(ALMATY, Kazakhstan) — Kazakhstan’s president said Monday “constitutional order” has been restored in the country and that his government is in control following assistance from Russian-led troops to quell the mass protests that erupted against his regime last week.
Security forces have been re-establishing the government’s grip across the country since late last week, conducting what it calls an “anti-terrorist operation” to end the unrest. Last week troops used live fire in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, to clear the streets amid the anti-government protests in which authorities say over 160 people were killed.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the large-scale phase of the “anti-terrorist operation” would soon finish as he addressed a virtual summit of the leaders of the Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which last week sent 2,300 troops to Kazakhstan to help him quell the protests.
Tokayev requested the alliance send troops as his government wobbled. But he said the foreign troops’ mission in Kazakhstan would end at the same time as the “anti-terrorist operation.”
“In the near future the large-scale anti-terrorist operation will finish and with it will finish the successful and effective mission of the CSTO contingent,” he told the leaders on the call that included Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Protests began in Kazakhstan last week over a sudden hike in fuel prices but quickly escalated into a major challenge to Kazakhstan’s regime that saw government buildings stormed, including in Almaty where the mayor’s office was set on fire and the airport overrun.
Tokayev claimed the unrest had been an “attempted coup” carried out “under the guise of spontaneous protests” and involving well-trained fighters. Kazakhstan’s interior ministry said nearly 8,000 people have been arrested during the protests.
Units from Russian paratrooper brigades have deployed to Kazakhstan alongside several hundred from other members of the alliance, which consists of ex-Soviet countries including Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but which is dominated by Moscow.
Western countries have expressed concern that the Russian intervention could see Kazakhstan’s independence erode and Russian troops may not leave once the unrest is over.
Putin at the virtual summit dismissed that idea, saying the Russian-led troops would remain in the country for “a limited period” determined by Kazakhstan’s president and that “without question” they would leave once they had completed their tasks.
He said the situation in Kazakhstan was “gradually normalizing” and that in the “near future all of the country will be definitively taken under control and stabilized.”
Putin backed Tokayev’s version that foreign and internal forces had tried to exploit the protests to carry out a violent coup, also claiming that fighters trained in terrorist camps abroad had taken part.
“We understand, of course, that the threat to Kazakhstan’s statehood was brought about in no way by spontaneous protests over fuel prices but by destructive internal and external forces using the situation,” Putin said, adding that protesters and those “who took up weapons” were “completely different people.”
Putin claimed the unrest was caused by “foreign interference” and that the Russian-led alliance had helped prevent a “Color Revolution” in Kazakhstan, a catch-all phrase the Kremlin uses to refer to popular uprisings in former Soviet states that it claims are instigated by Western countries.
Putin has alleged that Ukraine’s 2014 revolution that toppled its Russian-backed president was a Western-backed coup. In 2020 he came to the aid of Belarus’ authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, amid mass peaceful protests against his rule. Lukashenko this week also sent troops to Kazakhstan.
“Of course we understand that the event in Kazakhstan were not the first and not the last attempts at outside interference in our states,” Putin said.
The unrest in Kazakhstan last week remains clouded in uncertainty and there has been growing speculation that an internal power struggle between rival parts of its elite may also have taken place during the chaos of the protests.
The speculation was fueled after Tokayev arrested the former head of Kazakhstan’s security service, Karim Masimov, on suspicion of treason. Masimov was a close ally of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longtime strongman who has dominated the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Nazarbayev, who is 81, sought to manage his succession by handing the presidency to Tokayev in 2019 but retained considerable power as chairman of the national security council and holds the honorary title “Leader of the Nation.” The arrested security service chief, Masimov, was a long-time lieutenant of Nazarbayev and was widely seen as his appointee to keep a check on Tokayev following the transition.
Theories of an internal clash have been spurred by the mysterious absence of Nazarbayev, who has not been seen in public since the protests began, though his press secretary has insisted he is in the country and in contact with Tokayev. There is little evidence so far to prove the theories, although some protesters in Almaty have also said their peaceful demonstrations were overtaken by armed gangs of men who appeared organized and who led the attacks on government buildings.
Almaty on Monday was reported to be quiet again, four days after security services re-took the streets, firing on protesters. The city is under heavy military control, with troops guarding key building and a curfew is in place. There have been signs of some attempts to return normality, as television channels showed crews clear some of the burnt cars and fix buildings ransacked during the unrest. An ABC News reporter in Almaty has said it has been hard to buy food in recent days, with most shops closed and only bread being delivered.
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