Brutal crackdowns on protests in Central Asia have helped shape the region.
Kazakh soldiers in the main square in Almaty on Thursday, where hundreds of people were protesting against the government.Credit…Mariya Gordeyeva/Reuters
MOSCOW — Troops from a Russia-led military alliance arrived in Kazakhstan on Thursday to restore order after protests in the Central Asian country turned violent, with the police reporting that dozens of antigovernment demonstrators had been killed and hundreds injured.
The crisis in the oil-rich country marks the biggest challenge yet for the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in power less than three years, and also threatens to destabilize an already volatile region. Mr. Tokayev requested the Russia-led intervention.
The foreign soldiers were dispatched after the city hall in Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital, was set ablaze on Wednesday, and the airport was overrun by an angry mob. Violence spread through the night. The police opened fire on the demonstrators, some of them armed, but also accused them of killing 18 law enforcement officers and troops, and leaving 750 injured.
Throughout the day on Thursday, there were reports of continued clashes in Almaty, with the police saying they were “cleansing the city of militants.” Heavy gunfire echoed through the city. People hunkered in their homes posted videos of smoke billowing from buildings around the city.
On Thursday night, the internal affairs ministry said it had regained control of all government buildings in Almaty.
The reports of deaths could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, has some of the largest oil fields on earth and more than 40 percent of the world’s uranium production. But the average salary in Kazakhstan is the equivalent of $570 a month, according to the government’s statistics, and many are angry at socio-economic disparities, which have been made worse by the pandemic.
The Russian-led effort to quell the unrest, described as a temporary peacekeeping mission by the military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, will be limited in time and will aim at protecting government buildings and military objects, the group said in a statement.
The group has dispatched about 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan, and that figure could rise, its secretary general told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. He would not say if they had been sent only to Almaty, or to other cities, as well.
This is the first time in the history of the alliance, which is Russia’s version of NATO, that its protection clause has been invoked.
Saltanat Azirbek, a police spokeswoman in Almaty, said that dozens of people had been “eliminated” by the authorities when they tried to storm government buildings and the headquarters and district offices of the police, the first widespread fatalities since the protests started.
The authorities reported that in addition to those who had been killed, about a thousand people had been injured and up to 400 had been hospitalized. By Thursday, around 2,000 people had been detained in Almaty, the Kazakh interior ministry said in a statement read out on state television. Two of the members of the security staff that were killed had been beheaded, Almaty’s commandant’s office said in a statement carried by Khabar-24, Kazakhstan’s state news channel. The protesters also surrounded two hospitals in the city, the statement said.
The police warned people living near main government buildings to stay at home.
The Biden administration is closely watching Moscow’s military intervention in Kazakhstan, a Russian neighbor and former Soviet republic that Washington has cultivated as a friendly partner in recent years.
U.S. officials see President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s response to the crisis as a test of his ability and determination to maintain a Russian sphere of influence in neighboring countries. Mr. Putin has warned against deepening Western involvement in Ukraine, and has massed troops along Ukraine’s eastern border for what American officials warn is a potential invasion of that country.
Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, requested the troop deployment by a Russian-led alliance to help put down the uprising in his country.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke on Thursday morning with his Kazakh counterpart, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the State Department said, and “reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis,” the State Department said in a statement.
A day earlier, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said in a statement, “We condemn the acts of violence and destruction of property and call for restraint by both the authorities and protesters.”
“We ask for all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights, and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service. We urge all parties to find a peaceful resolution of the state of emergency,” Mr. Price added.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Biden administration had not condemned the military intervention by Russia and its allies. A statement posted on Twitter by the European Union’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned that “External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided.”
Among the Central Asian former Soviet Republics, Kazakhstan has been the friendliest country with Washington, a bond formed thanks to major energy investments by American corporations and the cooperation of the former Khazak president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, with the United States on nuclear nonproliferation. Mr. Nazarbayev also supported the American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Kremlin blamed foreign influence for the unrest, but didn’t point to a particular country. In the past, Russia has accused the United States of fomenting protests in Ukraine and Georgia.
“We consider the recent events in a friendly country to be a foreign-inspired attempt to use armed and trained groups of people forcibly to undermine the security and integrity of the state,” the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said in a statement, according to the Russian news outlet Sputnik.
John R. Bolton, who served as national security adviser in the Trump White House, wrote on Twitter Thursday that Mr. Putin’s intervention in Kazakhstan was evidence that President Biden lacks a successful strategy for dealing with the Russian leader.
“Putin is on the march, today in Kazakhstan. Are Belarus or Ukraine next? Biden’s ‘relentless diplomacy’ with Putin is failing,” Mr. Bolton said.
Kazakhstan has long been regarded one of the most successful post-Soviet states. It has by far the highest G.D.P. per capita in the region and plenty of reserves, driven by billions in profits derived from its oil-rich western region.
Most of this wealth, however, has not been equally distributed, with the elites living lavishly while many others survive on meager salaries and are left to complain in vain about widespread government corruption.
