Thousands of Russian troops descend on Kazakhstan after deadly uprising

  • Protesters clash with law enforcement officers during a protest triggered by fuel price increases in Aktobe, Kazakhstan.KAZAKHSTANS MINISTRY OF INTERIOR / Reuters

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In scenes reminiscent of the crushing of Prague’s spring five decades ago, thousands of Russian troops were deployed in neighboring Kazakhstan on Thursday to help support the country’s faltering authoritarian regime.

Dozens of anti-government protesters, as well as at least 18 security officers, were killed in another day of violent clashes in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic that is the largest state in Central Asia. Videos posted on social media showed smoke rising above the center of Almaty, the country’s largest city, amid the sound of automatic gunfire that did not stop for minutes at a time.

What is behind the unrest in the oil-rich Kazakhstan?

It was not immediately clear whether the newly arrived Russian forces – formally described as “peacekeepers” – were involved in the violence. Their presence was expected to stabilize a kleptocratic and oppressive regime that appeared to be on the verge of collapse on Wednesday after protesters overtook Almaty’s town hall and main airport.

It was the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact Alliance that sent troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to bring an end to a period of liberalization and mass protests in the then communist state. Thursday’s military intervention, which followed several days of swell demonstrations, was carried out under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, a modern made-in-Moscow group that brings together six former republics of the USSR.

Russia intervened across the southern border with Kazakhstan, as about 100,000 troops are still gathered along the country’s western border with Ukraine, another former Soviet state that Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to withdraw from Moscow’s orbit.

According to Russian media, about 3,000 Russian paratroopers – supported by 500 troops from Belarus and smaller units from Tajikistan and Armenia – had either arrived in or were on their way to Kazakhstan. The deployment came after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the alliance to intervene and save his country from what he called a foreign-funded “terrorist threat”. (It was not clear if Kyrgyzstan, the sixth member of the CSTO, had sent any soldiers.)

What Mr Tokayev was actually threatened with was widespread unrest that began this week as residents of the western city of Zhanaozen blocked roads to protest rising gas prices. Copycat demonstrations quickly broke out in cities and towns across the country. The indignation did not subside, even after Mr. Tokayev rejected his cabinet and ordered gas prices lowered.

The uprising in Kazakhstan reminds world leaders of costly fuel subsidy dilemma

On Thursday, the government declared a two-week state of emergency. Erica Marat, an expert in Central Asia at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, said that Mr. Tokayev’s regime revealed its weakness by summoning the CSTO. “Kazakhstan has turned its domestic problem into a geopolitical issue. The authorities have shown that they are afraid of the crowds,” said Prof. Marat.

On Wednesday, Mr Tokayev also announced that he had accepted the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the chairman of the country’s Security Council, who had previously ruled the country as president from 1991 to 2019. Mr. Nazarbayev, a close ally of Mr Putin, had retained great influence even after leaving the presidency. The 81-year-old was given the official title of “father of the nation” and his family controls much of the economy.

Although Mr Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard from since the protests began, he has been the focal point of the protesters’ anger. At least one statue of Mr. Nazarbayev was toppled, chanting about “old man, go away!” have been common at demonstrations.

The scenes would probably have been uncomfortable to watch for Mr. Putin. The longtime Kremlin boss refers to the popular uprising in Ukraine in 2014 as a Western-backed coup, to which he responded by sending troops to conquer and annex the strategic Crimean peninsula. Moscow has also supported a militia fighting the Ukrainian army in the Donbas region of the country since 2014, an area that – like parts of northern Kazakhstan – is largely populated by ethnic Russians.

Although the CSTO was founded in 1994, three years after the fall of the USSR, Thursday marked the first time a member had activated the alliance’s mutual defense clause.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based foreign policy specialist, said the CSTO’s intervention was a “very, very important change” that increased Russia’s leverage in Kazakhstan, while strengthening the Kremlin’s hand ahead of high-stakes talks on Ukraine. Russian and US negotiators are due to meet on Monday in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Russia’s military build-up and the overall security situation in Europe. Separate talks between Russian and NATO officials are expected to take place two days later at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

“From a Russian point of view, this is [intervention in Kazakhstan] is a necessity to stop the erosion of a state authority, which for many reasons is important for Russian interests, “said Lukyanov. “From the point of view of negotiating positions, Russia recalled [the West] that Russia can make very strong and very fast military policy decisions in neighboring countries. “

The Kremlin has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO, as well as a withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, which Mr Putin considers Russia’s sphere of influence ‘. Western leaders have responded to the demands with disbelief, and have received warnings from Russian officials that the country could use force if it failed to achieve its goals through negotiations.

But experts warn that Mr Putin can only do so much with military force. Prof. Marat said the arrival of foreign troops would be unpopular among the Kazakhs, especially as the Kremlin sided with a hated regime. “The regime is done; it is not legitimate anymore. “Foreign troops may be able to prolong its collapse, but they will not be able to resolve any of the domestic political issues.”

New violence erupted in Kazakhstan’s capital on Thursday after Russia rushed in with paratroopers during the night to crack down on a nationwide uprising in the former Soviet state, which is closely allied with Moscow. Lucy Fielder reports.


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