Kazakhstan uprising quashed, Russian troops set to head home

Dozens reportedly dead amid Kazakhstan unrest

Moscow — Russian-led forces will start withdrawing from Kazakhstan this week after helping to quash protests that were sparked by gas price rises, but quickly escalated into riots as thousands demanded real change in the authoritarian-ruled former Soviet Republic. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who sacked his entire cabinet and requested the intervention by his country’s allies as the protests spiraled out of control, said the foreign forces that came to his rescue would soon pull out.

Kazakh officials have detained nearly 10,000 people in their crackdown on the protesters, who engulfed the country for several days last week. 

Several thousand demonstrators had to seek medical help, health officials said. Dozens were likely killed, though it remained unclear on Tuesday how high the toll really is as Kazakhstan’s authorities shut down the internet and there has been little reliable information available on casualties.

The situation appeared calm this week and officials have been reopening the country, restoring air and rail connections and turning the internet back on for several hours per day.

What started as demonstrations against a spike in fuel prices quickly became a nationwide anti-government uprising, with people demanding open, democratic local elections and a change in power after decades of rule by the same few men.

The violence on the streets last week was at least partly due to a rift between two political powers: backers of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for decades following the country’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union until just several years ago, and the government of his handpicked successor, current President Tokayev.

Until recently, Tokayev had been seen as a weaker leader, but with the help of a Russian-led regional alliance, he appears to have emerged as a winner.

Nazarbayev has been absent from the public eye since the end of 2021. His press secretary said in a tweet last week that he was still in the Kazakh capital, but there has been no sign of him.

The Kremlin on Tuesday deflected a question about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had been in contact with Nazarbayev, his longtime ally.

In a rare move, Tokayev publicly slammed his predecessor and mentor by accusing Nazarbayev of creating “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards,” over the course of his rule.

Kazakhstan’s acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, and former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands in front of supporters in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2019.
Alexei Filippov/AP

“The time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis,” Tokayev said, vowing to force “very profitable companies” to share their profits by financing a state fund.

The wanton corruption that took root under Nazarbayev was one of the main grievances voiced by the protesters last week, who lamented seeing their own incomes decline while the first president and his family, who control key energy assets in Central Asia, got richer.

Tokayev appeared to solidify his position by quickly appointing a new government, which was expected to gather for its first formal meeting on Wednesday.

The president managed to make good on his vow of late last week to quickly quel the unrest in the streets by requesting that the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) send in forces to back up his own. The mostly-Russian forces came on a “peacekeeping” mission to help law enforcement “restore order,” he said.

A woman walks past a Russian CSTO peacekeeper on the a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 11, 2022.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty

On Tuesday, Tokayev said “a phased withdrawal” of the foreign forces would begin in the next two days and be completed in “no more than 10 days.”

“The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed,” he said.

U.S. and European officials expressed concern that Moscow could use the operation to expand its influence in Kazakhstan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

At the very least, Russian officials have used this opportunity to praise the Moscow-led CSTO alliance as a viable counterweight to NATO, as Russia and its allies hope to curb the Western military alliance’s eastward expansion. Russia sits firmly at the helm of the CSTO, which also includes former Soviet Republics Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“These events [in Kazakhstan] could be viewed as a new developmental stage for the CSTO,” Russia’s speaker of the parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said in a message posted on the Telegram app. “The organization has proven capable of effectively solving complex tasks.” 

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