Allies rally to help quell Kazakh unrest

Olzhas Auyezov |

Troops and protesters have clashed in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty, with police saying tens of rioters had been “eliminated” as they tried to storm their offices.

Several armoured personnel carriers and dozens of troops entered the main square of Almaty on Thursday morning where hundreds of people were protesting against the government for the third day, Reuters correspondents reported from the scene.

Gunshots were heard as troops approached the crowd, according to Reuters witnesses, but the situation in the square had calmed down since then.

Around Kazakhstan, protests initially sparked by a fuel price rise killed eight police and national guard troops on Tuesday and Wednesday, prompting Kazakh president to appeal for help from a Russia-led security alliance, which offered to send peacekeeping forces.

State television reported on Thursday that the National Bank of Kazakhstan had decided to suspend work of banks in the country for the safety of their workers. The Internet in the country is mostly down.

A Russia-led security alliance of ex-Soviet states will send peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan, Armenia’s prime minister says.

Nikol Pashinyan said on Facebook that peacekeepers would go to Kazakhstan for a limited period to stabilise the situation after state buildings were torched and Almaty international airport was seized.

Eight police and national guard troops were killed in the unrest on Tuesday and Wednesday, Russia’s state-owned Sputnik agency quoted the Kazakh interior ministry as saying on Wednesday. 

Russian news agencies, quoting Kazakh media, later said two soldiers had also been killed in what they described as an anti-terrorist operation at Almaty airport.

Initially sparked by anger at a fuel price rise, the protests have quickly spread to take in wider opposition to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retains significant power despite quitting in 2019 after a nearly three-decade rule.

Nazarbayev, 81, has been widely seen as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital which bears his name, and his family is believed to control much of the economy, the largest in Central Asia. 

He has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.

The Central Asian nation’s reputation for stability under Nazarbayev helped attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries.

But a younger generation is demanding the liberalisation seen in other former satellite states of the Soviet Union.

The protests are the worst in Kazakhstan – a country five times the size of France with a population of nearly 19 million – since 2011, when at least 14 protesters were killed by police during a strike by oil workers.

Apparently seeking to appease public ire, Tokayev sacked Nazarbayev as head of the national Security Council on Wednesday, and took it over himself. 

He also appointed a new head of the State Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and removed Nazarbayev’s nephew from the No.2 position on the committee.

Early on Thursday morning Tokayev said foreign-trained “terrorist” gangs were seizing buildings, infrastructure and weapons, and had taken five aircraft at Almaty airport.

Russian news agencies quoted Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, as saying security had been strengthened around key installations at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which Russia uses for space launches.

After accepting the cabinet’s resignation, Tokayev ordered acting ministers to reverse the fuel price rise, which had doubled the cost of liquefied petroleum gas widely used for vehicles in Kazakhstan. 

The Kremlin said it expected Kazakhstan, a close ally, to quickly resolve its internal problems, warning other countries against interfering.