WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the United States has questions about Kazakhstan’s request for assistance from a Russia-led security organization to help quell protests that have left dozens of people dead in the Central Asian country.
The top U.S. diplomat said the Kazakh authorities “certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests” in a way that respects the rights of protesters while maintaining law and order.
“So it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance, so we're trying to learn more about it,” Blinken said January 7 during a press conference at the State Department.
Kazakhstan earlier this week requested help from the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) made up of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia amid nationwide protests sparked by higher energy costs.
Russia has sent a few thousand troops to Kazakhstan under the auspices of the CSTO.
“I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave,” Blinken said.
Blinken’s comments came after President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev issued a stark warning to protesters that he has given security personnel a green light to “shoot to kill” even as the country’s police forces appeared to be in control of most cities in Kazakhstan.
Dozens were killed in the unprecedented anti-government demonstrations over a fuel price hike before law enforcement took control of the situation. It was the worst violence in the Central Asian state's 30 years of independence.
The Interior Ministry said Republican Square in Almaty, one of the main flashpoints of violence, had been cleared “of criminal groups.” RFE/RL journalists said they saw three bodies in different locations around the square as they surveyed it.
Correspondents in Shymkent said earlier on January 7 that the situation was calm, with an unknown number of people dead or injured.
The dead included 18 security officers killed in the clashes, the Interior Ministry said. The number of people detained reached 3,811, the ministry said, according to state television channel Khabar 24.
Toqaev said early on January 7 that order had "basically" been restored in the country, but later followed up those comments in a televised state address that “bandits” -- a word officials have used repeatedly to describe protesters who have threatened his authoritarian government’s survival -- would be dealt with severely.
"I have given the order to law enforcement agencies and the army to shoot to kill without warning," Toqaev said in the address while rejecting international calls for dialogue.
The protests erupted in the western region of Mangystau on January 2 over the doubling in the price of subsidized liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) before spreading and morphing into calls for political reform in the tightly controlled country.
Mobs stormed government buildings, setting some of them on fire, looted businesses, and torched and overturned cars as they called for reforms after decades of stifling rule in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
In response, Toqaev declared a nationwide state of emergency until January 19, with curfews, restrictions on movements, and bans on mass gatherings.
Blinken said the U.S. hopes the government can quickly address the problems, which he said were "fundamentally economic and political in nature."
He said the United States values its relationship with Kazakhstan in calling for a "rights-respecting resolution" to the crisis.
The first Russian paratroopers arrived on January 5 after Toqaev asked the CSTO to help "stabilize” the situation. They were followed by troops from CSTO member Belarus on January 6. More Russian troops were expected to arrive on January 7 alongside units from Armenia and Tajikistan, which approved sending 200 troops to its neighbor. Kyrgyzstan also approved on January 7 sending 150 troops and military equipment to Kazakhstan.
The speed at which CSTO arrived on the scene in Kazakhstan was seen by some analysts as another sign of the Kremlin's strategy to act quickly to safeguard its influence in the former Soviet Union.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan's BTA Bank and outspoken critic of the government, told Reuters on January 7 that claims by Toqaev and officials in Moscow that “foreign-trained terrorists” were behind the protests were an attempt to distract people from the fact that the unrest is a result of internal problems caused by the government.
He added that Kazakhstan is now the focus of a geopolitical play, with Russian President Vladimir Putin looking to use the situation to “methodically impose his program: the re-creation of a structure like the Soviet Union."
Ablyazov is the leader of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, which for months has openly called on Kazakhs to rally against the government. The authorities labeled the DVK "extremist" and banned it in March 2018.
Ablyazov managed BTA when it was the country's largest private bank, but he later had a falling out with government officials. He accused former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and many of Nazarbaev's family members of being involved in large-scale corruption and embezzlement and fled to London in 2009. The bank was subsequently nationalized by the Kazakh government.