Kazakh forces, backed by Russian-led troops, are pressing ahead with operations to restore control after crushing the biggest protests in the central Asian nation in decades.
About 5,800 people, including foreigners, have been detained since the demonstrations erupted, and law enforcement is carrying out raids throughout the country, the Kazakh presidential administration said on its website Sunday. Dozens have been reported killed, and the real number is thought to be much higher.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared victory in a bloody confrontation with people protesting widespread corruption and poverty in what is the most serious challenge to Kazakh leadership since independence in 1991. Troops from the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization have secured key infrastructure, according to the administration.
Kazakh authorities arrested Karim Massimov, a key ally of the country’s first president and the former head of the National Security Committee, and other unidentified officials on Jan. 6 on suspicion of treason, the committee said in a statement Saturday. Massimov served twice as prime minister under Nursultan Nazarbayev, who turned the presidency over to Tokayev in 2019 while retaining much of his political and economic power. Nazarbayev, 81, hasn’t been seen in public since the protests exploded this week.
“Massimov’s arrest fits into the narrative that these protests exposed a power struggle among the elite, said Kate Mallinson, the founder of Prism Political Risk Management in London. “The fact that Tokayev asked the Russians for help is a sign that he doesn’t have the support of the security services.
Nazarbayev voluntarily handed over his last major government post, head of the Security Council, to Tokayev as the situation intensified, state television reported, citing his spokesman Aidos Ukibay on Sunday. Nazarbayev remains in the capital of Nur-Sultan and in contact with Tokayev, Ukibay said earlier on Twitter.
Putin Sends Message to West as His Troops Turn Kazakh Tide
The protests, sparked by a doubling in the price of a popular motor fuel in an oil-producing region in western Kazakhstan, quickly spiraled into nationwide anti-government demonstrations accompanied by widespread looting and violence. Thousands took to the streets and seized government buildings and airports in the country of 19 million, which is as large as western Europe and rich in oil and minerals.
Dozens of protesters and police were killed and hundreds wounded in the clashes, as Tokayev gave a shoot-to-kill command to re-establish order. With the country under an information blackout, and internet and messenger services remaining largely blocked, the death toll is likely vastly underreported. Some videos on social media showed troops firing automatic weapons in Almaty, the largest city, where the president claimed 20,000 “bandits had attacked government buildings. Tokayev has blamed much of the violence on foreign influences.
Russian paratroopers helped to retake Almaty’s airport, according to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, which said 75 aircraft flew its forces to Kazakhstan after Tokayev appealed for aid. Russia placed an officer who led military operations in Syria and Ukraine in charge of the deployment by troops from the CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Tokayev accepted his government’s resignation and removed several top security officials including Massimov on Jan. 5, in the biggest government shakeup since he assumed power. He pledged to stay in Nur-Sultan “whatever happens.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken with Tokayev several times since Thursday, according to a Kremlin statement Saturday. Tokayev said the situation in Kazakhstan was stabilizing and asked for a meeting of CSTO leaders. The alliance will hold a video conference on Jan. 10, the Interfax news service reported Sunday.
Russia has no intention of speaking about the situation in Kazakhstan at upcoming talks with the U.S. in Geneva about NATO expansion, Deputy Foreign Ministry Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax on Sunday.
While Tokayev has said the CSTO deployment will be short term, appealing to the Russians for help could undermine his domestic authority if he is seen as sacrificing Kazakh sovereignty, according to Mallinson.
“It will be hard for Tokayev to stay in power for long without co-opting the Nazarbayev-era elite, Mallinson said. “They have so much wealth that he can’t afford to alienate these structures.