsanctioned protests are illegal despite a 2020 law that eased some restrictions on freedom of assembly.