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Monday 10 January 2022

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A serviceman patrols a street in central Almaty on January 8 following violence that erupted after protests over hikes in fuel prices.

NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has blamed "a single center" for trying to seize power in the oil-rich Central Asian state in recent unrest as a Russian-led military alliance met for talks to update the situation around a wave of deadly public unrest sparked by a fuel price hike last week that shook the region.

In a speech to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on January 10, Toqaev said calm had returned to the country after protests calling for reforms in the tightly controlled authoritarian country erupted into a spasm of violence, the worst in the Central Asian state's 30 years of independence.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, protesters stormed and briefly seized the airport. For several days, sporadic gunfire was reported in the city streets.

The Interior Ministry said on January 10 that 7,939 people had been detained during the unrest that started on January 2. The Health Ministry said the day before that 164 people were killed in the violence, including three children. Toqaev, however, said the exact number of people killed during the unrest remained unclear as investigations are under way.

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Toqaev did not produce any evidence to back up his claim that foreign terrorists were behind the protests. He also dismissed as “disinformation” some reports and eyewitness accounts that authorities had attacked peaceful demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Toqaev's office said in a statement that he told European Council President Charles Michel in a January 10 telephone call that militants from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East were behind the recent violence.

The statement said Toqaev told Michel he had "no doubt that it was a terror attack" that was "well organized" and involved "foreign fighters."

Kazakhstan, an oil-and-gas-rich country the size of Western Europe, was thrown into turmoil in the past week after protests over a sharp hike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the remote western region of Manghystau spread across the country all the way to Almaty.

In the face of mounting unrest, Toqaev declared a state of emergency and on January 5 the CSTO -- a six-member alliance made up of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia -- quickly agreed to help provide security.

At the same time, he also tried to quell dissent by announcing a six-month price cap on fuel and a halt to any increases in utility prices, while also replacing former President Nursultan Nazarbaev as head of the National Security Council.

Many protesters blamed Nazarbaev, who served as president from Kazakhstan's independence until he resigned in 2019 and hand-picked Toqaev as his successor, for the country's woes. Nazarbaev had retained substantial power as the leader of the council.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) with his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)

Toqaev has sought to frame the violence in Almaty as an attack by "terrorist groups" and expressed anger at foreign and independent media coverage of the events, which killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more including members of the security forces.

He praised the CSTO for what he called a "prompt response" to his request to intervene in the situation, adding that a total of 2,050 peacekeeping troops from CSTO members were on Kazakh soil.

"In the nearest future, the wide-scale anti-terrorist operation will be over and along with that the successful and effective mission of the CSTO's troops will end as well," Toqaev said, adding that his government will provide the world with "evidence proving international terrorists" attacked Almaty and 11 other regions in the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the CSTO troops would stymie any attempts by external forces to topple governments within the alliance while accusing "terrorists" of using social media to bring people out into the streets of Kazakhstan as a cover for their attacks.

That allegation, which Putin did not back up with evidence, was refuted by Kazakh opposition politician Zhasaral Quanyshalin.

He told RFE/RL on January 9 that Internet and telecommunications services were switched off across the country to block peaceful demonstrators from communicating with each other. He also accused the authorities of planting troublemakers in the demonstrations to discredit the peaceful protests and justify government actions such as shooting into crowds by security forces and extending an invitation to CSTO troops to enter the country.

"People have demanded that the power-holders who have become used to stealing from them must go. The authorities used their own people to destabilize the situation to turn the protests into chaos and started shooting to kill people," Quanyshalin said, though he did not produce evidence to back up his claim.

As of January 10, Internet service had been restored to most areas, though it remained sporadic in some places.

In the wake of the unrest, Toqaev also dismissed the head of the country’s National Security Committee (KNB), longtime Nazarbaev ally Karim Masimov. Official media reports said Masimov was detained on a high-treason charge.

On January 10, one of Masimov's close allies, KNB Colonel Azamat Ibraev, was found dead near his high-rise apartment block in Nur-Sultan, the capital. Preliminary investigations indicated that he jumped from his apartment window. They did not say whether they suspected foul play.

Authorities in the southern region of Zhambyl said on January 10 that regional police chief General Zhanat Suleimenov was found dead as well. Media reports say he committed suicide after a probe on unspecified charges was launched against him.

Kazakh authorities also declared January 10 a day of mourning for those killed during the violence.

Svetlin Mihailov (file photo)

Two journalists in Bulgaria and a website have been convicted of defamation and ordered to pay the equivalent of some $35,000 for articles published in 2018 in what is being described as an unprecedented verdict, RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service reports.

The Sofia City Court (SCC) found that Boris Mitov, now a journalist for RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, and Stoyana Georgieva had caused physical and mental anguish to Svetlin Mihailov, a former chairman of the SCC, and ordered them and the website that published the articles four years ago to pay him damages amounting to 60,000 Bulgarian lev ($34,659).

In 2018, Mitov was covering for the news website Mediapool Mihailov’s bid to become head of the SCC, Bulgaria’s largest district court. At the time, Georgieva was the editor in chief of Mediapool.

Four of those articles were examined by the court, and Judge Daniela Popova ruled on December 21 that they contained “defamatory allegations against [Mihailov].”

Lawyers for Mitov and Georgieva argued that the articles in question contained information about Mihailov, including questions about his sizable wealth and property, that had appeared at the time and since then in other publications.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the court’s decision “outrageous” and said it was meant to intimidate some of Bulgaria’s finest investigative journalists for reporting publicly known facts.

“The public has a right to accountability, and intimidation tactics like this will not keep RFE/RL from informing its audience about issues of public interest,” Fly said in a statement.

In her ruling, Popova did not specify exactly what extracts from the articles in question she found “indecent, vulgar, and cynical.”

Popova ordered the two journalists and Mediapool to each pay Mihailov 20,000 lev ($11,553).

Lawyers for the two journalists and Mediapool have appealed the ruling, although no date has been set yet for that hearing.

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