Dozens Reported Dead in Kazakhstan, as Russian Alliance Sends Troops
A revolt sparked by anger over a surge in fuel prices is convulsing the Central Asian nation on Russia’s doorstep. As protests turned deadly, troops from a Russian-led military alliance began arriving in the country.,
A revolt sparked by anger over a surge in fuel prices is convulsing the Central Asian nation on Russia’s doorstep. As protests turned deadly, troops from a Russian-led military alliance began arriving in the country.
MOSCOW — A Russia-led military alliance began deploying paratroopers in Kazakhstan on Thursday to restore order after a night of protests in the Central Asian country turned violent, with the police reporting that dozens of antigovernment demonstrators had been killed and hundreds injured.
The foreign soldiers were dispatched after the city hall in Almaty, the country’s largest city, was set ablaze, and the airport was overrun by an angry mob. The police opened fire on the demonstrators, some of them armed, but also accused them of killing 13 officers and leaving 353 injured.
The reports of deaths could not immediately be independently confirmed.
The effort to quell the unrest, described as a temporary peacekeeping mission by the military alliance, will be limited in time and will aim at protecting government buildings and military objects, the group said in a statement.
This is the first time in the history of the alliance, which is Russia’s version of NATO, that its protection clause has been invoked. The statement did not specify how many soldiers would be mobilized, though Armenia, which chairs its rotating presidency, deployed 70 soldiers.
Some troops have already started operating in Kazakhstan, the statement said, and Russian state-run outlets posted videos of Russian troops boarding military aircraft and others driving to Kazakhstan in armored vehicles.
Saltanat Azirbek, a police spokeswoman in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, said that dozens of people had been “eliminated” by the authorities when they tried to storm government buildings, police headquarters and district police offices, the first widespread fatalities since the protests started. Her statement did not elaborate. And according to earlier reports in the local news media, the police opened fire on demonstrators in the oil city of Atyrau, killing at least one person.
The authorities reported that in addition to those who had been killed, about a thousand people had been injured and up to 400 had been hospitalized. Two of the members of the security staff that were killed had been beheaded, Almaty’s commandant’s office said in a statement carried by Khabar-24, Kazakhstan’s state news channel. The protesters also surrounded two hospitals in the city, the statement said.
The police warned people living near main government buildings to stay at home.
The announcement of the military deployment came after a night of violent protests swept Kazakhstan’s cities, including Almaty, where some protesters came with firearms and started looting shops and malls, according to video footage posted from the scene. They set government buildings on fire, including the city hall and the old office of the country’s president. They also captured the airport.
The revolt began on Sunday in western Kazakhstan as a protest against a surge in fuel prices. Even though the government said it would rescind the price increase, the protests widened, spreading across the country, with broader demands for increased political representation and improved social benefits.
The Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, issued a statement late Wednesday night calling the protesters “a band of terrorists” who had been trained abroad. He declared Kazakhstan to be under attack and asked for intervention from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to which his country belongs.
The group is effectively led by Russia and also includes former Soviet countries in Russia’s sphere of influence: Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The protests have paralyzed the nation of 19 million. Kazakhstan’s schools have extended their winter break by a week and all commercial banks have been ordered closed. Access to the telephone and internet has also been shut off sporadically. Flights in and out of airports in the cities of Almaty, Aktau and Aktobe have been suspended.
The scale of protests caught most Central Asian observers off guard: Kazakhstan has long been regarded one of the most successful post-Soviet states. It has by far the highest G.D.P. per capita in the region and plenty of reserves, driven by billions in profits derived from its oil-rich western region.
Most of this wealth, however, has not been equally distributed, with the elites living lavishly while many others survive on meager salaries and are left to complain in vain about widespread government corruption.
According to Vladislav Inozemtsev, an analyst of post-Soviet affairs and special adviser to Russian Media Studies Project, the situation in Kazakhstan is a warning for the Kremlin: Under a surface appearance of stability, a pool of discontent might be brewing that could explode at any moment.
“In Russia, the government must realize that 10 years without economic growth cannot make the population happy,” said Mr. Inozemtsev. “No geopolitical adventures can rescue it if the Kremlin doesn’t offer a mechanism that would increase the standards of living.”
Another lesson of this week’s protests, Mr. Inozemtsev said, was that succession creates turbulence in authoritarian systems. In 2019, Mr. Tokayev formally succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime president. But Mr. Nazarbayev continued to wield power.
Mr. Nazarbayev handpicked Mr. Tokayev, whose first order of business was to rename the country’s capital in his predecessor’s honor. However, the new arrangement left the country’s bureaucracy disoriented.
On Wednesday, Mr. Tokayev appeared to be trying to use the unrest to consolidate power. He dismissed Mr. Nazarbayev from his post as chairman of the country’s Security Council, and also removed Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew as deputy head of the main security service.
Central Asian governments have cracked down on previous popular uprisings with unflinching brutality in episodes that carry geopolitical consequences more than a decade later. In Uzbekistan in 2005, security forces opened fire on crowds in the city of Andijan.
In that incident, an Islamic opposition group called Akramia — named for its founder Akram Yuldashev — seized government buildings and released detainees from a prison.
Soldiers surrounded a group protesting on a city square, then opened fire. The final toll is disputed. The president of Uzbekistan at the time, Islam Karimov, acknowledged 187 deaths. Human rights groups put the toll at around 750. Mr. Karimov retained power after the uprising.
But the violence steered Uzbekistan more firmly into Russia’s orbit, as Russia largely backed Mr. Karimov while the United States criticized the shootings. In the wake of the American criticism, Mr. Karimov expelled the U.S. military from a logistics base in the country supporting the war effort in Afghanistan.
In another mass shooting in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, protests that began in a regional city spread quickly to the capital, Bishkek. A crowd gathered outside the presidential office. The police opened fire but failed to control protesters who climbed over a security fence. The president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the capital and within days was deposed. The new government estimated the death toll at 88 protesters.
In that instance, the shootings tainted the United States’ standing in Kyrgyzstan; Washington was seen as supportive of Mr. Bakiyev despite troubling signs of corruption because his government provided access to an airfield and base used by the U.S. military to fly troops into Afghanistan.