Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

New violence erupted in Kazakhstan’s largest city on Thursday as Russia rushed paratroopers to stem a nationwide uprising in one of Moscow’s closest former Soviet allies.

Police in the capital Almaty said they had killed dozens of protesters. Authorities said at least 18 members of the security forces were killed, including two who were decapitated. More than 2,000 people were arrested.

Burnt-out vehicles lay in Almaty’s streets, several government buildings were in ruins and bullet casings were strewn across the grounds of the presidential residence, which was stormed and looted by protesters on Wednesday.

“I did not know our people could be so frightening,” Samal, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher, told the AFP news agency near the residence.

Military personnel regained control of the main airport, which had previously been seized by protesters. On Thursday night, renewed battles took place in Almaty’s main square, alternately occupied by troops and hundreds of protesters for most of the day.

The Russian deployment was a gamble by the Kremlin that rapid military force could secure its interests in the oil and uranium-producing Central Asian nation by quickly halting the worst violence in Kazakhstan’s 30 years of independence.

Reuters journalists reported that they heard explosions and gunfire as military vehicles and dozens of soldiers marched in Almaty, although the shooting stopped again after nightfall.

Local media reports say security forces have removed protesters from Central Square and other important government buildings, but there have also been reports of gunfire elsewhere in the city.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4M4SBjBxCcA

The internet has been shut down across the country, making it impossible to gauge the extent of the unrest. But the violence was unprecedented in a state ruled since Soviet times by leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who held on to the reins despite stepping down as president three years ago.

‘Counter-terrorist operation’

Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called in the Russian forces overnight as part of a Moscow-led military alliance of former Soviet states, to combat what he called foreign-trained “terrorist groups.”

Moscow has said it will consult with Kazakhstan and allies on steps to support the Kazakh “counter-terrorist operation” and reiterated Tokayev’s claim that the uprising was foreign-inspired. Neither Kazakhstan nor Russia has provided evidence to support the claim.

Moscow did not disclose how many troops it was sending or what role they were playing, and it was not possible to determine to what extent Russians may have been involved in Thursday’s unrest.

The uprising, which began as protests against a fuel price increase on New Year’s Day, escalated on Wednesday when protesters, who sang slogans against Nazarbayev, stormed and set fire to public buildings in Almaty and other cities.

Tokayev initially responded by dismissing his cabinet, reversing the rise in fuel prices and distancing himself from his predecessor, including by taking over a powerful security post that Nazarbayev retained.

But those moves did not succeed in mitigating crowds accusing Nazarbayev’s family and allies of amassing great wealth while the nation of 19 million remained poor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9HxakoG5nk

Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency in 2019 as the last Soviet-era Communist Party boss still ruling a former Soviet state. But he and his family retained positions overseeing security forces and the political apparatus in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital that bears his name. He has not been seen or heard from since the unrest began.

Many protesters shouted “Old man, out!” with reference to Nazarbayev and several witnesses confirmed to AFP that a statue of the former leader in the southern city of Taldykorgan was demolished.

‘Foreigners came in’

The rapid arrival of Russian troops undermined the Kremlin’s willingness to to protect its influence in the former Soviet Union by force.

Since late 2020, Moscow has supported the leader of Belarus against a popular uprising, intervened to stop a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and to the West’s alarm, regrouped troops near Ukraine, which invaded Russia eight years ago .

Deployment in Kazakhstan poses a risk: by exposing the Kazakh authorities as dependent on Russian muscle, Moscow could further incite the protesters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k8OhHJchmM

It is difficult to say how broad support for protests can be in a country with little organized opposition, especially if protesters are blamed for violence.

“Thank God, the army has finally arrived,” Ali, a manager at Holiday Inn Hotel near Almaty’s main square, told Reuters by telephone. “Blinders came in last night and smashed car windows near us.”

The West has so far mainly limited its response to calls for calm. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Kazakh counterpart “And advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting solution to the crisis,” spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday.

EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Thursday that Russia’s military intervention brings “memories of situations to be avoided”.

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