Dozens of anti-government protesters were killed by security forces and hundreds wounded, authorities said Thursday, after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced an “anti-terrorist operation” to put down the nationwide demonstrations, which he blamed on unspecified outside forces. He imposed a state of emergency and internet access was cut in much of the country.
Troops in the largest city, Almaty, opened fired during an operation to clear the main Republic Square, with unconfirmed reports of fatalities, the Tass news service reported late Thursday. Security services regained control of all government buildings in the city including the local administration building and the presidential residence, the Interfax news service reported, citing Khabar 24 TV.
Tokayev had promised to act “harshly” to quell the biggest challenge to Kazakhstan’s authorities since it gained independence in 1991. He took the unprecedented step of appealing to Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to send military forces to Kazakhstan after thousands of protesters took to the streets, seizing government buildings during clashes with security services. The Interior Ministry reported 18 officers died and 748 have been injured.
The protests sparked by anger at fuel-price rises quickly gathered momentum amid popular discontent over falling living standards and widespread corruption in the oil- and mineral-rich nation.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the government to seek a “peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis” after a phone call Thursday with his Kazakh counterpart, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the State Department said in a statement.
The dramatic intervention by the Kremlin-led CSTO military bloc to deploy what they called “peacekeeping forces” followed reports of Kazakh security forces surrendering to demonstrators. The alliance dominated by Russia also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered solidarity to Tokayev in a phone call Thursday and underlined the support of other members of the Organization of Turkic States, including Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, according to a statement from his office.
Prices for uranium surged amid the unrest in the world’s largest supplier of the nuclear fuel, though Kazakhstan’s top miner, Kazatomprom, said it will meet all delivery deadlines. Kazakh bonds and the tenge slipped. There was no sign of disruption to oil output, the country’s biggest export.
Kazakhstan Turmoil Spurs Milestone Declines for Bonds, Stocks
Kazakhstan’s central bank suspended operations of the nation’s banks and the stock exchange, according to spokesman Olzhas Ramazanov. For now, the halt is planned only for Thursday, he said. Tokayev ordered price controls on key fuels and banned exports of some farm products for 180 days to stem inflation, Interfax reported.
With communications disrupted, it was difficult to get a clear picture of how successful and extensive the authorities’ crackdown is in attempting to restore order.
Neither the CSTO nor Tokayev’s government indicated what outside forces they blamed for the protests, which appeared to have started spontaneously.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday the unrest was “an attempt inspired from outside to violently undermine the security and integrity of the state with the use of organized and trained armed units.” A senior legislator blamed terrorist groups from Afghanistan and the Middle East, without offering any evidence.
The action marks the second major move by the Kremlin in as many years to shore up an ally facing upheaval. In 2020, President Vladimir Putin stepped into back Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on popular protests, which drew sanctions from the U.S. and its allies. The Russian leader now is involved in high-stakes negotiations with the U.S. and Europe over a simmering conflict regarding Ukraine.
Russia expects the Kazakh deployment to end quickly, according to a senior legislator.
“I think it will end in a few weeks, not months,” Leonid Kalashnikov, chairman of the committee in the State Duma responsible for relations with other ex-Soviet states, said in a telephone interview. “This mission will in large part determine the fate of the CSTO,” he said.
The Kremlin has regularly condemned street protests in former Soviet states, labeling them attempts by the West to use “color revolutions” to overthrow governments. But the Kazakh deployment is the first time the bloc has sent forces to help put down unrest.
The protests included calls for longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to give up the reins of power. Nazarbayev, 81, turned over the presidency to Tokayev in 2019 but retained substantial influence in the country’s repressive political system. He hasn’t been seen in public since the crisis erupted.
Tokayev had accepted his government’s resignation and removed several top security officials Wednesday in an attempt to appease the protesters. He also said he was taking over as head of the Security Council from Nazarbayev and pledged to stay in the capital “whatever happens.”
Like other countries, Kazakhstan has seen inflation soar and its wealth gap widen during the coronavirus pandemic. Consumer price growth jumped to 8.7% in November, exceeding the central bank’s target.
The country of 19 million people has struggled with price growth and domestic fuel supplies as the global energy crunch made exports more appealing. Kazakhstan produced roughly 1.9 million barrels a day of oil in December.
–With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov, Eduard Gismatullin, Jon Herskovitz, Jake Rudnitsky and Yuliya Fedorinova.