Still, the scale of protests rocking the country has caught most Central Asian observers off guard.
According to Vladislav Inozemtsev, an analyst of post-Soviet affairs and special adviser to Russian Media Studies Project, the situation in Kazakhstan is a warning for the Kremlin: Under a surface appearance of stability, a pool of discontent might be brewing that could explode at any moment.
“In Russia, the government must realize that 10 years without economic growth cannot make the population happy,” said Mr. Inozemtsev. “No geopolitical adventures can rescue it if the Kremlin doesn’t offer a mechanism that would increase the standards of living.”
Another lesson of this week’s protests, Mr. Inozemtsev said, was that succession creates turbulence in authoritarian systems. In 2019, Mr. Tokayev formally succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime president. But Mr. Nazarbayev continued to wield power.
Mr. Nazarbayev handpicked Mr. Tokayev, whose first order of business was to rename the country’s capital in his predecessor’s honor. However, the new arrangement left the country’s bureaucracy disoriented.
On Wednesday, Mr. Tokayev appeared to be trying to use the unrest to consolidate power. He dismissed Mr. Nazarbayev from his post as chairman of the country’s Security Council, and also removed Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew as deputy head of the main security service.
All night and into the day on Thursday, young men roamed the streets of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, flanked by flames and buttressed by barricades. As stun grenades exploded and tear gas wafted in the air, demonstrators set fire to trucks, police cars and other vehicles, their smoldering hulks littering the streets.
The first foreign soldiers from countries led by Russia landed in the Central Asian nation and found a land that had, for the moment, been plunged into anarchy.
Some protesters came with firearms and started looting shops and malls, according to video footage posted from the scene. They set government buildings on fire, including the City Hall and the former office of the country’s president. They also captured the airport.
Security forces responded with force, gunfire rattled the city throughout the day, and there were reports of dozens of people killed. On Thursday night, the government claimed to have retaken control of all official buildings in Almaty.
The scale of the violence, which was evident in videos, postings on social media and official government statements, was still coming into focus on Thursday as unconfirmed reports of continued, sporadic clashes circulated on social media.
With intermittent internet access and few independent witnesses, information coming out of the country was hard to verify.
Galym Ageleulov, who has witnessed the events of the past few days, said he believed that a protest movement that was calling for peaceful change had been co-opted by throngs of criminals. Overnight, the streets were filled with mostly young men, many posing on social media with riot shields and helmets captured from the police. They were highly organized and managed by gang leaders, he said.
“The police have disappeared from the city,” said Mr. Ageleulov, director of the human rights center Liberty in Almaty. “These gang members marched through the city looting stores and setting cars ablaze as they moved; they stormed the City Hall,” he said in a phone interview.
“It was a horrible scene,” he said.
By the morning, Almaty had been transformed: Commercial banks were ordered closed with many Kazakhs rushing to A.T.M.s desperate to withdraw cash; stores were closed, causing many residents to line up for bread, a scene unseen in the country for decades; at times, the internet has been shut down, disrupting basic infrastructure work.
Almaty’s City Hall, an imposing white building that once served as the Communist Party headquarters, was charred black from the flames that burned through the night. Members of the special forces roamed the surrounding streets firing live ammunition trying to quell the uprising.
The revolt began on Sunday in western Kazakhstan as a protest against a surge in fuel prices. Even though the government said it would rescind the price increase, the protests widened, spreading across the country, with broader demands for increased political representation and improved social benefits.
The Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, issued a statement late Wednesday night calling the protesters “a band of terrorists” who had been trained abroad. He declared Kazakhstan to be under attack and asked for intervention from Russia’s answer to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to which his country belongs.
The group is effectively led by Russia and also includes former Soviet countries in the Kremlin sphere of influence: Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The protests have paralyzed a nation of 19 million. In addition to the bank closures and internet shutdowns, the telephone system has been shut off sporadically, schools have extended their winter break by a week and flights in and out of airports in the cities of Almaty, Aktau and Aktobe have been suspended.
The cost of fuel doubled overnight after the government lifted price caps on Jan. 1. Amid increasing protests, the president of Kazakhstan said the government would again cap the price for fuel.CreditCredit…Vladimir Tretyakov/Associated Press
Kazakhstan, where violent protests against the government have been raging, has some of the largest oil fields on earth and more than 40 percent of the world’s uranium production.
So far the unrest does not seem to have cut into production of either oil or uranium, but it has the potential to ripple through critical energy markets.
Uranium prices, which have risen in recent months on hopes of a revival of the nuclear industry to combat climate change, rose 8 percent on Wednesday amid reports of clashes in the Central Asian country. Some 22 percent of the uranium purchased by nuclear plants in the United States in 2020 came from Kazakhstan, according to U.S. government statistics. “Without Kazakhstan right now, the world would not be anywhere near well-supplied for uranium,” said Jonathan Hinze, president of UxC, which tracks the market, though he noted that utilities buy the fuel with long lead times.
