The government in Kazakhstan has deployed the military to end the public unrest that authorities say has claimed the lives of at least 18 law enforcement officers and dozens of protesters.
Officials in charge of administering the state of emergency imposed on the country’s commercial capital, Almaty, claimed on January 6 that two of the officers had been beheaded. Interior Ministry officials said 2,000 people have been detained in Almaty alone.
The authorities have said those grisly developments are a full vindication of overnight remarks by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who pinned the turbulence on what he termed foreign-aided terrorist and criminal groups.
“This is evidence of the terroristic and extremist nature of these bandit gangs,” security officials said in a statement released through state television.
Kazakh officials have refrained from publicly stating the suspected provenance of the alleged militants.
What the government is terming an anti-terrorism operation, conducted under the banner “In the Name of Peace,” saw military forces fanning throughout Almaty on January 6 and engaging in running battles.
The emergent official rhetoric marks a sharp departure from how the government was characterizing the initial wave of protests that began in the west of the country following a sudden spike in the price of car fuel at the start of the year. The initial reaction of officials with was to offer concessions by restoring subsidies for liquified petroleum gas, or LPG.
But that attitude shifted when the focus of demonstrators broadened to encompass a more general criticism of the government.
Rallies in cities like Aktau, Aktobe and Atyrau drew crowds numbering in the thousands – large turnouts for Kazakhstan, where unauthorized rallies are typically thwarted by police before they can begin.
The unusual show of nationwide dissent then turned into something darker and more violent on January 5. The circumstances of what occurred in Almaty on that day are not clear and may never be fully understood, since the government will likely be reluctant to backtrack on its terrorism plot claims. What began as a peaceful rally turned violent, seemingly after riot police sought to disperse the thousands of people in attendance.
Almaty has since that time been ravaged by looting and exchanges of fire between government troops and unknown gunmen. The situation became so parlous that Tokayev was moved to plead for assistance from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Members of the CSTO quickly approved a peacekeeping operation. Already on January 6, troops began arriving in Kazakhstan from Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Armenia. The largest contingent, numbering 3,000 troops, is coming from Russia. It is unclear how these troops will be deployed. Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan, the other member of the alliance, have yet to give their definitive approval to deploying troops.
Russia has willingly endorsed the evaluation of events in Kazakhstan as the work of unspecified outside parties.
“We consider these latest events in our ally nation a foreign-inspired attempt to use violence and trained, organized armed bands to undermine the security and territorial integrity of the state,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
If Kazakh officials are being circumspect about whom exactly they blame for the violence in Almaty, Russian lawmakers have been bolder. Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said protesters in Kazakhstan included militants drawn from the ranks of armed gangs operating in “the Middle East, primarily in Afghanistan.” Ruslan Balbek, an MP in the State Duma, meanwhile, said he detected the involvement of the Islamic State group.
Public order updates from the Kazakh authorities have come to sound less like police bulletins and more like dispatches from the front line. Toward the evening of January 6, news agency KazTag cited unidentified sources as saying that groups of armed people had seized a television tower on a hill overlooking Almaty. Eyewitnesses reported hearing sustained gunfire on the central Republic Square. That is the square that saw some of the most intense scenes on January 5 as large mobs stormed the city hall and set fires that burned intensely for more than a day. State television cited officials as saying armed gangs had surrounded two hospitals in Almaty and were preventing arriving patients and medical personnel from entering.
Internet connections were once again down in Kazakhstan throughout January 6 and phone signals barely worked, making it all but impossible to verify government claims or to obtain fresh and reliable information. Almost all television stations were taken off the air.
Some local media were able nevertheless to report on continued instances of unrest in Almaty.
Looting of shopping malls and supermarkets was ongoing throughout the night. The Union of Trading Centers has said it estimates the damage caused by marauders may reach 25 billion tenge ($57.5 million). Large supermarkets and banks have put down their shutters to prevent looters from gaining access, leaving residents with small grocery stores as the only means to buy food. Journalists have reported seeing long lines at those shops, as well as at gas stations. Mosques across the country will not be holding Friday prayers until the nationwide state of emergency declared by President Tokayev on January 5 has been lifted.
Sporadic and unverifiable reports have trickled in from cities all over Kazakhstan, a country the size of western Europe. News website Orda.kz said a few hundred people were still camped out in front of the regional administration building in the city of Aktobe, but that their numbers had diminished compared to recent days. Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that around 500 people were occupying the main square in Atyrau, another city in the west. RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyk, said crowds in Aktau were still rallying, now with demands for Tokayev to withdraw his invitation to the CSTO.
In the capital, Nur-Sultan, the speaker of the Senate, Maulen Ashimbayev, appealed to the public to unite around Tokayev.
“It is important for Kazakhstanis to unite around the president and to protect our independence and statehood. We must not succumb to provocations. Any criminal actions must be strictly suppressed,” Ashimbayev said in a statement disseminated by his office.
Updated to include higher police death toll.