By Jamie Dettmer
The speed with which Russia dispatched troops this week to help quell violent demonstrations in neighboring Kazakhstan is testimony to the Kremlin’s recurring fear of “color revolutions,” say Western diplomats and analysts. Moscow must have been horrified by how quickly the protests spread in Kazakhstan, long seen as one of the most stable of the former Soviet countries, they emphasize.
Sparked by a fuel price hike and cost of living grievances, the protests, which began in the oil-rich western part of the country, rapidly escalated this week into the worst violence the Central Asian nation has seen since turning independent 30 years ago.
And the grievances over fuel prices voiced initially by the protesters snowballed into a bigger threat against the government after dozens died when Kazakh armed forces opened fire.
Demonstrators have been demanding regime change and the departure of both Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the country’s 81-year-old former leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down three years ago after almost three decades in power but retained the official title of “leader of the nation.”
He is still believed to rule behind the scenes, and protesters reference him with chants of “Get out, old man.” On Wednesday demonstrators in Taldykorgan, a town in southern Kazakhstan, pulled down his statue from the main square.
Protesters stormed government buildings Wednesday in Almaty, the country’s largest city, and briefly occupied the airport with reports of “dozens” of protesters being killed in clashes along with at least 12 policemen. Thursday saw videos circulating on social media showing Kazakh military units exchanging gunfire with armed opponents in Almaty.
Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have claimed the West is behind the agitation and is trying to foment another color revolution with the goal of disorienting Russia on the eve of major Russia-U.S. security talks next week with the United States and NATO amid fears the Kremlin may be considering invading Ukraine.
Russia has previously accused Western powers of being behind popular uprisings in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, said unrest was foreign-backed and aimed to “undermine the security and integrity of the state by force, using trained and organized armed formations.” Konstantin Kosachev, a senator who chairs the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said the protesters included Islamic militants who had fought in Afghanistan.
“It’s a tense moment in the former Soviet Union, with Russian troops and tanks surrounding Ukraine on three sides. The last thing Moscow wants or needs is legitimate protests in a country it considers to be in its sphere of interest,” said Melinda Haring, of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research organization. “Moscow is looking for a hidden hand. The Kremlin doesn’t accept the protests in Kazakhstan as genuine,” she added.
Kazakhstan is an important regional power with vast energy resources.
President Tokayev, who has ordered troops to “shoot to kill without warning” and says protesters who fail to surrender will be “destroyed,” also has blamed outsiders for unprecedented agitation. He alleged in a broadcast to the nation Thursday that Almaty had been attacked by “20,000 bandits” who had a “clear plan of attack, coordination of actions and high combat readiness.”
Tokayev expressed “special thanks” to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for agreeing to his midweek request for assistance “in overcoming this terrorist threat.”
The request was formally made to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led regional security pact comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Tokayev invoked article 4 of the CSTO pact, which commits members to assist each other to defend against “foreign interference.” It is the first time any CSTO member has cited article 4 of the military alliance, which was formed in 1994.
The Russian defense ministry says about 3,000 paratroopers and other servicemen are being flown to Kazakhstan “around the clock” with up to 75 huge transport planes being used in the emergency airlift. Kazakhstan’s interior ministry said in a statement Friday that 26 protesters had been killed during the unrest, 18 injured and more than 3,000 arrested. It said 700 security personnel had suffered injuries and confirmed 18 had been killed.
Sporadic gunfire could still be heard Friday in Almaty, despite Tokayev telling Kazakhs that order had largely been restored. “Constitutional order has been mainly restored in all regions,” Tokayev said Friday. “Local authorities are monitoring the situation. But terrorists are still using weapons, causing damage to civilian property. Therefore [a] counterterrorist operation will continue until the total destruction of the militants.”
Tokayev may have turned to Russia for assistance because he feared not all of his security forces would remain loyal, if the agitation escalated, a British diplomat told VOA. He said in some smaller towns, the police appeared to have sat out the protests and in Aktobe, near the country’s border with Russia, the police are reported to have sided with the protesters.
Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, currently CSTO chairman, says the forces will be committed “for a limited period, in order to stabilize and normalize the situation.” And Stanislav Zas, secretary-general of the CSTO, said the outside forces would “minimize and localize threats” to Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity. He, too, said the mission would be temporary.
Some Russian analysts and Kazakhs have warned the Russian deployment risks triggering further trouble. “Whoever took this decision has absolutely no understanding of the Kazakh mentality,” Polat Dzhamalov, a Kazakh living in Moscow, told the independent TV Rain, an internet channel. “Kazakhs have never tolerated occupation.”
Some Russian analysts also have highlighted the risks of Russian troops maintaining any longer-term presence and of being dragged into the unrest.
“For now, this is less an armed intervention than a police operation,” said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-linked policy organization. “But if it drags on, consequences for Russia could mount up,” he told the English-language newspaper the Moscow Times.
The United States, Britain and other western countries have urged all sides to show restraint.
“We are concerned about the violent clashes and are following developments closely. We are urging against further escalation and want to see a peaceful resolution,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.