Kazakhstan protests prompt president to crack down: “Shoot without warning”

BICHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leader said on Friday he had allowed the country’s security forces to “shoot without warning” as the government tries to end two days of chaos and violence after peaceful protests degenerated into scenes of anarchy.

“We are hearing calls from abroad for the parties to negotiate for a peaceful solution to the problems,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a nationwide speech. “It’s just nonsense.”

“What negotiations can there be with criminals and murderers,” he said. “They must be destroyed and it will be done.”

The government said order was “mostly restored” across the country as Russian troops joined the country’s security forces in quelling widespread unrest.

Mr. Tokayev also particularly thanked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

“He responded to my call very quickly and, above all, warmly, in a friendly manner,” he said.

Since the protests have turned violent, it is difficult to assess the events unfolding in Kazakhstan. Internet and telephone services have been sporadic and there are few reliable independent media outlets in the country. Those reached by phone have largely been confined to their homes, crouching as explosions rock walls.

Mr Tokayev’s threatening speech seemed to portend a prolonged crackdown on anti-government activists as well as human rights defenders and independent journalists.

He accused the groups of acting as if they were above the law and believing that they “can say whatever they want”.

And he accused the “so-called free media” in the country and the overseas-based media of fanning the flames of the unrest.

The violence, Mr Tokayev said, was organized from a “single command post”, with instructions given to a group of around 20,000 “bandits”.

While offering no evidence to support his claim, Tokayev said the group has been actively formed and managed.

“Their acts showed the presence of a clear plan of attacks against military, administrative and social installations in all areas, well-organized coordination of actions, high combat readiness and bestial cruelty,” he said. he declares.

Russian troops, operating alongside Kazakh law enforcement officials, said on Friday they had regained full control of the airport in Almaty, the country’s largest city, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

“The security of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation located in the city and other important facilities is assured,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a televised address.

The ferocity of the unrest surprised many observers. The oil-rich Central Asian nation, perched on Russia’s southern steppe, was widely regarded as perhaps the most stable country in an unstable region.

Since gaining independence three decades ago, Kazakhstan has been ruled by one man: Nursultan Nazarbayev. Even after formally resigning his post as president, he retained the title of “head of the nation” and was widely seen as retaining control over the state through his role as chairman of the national security council.

Amid the unrest, Mr. Tokayev publicly took control of the security forces and ousted Mr. Nazarbayev, 81. Mr Tokayev also called for help from Moscow as the protests spiraled out of control.

The Russian-led effort to quell the unrest, described as a temporary peacekeeping mission by a military alliance that is the Russian equivalent of NATO, will be time-limited and will aim to protect government buildings and military installations, Kazakh officials said.

The alliance, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has sent around 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan, and that number could rise, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

This is the first time in the history of the alliance that its protection clause is invoked.

Even as Russian paratroopers from the elite 45th Spetsnaz Guard Brigade landed in Almaty, shootings raged in the streets late into the night, according to a video from a BBC correspondent there.

The Biden administration has said it is closely monitoring Moscow’s military intervention in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that Washington cultivated as a friendly partner.

This bond was formed in large part thanks to major energy investments by American companies and the cooperation of former Kazakh President Nazarbayev with the United States on nuclear non-proliferation. Mr. Nazarbayev also supported US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US officials see Mr. Putin’s response to the crisis as a test of his ability and determination to maintain a Russian sphere of influence in neighboring countries.

“The United States and frankly the world will monitor any human rights violations,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson. “We will also monitor any action that could lay the groundwork for the seizure of Kazakh institutions.”

Meanwhile, China has expressed full support for the Kazakh leader.

“You have taken effective and decisive action at critical times to quickly calm the situation, which embodies your responsibility as a politician,” Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping said in a message to Tokayev. , according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Kazakhstan has strengthened its ties with China in recent years. The country plays a central role in Xi’s iconic infrastructure program known as “One Belt, One Road,” which aims to revive the ancient Silk Road and build other roads. trade between Asia and Europe to inject Chinese products into foreign markets.

In his message, Xi condemned any efforts to undermine the stability and peace of Kazakhstan, as well as its relations with China. He told Tokayev that Beijing “resolutely opposes outside forces who are deliberately creating unrest and inciting a ‘color revolution’ in Kazakhstan,” the news agency said.

The Xinhua report did not specify what Xi was referring to, but the Chinese Communist Party has often used the theme of foreign interference as the reason for the unrest, including in Hong Kong.

Protests in Kazakhstan began on Sunday with what appeared to be a wave of public anger over rising fuel prices and wider frustration with a government widely seen as corrupt – with vast oil wealth benefiting an elite in the country. detriment of the masses. .

In a concession, the government on Thursday announced a cap on vehicle fuel prices and a halt to increases in utility bills.

However, as the protests increased, the government and even some supporters of the protests said they had been co-opted by criminal gangs seeking to exploit the situation.

In the past two days, oil prices have risen 4 percent, in part because of concerns over Kazakhstan, a major oil producer. Futures on Brent crude, the international benchmark, traded at $ 82.95 a barrel on Friday, near the seven-year highs reached in October.

Chevron, America’s second-largest oil company, said there had been disruptions in oil production at its key Tengiz field in Kazakhstan. The problem appears to be the difficulty of loading certain petroleum products from the field into the railcars.

The market is also reacting to geopolitical tensions, especially over Ukraine, and production problems in Nigeria, Angola, Libya and elsewhere.

The enormous destruction of public property in Kazakhstan – including the burning of Almaty town hall and the burning and looting of dozens of other government buildings – has met a strong show of force from the government. security personnel.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement Friday that 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated” and 18 security agents killed in the unrest.

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Valerie Hopkins from Moscow and Marc Santora from Châtel, France. Michael crowley contributed to Washington reporting, Stanley reed from London, and Gillian wong from Seoul.

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