Any drop in oil output from Kazakhstan, which produces about 2 percent of world supplies, would also likely be felt in an already tight market. Some oil producers are not meeting the quotas allocated to them under agreements by the so-called OPEC Plus producers group.
Kazakhstan, a member of the group, has been substantially exceeding its quota and is one of the few producers that looked likely to be able to increase output in the coming months.
Oil prices jumped more than 2 percent on Thursday in futures trading on global markets, in part reflecting concerns about Kazakh unrest.
“This is the sort of supply risk that has not been on anybody’s radar screen,” said Bill Farren-Price, director for intelligence at Enverus, an energy research firm. He added that oil analysts had mostly focused on problems elsewhere, including tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and recent cuts in production in Libya because of political turmoil.
Since becoming independent with the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago, Kazakhstan has been a magnet for Western energy investment. The Tengiz oil field, in the western part of the country near the Caspian Sea, is one of the world’s largest. Chevron and Exxon Mobil, the two largest American oil companies, are in the midst of an estimated $37 billion expansion at Tengiz field, which is a critical source of earnings for Chevron.
Exxon, Shell, France’s Total, and Italy’s Eni are all shareholders in another huge field called Kashagan in the Caspian.
These fields have helped make Kazakhstan a substantial oil producer, pumping about 1.6 million barrels a day (more than Nigeria, comparable to Mexico) and one of the few that is growing. The oil operations are also a crucial source of revenue for the Kazakh government.
The fields are in remote areas, but oil workers have demonstrated at the Chevron-operated Tengiz field in sympathy with the protests.
“A number of contractor employees are gathered at the Tengiz field in support of protests taking place across Kazakhstan,” said a statement on Thursday from Tengizchevroil, the Chevron-led joint venture in the country. It added, “Production operations continue.”
Mr. Farren-Price said that the locations of these fields would tend to insulate them from disruption. But if the unrest gains momentum, he said, the oil companies might encounter operating problems, like difficulties moving people and supplies in and out of the sites.
The widespread disorder could also hurt Kazakhstan’s prospects for investment and credit.
In a comment on Thursday, Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating group, attributed the civil unrest to what it called “structural weaknesses” in Kazakhstan’s institutions. The agency said that government policy was subject to what it called “succession risk,” with the longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev having been succeeded by another strongman, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in 2019, and noted that “perceived corruption is high.”
Central Asian governments have cracked down on previous popular uprisings with unflinching brutality in episodes that carry geopolitical consequences more than a decade later.
In Uzbekistan in 2005, security forces opened fire on crowds in the city of Andijan. In that incident, an Islamic opposition group called Akramia — named for its founder Akram Yuldashev — seized government buildings and released detainees from a prison.
Soldiers surrounded a group protesting on a city square, then opened fire. The final toll is disputed. The president of Uzbekistan at the time, Islam Karimov, acknowledged 187 deaths. Human rights groups put the toll at around 750. Mr. Karimov retained power after the uprising.
But the violence steered Uzbekistan more firmly into Russia’s orbit, as Russia largely backed Mr. Karimov while the United States criticized the shootings. In the wake of the American criticism, Mr. Karimov expelled the U.S. military from a logistics base in the country supporting the war effort in Afghanistan.
In another mass shooting in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, protests that began in a regional city spread quickly to the capital, Bishkek. A crowd gathered outside the presidential office. The police opened fire but failed to control protesters who climbed over a security fence. The president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the capital and within days was deposed. The new government estimated the death toll at 88 protesters.
In that instance, the shootings tainted the United States’ standing in Kyrgyzstan; Washington was seen as supportive of Mr. Bakiyev despite troubling signs of corruption because his government provided access to an airfield and base used by the U.S. military to fly troops into Afghanistan.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, bigger than the whole of Western Europe, though with a population of just 19 million.
The latest demonstrations matter because the country has been regarded until now as a pillar of political and economic stability in an unstable region, even as that stability has come at the price of a repressive government that stifles dissent.
The protests are also significant as Kazakhstan has been aligned with Russia, whose president, Vladimir V. Putin, views the country — a body double of sorts for Russia in terms of its economic and political systems — as part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
For the Kremlin, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country. This is yet another uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned nation, following pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020. The chaos threatens to undermine Moscow’s sway in the region at a time when Russia is trying to assert its economic and geopolitical power in countries like Ukraine and Belarus.
The countries of the former Soviet Union are also watching the protests closely, and the events in Kazakhstan could help energize opposition forces elsewhere.
Kazakhstan also matters to the United States, because it has become a significant country for American energy concerns, with Exxon Mobil and Chevron having invested tens of billions of dollars in western Kazakhstan, the region where the unrest began this month.
Although it has close ties with Moscow, consecutive Kazakh governments have also maintained close links to the United States, with oil investment seen as a counterweight to Russian influence. The United States government has long been less critical of post-Soviet authoritarianism in Kazakhstan than in Russia and Belarus.