Russia Sends Troops to Kazakhstan Amid Uprising
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
ALMATY (Reuters) – Russia sent paratroopers into Kazakhstan on Thursday to help put down a countrywide uprising after deadly violence spread across the tightly controlled former Soviet state.
Police said they had killed dozens of rioters in the Central Asian country’s main city Almaty. State television said 13 members of the security forces had died, including two found decapitated.
A presidential residence and the mayor’s office in the city were both ablaze, Reuters journalists said. By Thursday afternoon, the city’s airport, seized earlier by protesters, was under firm control of military personnel. Burnt-out cars littered the streets.
Earlier on Thursday, several armoured personnel carriers and scores of troops had entered the main square of Almaty, and gunshots could be heard as troops approached the crowd, Reuters correspondents reported from the scene. Later, the square appeared peaceful, with 200-300 protesters still gathered and no troops around.
Unverified video on social media showed troops patrolling Almaty’s foggy streets overnight, firing weapons, as well as widespread looting in the city. Masked protesters, some carrying shields and batons apparently seized from police, marched through billowing tear gas along a tree-lined avenue, to the sound of detonations.
The internet had been shut down across the country and the full extent of the violence was impossible to confirm. But the unrest was unprecedented for Kazakhstan, ruled firmly since Soviet times by leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who had held on to the reins despite stepping down three years ago as president.
“ATTACK ON OUR CITIZENS”
Mr. Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, called in forces from ally Russia overnight as part of a Moscow-led military alliance of ex-Soviet states. He blamed the unrest on foreign-trained terrorists who he said had seized buildings and weapons.
“It is an undermining of the integrity of the state and most importantly it is an attack on our citizens who are asking me … to help them urgently,” he said.
Moscow said it would consult with Kazakhstan and allies on further measures to support the Kazakh authorities’ “counter-terrorist operation” and called the uprising a foreign-inspired attempt to undermine the country’s security by force.
Neither Kazakhstan nor Russia provided evidence to support the claim of foreign involvement.
The secretariat of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation said advanced units of Russian paratroopers were in the country and had “already begun to fulfil their assigned tasks.”
Troops being sent included units from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Russia, the secretariat said. It did not disclose the overall size of the force.
The uprising, which began as protests in the west of the country against a New Year’s Day fuel price hike, had swelled dramatically on Wednesday, when protesters stormed and torched public buildings in Almaty and other cities. They chanted slogans against Mr. Nazarbayev, and in at least one case looped ropes around a bronze statue of him, trying to pull it down.
Mr. Tokayev initially responded by dismissing his cabinet, reversing the fuel price rise, and distancing himself from his predecessor, including by taking over a powerful security post Mr. Nazarbayev had retained.
But the actions failed to mollify crowds who accuse Mr. Nazarbayev’s family and allies of amassing vast wealth from oil and minerals while the nation of 19 million remained poor.
Mr. Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 as the last Soviet-era Communist Party boss still ruling a former Soviet state. But he and his family kept posts overseeing security forces and the political apparatus in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital bearing his name. He has not been seen or heard from since the unrest began.
The swift arrival of Russian troops demonstrated the Kremlin’s strategy of rapidly deploying force to safeguard its sphere of influence in the ex-Soviet Union. Since late 2020, Russia has shored up the leader of Belarus in the face of a popular uprising, halted a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and, to the alarm of the West, massed again near Ukraine, which Russia invaded eight years ago.
The protesters “are Kazakhs, and Tokayev will try putting them down with Russian troops. That will not look great for Moscow,” tweeted economist Tim Ash, who specializes in the region.
Western countries have called for calm. Neighbor China called the events an internal matter for Kazakhstan.
Under Mr. Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan gained a reputation for stability, attracting large-scale foreign investment. Though political opposition was firmly curtailed, the state was regarded as less repressive and volatile than ex-Soviet neighbours.
Kazakhstan’s dollar-denominated sovereign bonds suffered fresh falls on Thursday. Longer dated issues have plunged, losing around 7 cents since the start of the week.
Kazakhstan is the top global producer of uranium, and the unrest prompted an 8 percent jump in the price of the metal that fuels nuclear power plants. Rival producers in North America saw their share prices surge, including Canada’s Cameco, up nearly 12 percent so far this year.
Kazakh uranium miner Kazatomprom said on Thursday it was operating normally with no impact on output or exports.
The country is also the world’s second-largest miner of bitcoin after the United States. Bitcoin’s ‘hashrate’ — the measure of computing power of machines plugged into its network — dropped by more than 10 percent on Wednesday after Kazakhstan’s internet was shut off, according to crypto mining firm BTC.com.
Image: Troops gather at the main square in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where hundreds of people were protesting against the government January 6, 2022. Reuters/Mariya Gordeyeva