President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has issued a stark warning to protesters in Kazakhstan that he has given security personnel a green light to “shoot to kill” even as the nation’s police forces, bolstered by a Russian-led troop contingent, appeared to be in control of most cities in Kazakhstan after dozens were killed in unprecedented anti-government demonstrations..
Though sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the main city of Almaty on January 7, the unrest over a fuel price hike that has ravaged many cities in recent days appeared muted, with RFE/RL correspondents in several cities saying law enforcement had taken control of the situation.
The Interior Ministry said Republican Square in Almaty, one of the main flash points of violence in clashes between police and protesters, had been cleared “of criminal groups.” RFE/RL journalists said they saw three bodies in different locations around the square as they surveyed it.
Dozens of people -- including 18 security officers -- were killed in the clashes as protesters torched and ransacked public buildings in several cities in the worst violence in the Central Asian state's 30 years of independence.
The number of people detained reached 3,811, the Interior 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 by saying 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 have 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.
The spiraling violence also prompted him on January 5 to ask the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional military alliance, to help "stabilize” the situation, which Toqaev has blamed on foreign-trained "terrorists."
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."-- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
The first Russian paratroopers quickly arrived, followed by troops from CSTO member Belarus on the evening of 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. On January 7, Kyrgyzstan also approved sending 150 troops and military equipment to Kazakhstan.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington has questions about Kazakhstan’s request for assistance from the CSTO. 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 on January 7. “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 also said the U.S. hopes the government can quickly address the problems, which he said were "fundamentally economic and political in nature."
China, which also shares a long border with Kazakhstan, has backed Toqaev so far. State television on January 7 said President Xi Jinping spoke with Toqaev, noting that Beijing opposed any use of force to destabilize Kazakhstan and threaten its security.
The speed at which the 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 an outspoken critic of the government, told the Reuters news agency 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.
The Interior Ministry said 26 "armed criminals" had been "liquidated" and more than 3,000 detained. Eighteen police and national guard troops had been killed since the start of the protests this week, it added.
The Health Ministry said on January 6 that more than 1,000 people had been injured and 400 hospitalized since three days of protests erupted into violence on January 5. Sixty-two people are in intensive care, it said.
An unknown number of people have reportedly also been killed in at least two smaller towns, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.
Some journalists reported at least a partial restoration of Internet services that had been cut off in much of the country, but connection problems were still hampering communication.
A report from regional website kg.24 claimed that two airplanes that belong to the family of 81-year-old Nazarbaev, who ruled the country firmly for almost three decades, had landed at Manas Airport in neighboring Kyrgyzstan overnight, and at least one had then left Manas shortly after midnight local time.
But RFE/RL could not confirm that report, and there was no word on who might have been aboard the aircraft.
In an attempt to distance himself from the past, Toqaev on January 5 dismissed Nazarbaev from the powerful post of head of the country's Security Council and relieved a longtime Nazarbaev associate of his post as chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB).