By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
ALMATY (Worthy News) – Kazakhstan’s president declared a state of emergency and asked for regional military support as protests sparked by rising fuel prices turned deadly in the oil-producing Central Asian nation.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the airport of Almaty, the country’s largest city, had been seized by what he called “terrorists” late Wednesday. He stated that five airplanes had been hijacked and appealed for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Soon after, the Russian-led military CSTO said late Wednesday that it would send peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the country’s president to help put down the growing protest movement.
Wednesday’s standoff came hours after Tokayev fired his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev as head of the country’s security council and accepted the government’s resignation.
It seemed a fall from grace for Nazarbayev, who ruled his nation with an iron fist for nearly three decades and whose family controls much of Kazakhstan’s economy.
The new interim head of government, Alikhan Smayilov, and the new State Secretary, Erlan Karin, is representative of a new generation of well-educated technocrats, analysts say.
However, the political earthquake did little to ease tensions as demonstrators stormed and torched public buildings in the republic’s worst unrest for more than a decade.
Protesters in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, raided the presidential residence and the mayor’s office on Wednesday and set both buildings on fire, witnesses said.
Police were seen firing on protesters at the presidential palace before fleeing. They repeatedly clashed with demonstrators recently, deploying water cannons in the freezing weather, tear gas, and concussion grenades.
Authorities initially said nearly 100 police were injured, but later, Tokayev claimed the clashes had turned deadly. “There have been deaths and injuries. The situation threatens the security of all residents of Almaty, and that cannot be tolerated.”
Some police units in the cities of Alma-Ata and Aktau took the protesters’ side, reporters said. The rallies were initially triggered by a New Year’s Day near-doubling of prices for a type of liquefied gas that is widely used as vehicle fuel.
However, the protests increasingly reflect wider discontent in a country that the same party has ruled since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The size and rapid spread of the unrest have raised broader security concerns for the strategic region. Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think thank, said Europe should pay attention.
“Europe should watch these developments closely, as Kazakhstan is a key partner for its Central Asian strategy,” Dumoulin told Worthy News. “Instability in Kazakhstan would have a tremendous impact on the regional setup,” Dumoulin warned.
Amid the turmoil, the current CSTO chairman, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, said regional peacekeepers would be stationed in Kazakhstan only “for a limited period” until authorities could restore order. He did not say how many soldiers could be mobilized or how long they might stay. Critics said Russia is notorious for sending in troops under the guise of peacekeeping missions to establish a permanent presence in the host countries.
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country globally, borders Russia to the north and China to the east and has extensive oil reserves making it strategically and economically important. Despite those reserves and mineral wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in at least some parts of the country.
“The protest movement that started on January 2 in Western Kazakhstan over fuel prices, and spread across the country within a few hours, is unprecedented for Kazakhstan,” Dumoulin stressed. “The country experienced numerous socio-economic protest movements over the last years, but none of them ever had such a national dimension, or did affect political change.”
She noted that the protestors’ slogan “shall ket” or “down with the old man” was mainly targeting the former president and now “Father of the nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev. Even the official capital, Nur-Sultan, was named after him.
His successor, Tokayev continues to be seen as a transitional figure, “lacking his own political capital and agency,” Dumoulin explained.
“By taking over the leadership in the Security Council, after Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned on January 5, Tokayev maybe just trying to protect his predecessor. But he will also have to impose himself as the new leader of the country,” she explained.
Dumoulin added that by dismissing the government, the president tries to blame the outgoing government for the ill-advised decisions that triggered the protests.
However, the “potential for violent developments should not be underestimated, both on the side of security forces and of protesters,” Dumoulin added.
She noted that many demonstrators are “representatives of a disenfranchised youth regarding violence as the only way to be listened to.”
It wasn’t clear what impact political changes would have on minority Christians who reported persecution in the Muslim-majority nation of nearly 20 million people.
“Legislation dating back to September 2011 restricts the ability to worship freely,” said advocacy group Open Doors. “Kazakhstan’s government has steadily increased its control over religious expression [with] increased surveillance, raids on church meetings and arrests. “
The government uses the threat of militant Islam to restrict more freedoms,” the group added.
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