By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
Authorities have already admitted to dozens of deaths among protestors and security forces. But Sunday’s reported death toll of more than 160 showed violence intensified in Kazakhstan, where the president has given the army shoot to kill orders to quell anti-government protests.
What began around the New Year with protests against fuel price hikes has turned into rallies expressing wider discontent towards the perceived authoritarian leaders. The country, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, producing 1.6 million barrels of oil a day.
Although it has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, wealth has not trickled down to the general population, who have an average income of less than $300 a month. Critics say the widespread poverty is a legacy of decades of corruption and abuse of power in Kazakhstan.
The nation bordering China and Russia was ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – a former Communist Party politburo member with solid links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Statues of Nazarbayev were erected, and he built a new capital, Astana, which was later renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor.
He stood down in 2019, making way for current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who seems to continue his hardline policies. Public protests in Kazakhstan are illegal without a government permit, and Tokayev has made clear that strikes and demonstrations have been dealt with very harshly.
Most of the deaths were in Almaty, the country’s largest city, where demonstrators seized government buildings and set some afire.
Now people are lining up for fuel or food. Many stand in front of a bakery in a snow-covered street. “The supermarket there and the other one further away have been closed,” a man said, watching anxiously near large crowds.
A lack of fuel linked to the unrest led to higher prices for items such as flour or potatoes. “People complain that they’re running out of fuel,” noted salesman Zhumadin Patov. “That’s the problem. There is enough food in the warehouses, but it cannot be delivered. Because of the security checkpoints and a lack of fuel.”
The rush for food has left little time to mourn even the youngest victims of the ongoing conflict: Kazakhstan’s ombudswoman for children’s rights said that at least three of the more than 100 killed here were minors, including a 4-year-old girl.
The ministry earlier reported more than 2,200 people sought treatment for injuries from the protests, and the Interior Ministry said about 1,300 security officers were injured.
The office of Kazakhstan’s president said that police detained about 5,800 people during the protests.
The violence has prompted a Russia-led military alliance to send troops to the large Muslim-majority country of nearly 20 million, raising concerns in the West. Many forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) arrive with military aircraft from neighboring Russia.
Authorities say peacekeepers guard government facilities in the capital, Nur-Sultan, allowing Kazakhstan security forces to crackdown on protesters.
However, in a sign that protests are deeply rooted, demonstrators can be heard shouting “Old man out.” It references Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president, who maintained substantial power as head of the National Security Council.
Tokayev replaced him as council head amid this week’s unrest, but he and his family remain influential, controlling much of the economy.
And, the instability in Kazakhstan has added to East-West tensions.
With Russian troops now in the country, there are concerns a similar military intervention could take place further away in Ukraine, where Moscow already annexed the Crimean peninsula and suppers separatists in the east.
U.S. Russian talks are underway in Geneva, Switzerland in a bit to ease tensions, but with some 100,000 Russian troops massing along Ukraine’s borders, the region’s Orthodox Christmas wasn’t completely peaceful.
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