An uprising in Kazakhstan Nazarbayev is removed from nation’s Security Council as state authorities vow ‘extreme’ police response to protests
Demonstrations began in Kazakhstan on January 2 in response to suddenly doubled fuel prices. After three days of protests and increasingly violent clashes with police, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev fired his government cabinet, restored price controls, and declared a state of emergency in three different regions. But the protests have continued. Beginning early on January 5, demonstrators started trying to seize control of administration buildings in major cities. In a second televised address, President Tokayev announced that he has appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization for military assistance, arguing that “terrorist gangs” who “trained abroad” now pose a grave national security threat. Armenian Prime Minister and acting CSTO Collective Security Council Chairman Nikol Pashinyan later confirmed that the military alliance will deploy peacekeepers to Kazakhstan for a limited time with the goal of “stabilizing” the situation in the country.
Actions by protesters
- Violence in Almaty: Protesters in Almaty seized control of the city administration building and the president’s residence. Fires have started in both buildings. Demonstrations here have been the most heated in Kazakhstan, so far. Protesters have reportedly set fire to more than 120 vehicles (including 33 police cars) and broken into more than 120 stores and kiosks, 180 eateries, and roughly 100 small- and medium-sized businesses. There have been more than 500 reported injuries in these riots. Video footage has circulated online showing demonstrators ransacking a National Security Committee building for weapons and ammunition, including what appear to be grenade launchers.
- Past midnight on Thursday, local time, large numbers of riot police entered Almaty. Eyewitnesses soon shared videos online containing the sounds of automatic gunfire and screams.
- At least one demonstrator was killed in the city of Atyrau after police opened fire on a crowd.
- Protesters in the city of Taldykorgan tore down a monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev.
- Almaty International Airport: Spokespeople for the airport say roughly 45 protesters seized control of the airport on Wednesday. Staff and passengers, as well as soldiers guarding the building, left before the demonstrators arrived. Wednesday’s flights were canceled, including scheduled flights by Aeroflot from Moscow, the Kuwaiti airline Jazeera Airways, and Belarus’s national airline, Belavia, from Minsk. By roughly 1 a.m., local Almaty time, rioters had reportedly fled the airport. Two soldiers died in the operation to retake control of the airport, sources told RIA Novosti.
- Sources told RBC that an Air Astana plane bound for Moscow was stranded at Almaty airport when protesters seized control. The crew and passengers have reportedly been stuck on the runway for several hours, and it remains unclear when or if takeoff will be possible.
Actions by Kazakhstan’s authorities
Updates: Kazakhstan has declared a nationwide state of emergency. A curfew is now in effect across the country. Also, President Tokayev has formally appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization for emergency assistance. In another televised address, he said foreign help is needed to “overcome this terrorist threat” to the state’s integrity. The “terrorist gangs” now rioting across the country, said Tokayev, “underwent training abroad.”
- Personnel changes at the top: President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has removed Nursultan Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as chairman of the National Security Council. The president also dismissed Karim Massimov from his position as the head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee. He also fired the head of his own personal security guard and the director of the State Security Service. In a national address on Wednesday, Tokayev vowed an “extreme” police response against the “crowds of bandit-like elements.” He also announced that he will soon introduce “new proposals for Kazakhstan’s political transformation.”
- Around 1 a.m., local time, Almaty’s deputy mayor announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” to retake control of the city.
- Some riot police in the cities of Atyrau and Aktau have sided with demonstrators.
- Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry says at least eight Kazakhstani police officers and soldiers have been killed by rioters and another 317 have been injured.
- Media disruptions: Kazakhtelecom, Kazakhstan’s largest telecommunication company, disabled broadband Internet access across much the country, though access later returned in most regions, including Almaty and Nur-Sultan. In many cities, mobile Internet access has also faltered.
- Several national television networks have stopped broadcasting.
- Despite the state of emergency in Nur-Sultan, a KHL hockey game between Barys Nur-Sultan and Metallurg Magnitogorsk went ahead (with almost no spectators).
Reactions in Russia
Update: Russia has reportedly put a military airfield in Orenburg on alert, preparing a special flight to Kazakhstan. The military is also reportedly planning to send its 11th guards engineering brigade unit, currently based in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.
