ALMATY -- Peacekeepers from a Russian-led regional security alliance will be sent to Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country, the prime minister of Armenia announced on January 5 after an unprecedented wave of unrest in the oil-rich Central Asian nation that was sparked by a fuel price hike.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Facebook that the decision to deploy peacekeepers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for a limited period had been taken in response to an appeal from Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. Armenia is chairing the CSTO in 2022.
Pashinian's statement added that the decision was made "due to the threat to the national security and sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which arose as a result of external interference."
The CSTO is a military alliance made up of forces from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Pashinian did not say how many peacekeepers would be sent or when they would arrive.
Toqaev earlier on January 5 declared a nationwide state of emergency and stripped his predecessor of a powerful leadership role after thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police and stormed government buildings.
Toqaev said that he had appealed to the CSTO to assist Kazakhstan in responding to what he called a “terrorist threat.”
Angry demonstrators, some of whom were armed with rubber truncheons, sticks, and shields, set fire on January 5 to a presidential residence and the mayor’s office in the country’s largest city, Almaty, where protesters also seized control of the airport, prompting the temporary suspension of all flights.
The Interior Ministry claimed eight police and national guard troops were killed and 317 people were wounded during the unrest across the country but offered no details.
Toqaev didn’t mention any civilian deaths, but video recordings circulated on social media purportedly showed several bodies of protesters on the streets. RFE/RL could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
Police engaged in pitched battles with the protesters, using tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds, but were largely unsuccessful.
Communications monitors reported a "national-scale" Internet blackout, while RFE/RL journalists in the country said both Internet and telephone services had deteriorated markedly.
Toqaev said what he described as foreign-trained terrorists and bandits were seizing buildings, infrastructure, and weapons in Kazakh cities. They had taken control of the Almaty airport and five aircraft there, including foreign planes, the president said as he made a second televised speech in the space of a few hours on January 5.
"It is actually no longer a threat. It is an undermining of the integrity of the state. And, most importantly, it is an attack on our citizens who are asking me...to help them urgently," Toqaev said.
Toqaev sacked the government earlier on January 5 and later declared the state of emergency in a bid to squelch the protests, which erupted in the western region of Mangystau three days ago over a sudden hike in prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a popular fuel used in vehicles in the oil-rich country, along with general discontent over issues such as corruption, unemployment, and low wages.
In a major move to distance himself from the past, Toqaev also removed his predecessor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, from the powerful post of head of the country's Security Council.
Nazarbayev had retained wide authority through the post since stepping down in 2019 as president after three decades in power, the last Soviet-era Communist Party boss still ruling an ex-Soviet state. Some protesters laid the blame for many of the country's problems on him, with demonstrators in the city of Taldyqorghan, the capital of Almaty Province, toppling a statue of the former leader.
Violence was also reported on January 5 in the northern city of Aqtobe, where police fired tear gas on protesters who tried to enter the regional government building by force.
Protests also continued in other cities and towns, including Aqtau, Zhanaozen, and Oral, where dozens of people were reportedly detained.
Limits appeared to have been imposed on the Internet to limit the ability of demonstrators to mobilize, with web monitoring group NetBlocks reporting a nationwide “blackout.”
Messenger apps Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp were all said to be unavailable in Kazakhstan, while the website of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and those of independent media that reported on the protests also appeared to be blocked.
According to the Interior Ministry, more than 200 people were detained during a previous night of unrest in Almaty and elsewhere, but observers say that number appears to be underestimated.
A decree order published on the presidential website in the morning of January 5 said Toqaev had accepted the resignation of the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Asqar Mamin, in line with the constitution.
First Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov was appointed as interim prime minister, and current members of the government will continue their duties until a new cabinet is formed, according to the order.
Before its resignation, the government announced it was restoring the price cap of 50 tenge ($0.11) per liter, or less than half the market price, in Mangystau.
Demonstrators in Aqtau and Zhanaozen argued that that the removal of some officials wouldn't bring lasting results and called for the dissolution of parliament, where no genuine opposition political forces are represented, and new limits to presidential powers, among other things.
Zhanaozen was the scene of a 2011 police crackdown against oil workers protesting over pay and working conditions that claimed the lives of at least 16 workers.
In addition to replacing the prime minister, Toqaev appointed a new first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB) to replace Samat Abish, a nephew of Nazarbaev.
The United States and the United Nations urged Kazakh authorities to show “restraint” in dealing with the protests.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States supports "calls for calm" and said protesters should be able to "express themselves peacefully.”
The United Nations also called for all parties to "exercise restraint, refrain from violence, and promote dialogue."
Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan said they were “closely” and “anxiously” following the situation.