- Support for a CSTO response: Leonid Kalashnikov, who chairs the State Duma’s committee on affairs related to the Commonwealth of Independent States, says Russia is obligated to respond to Kazakhstan’s appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Kalashnikov has also stated that he believes the Kazakhstani authorities will not permit “anti-Russian forces” to come to power in the country.
- Moscow police arrested a man picketing outside Kazakhstan’s embassy. Anton Malgazhdarov came with a sign (apparently addressed to “National Leader” Nursultan Nazarbayev) that read in Kazakh: “Old man, out!” (now a popular protest chant among today’s demonstrators in Kazakhstan).
- Zero tolerance for displays of solidarity: Moscow police have reportedly received orders to arrest anyone spotted in the city’s center carrying any signs or symbols that represent Kazakhstan. Officers have already arrested several people “who looked like Kazakhstanis,” says the Telegram channel Baza, which reports that reinforcement police units have been deployed to Red Square, Chistye Prudy, and Revolution Square.
- Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov says a source in Russia’s Foreign Ministry told him that Nursultan Nazarbayev is considering leaving Kazakhstan to seek “medical attention” abroad.
- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed confidence that “our Kazakhstani friends can resolve their domestic problems on their own.”
- Spokespeople for Russia’s Foreign Ministry say Moscow supports “a peaceful solution” in Kazakhstan “within a constitutional and legal framework.” No Russian citizens have yet been injured in the protests, the ministry clarified.
Other international responses
Update: In a post on Facebook, Armenian Prime Minister and acting CSTO Collective Security Council Chairman Nikol Pashinyan announced that the military alliance will deploy peacekeepers to Kazakhstan for a limited time with the goal of “stabilizing” the situation in the country
- Uzbekistan: Spokespeople for the Uzbekistani government have expressed concern over the events in Kazakhstan. In a statement, the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry said it hopes “the wise people of Kazakhstan will be able to prevent the escalation of instability and avoid violence and the loss of life.” The ministry reiterated its “unwavering support for Kazakhstan’s people and leadership.”
- The EU: A spokesperson for the European Union has called for “all concerned to act with responsibility and restraint and to refrain from actions that could lead to further escalation of violence.” The EU says it recognizes the right to protest but insists that demonstrations remain “non-violent and avoid any incitement to violence.” Kazakhstan’s authorities must also respect “proportionality in the use of force when defending its legitimate security interests,” the EU says, calling for a “peaceful resolution of the situation through inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders and respect for the fundamental rights of citizens.”
- The United States: The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reports that the U.S. State Department has warned American nationals in Kazakhstan to avoid demonstrations, stay away from windows and balconies, and shelter in place. At the time of this writing, there was no official announcement published on the State Department’s website.
- Belarus: President Alexander Lukashenko telephoned Vladimir Putin and then Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Kazakhstan.
- Armenia: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that he has begun consultations with the leaders of other CSTO member states about the situation in Kazakhstan.
For some context on today’s events in Kazakhstan, Meduza turned to Central Asia political expert Arkady Dubnov, who says the protests surprised the country’s political elite, though the sudden doubling of fuel prices “could not have failed to trigger” wider unrest.
The demonstrations began in Western Kazakhstan, a “monoregion” built almost entirely around the oil industry and the source of revenue for most of the national government’s budget. Dubnov argues that Kazakhstan’s “main problem” is that the nation is ripe for the economic reforms President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised during his presidential campaign but never delivered due in part to the “schizophrenia” of his duumvirate with Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan’s current crisis also reveals a breakdown in territorial and tribal relationships, says Dubnov, who argues that a resolution depends largely on the behavior of elders in the nation’s three main groups: the Senior zhuz, which Nazarbayev represents (covering southern and southeastern Kazakhstan), the Middle zhuz (central and eastern Kazakhstan), and the Junior zhuz (western Kazakhstan).
Dubnov credits the authorities with preventing a serious political leadership from emerging among the protesters. So long as the state can characterize demonstrators as “anarchists and troublemakers,” its only real option with crowds is a strict police response, followed by criminal prosecution for who instigated the unrest. At the same time, Dubnov says this is a problem for the authorities because it “drives protests into a distant corner where they will flare up again later with renewed vigor.”
Dubnov acknowledges that former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin (who fled Kazakhstan in the late 1990s) could potentially come back to lead the protests, but his return remains purely “theoretical” today. For now, the only political demands from protesters have come from anonymous groups.