Kazakhstan president gives shoot-to-kill order against protesters, dismissing calls for negotiations
Russian paratroopers helped local forces clear out the protesters occupying the airport so that round-the-clock flights could bring in some 2,500 troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Some protesters have also issued a list of demands for peaceful political change. Dozens have been killed across the country so far, with authorities saying that nearly 4,000 “riot participants” had been detained and at least 18 police officers were dead.
In his speech, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the lives of “hundreds of civilians and servicemen” had been damaged, dismissed calls “from abroad” for negotiations as “stupidity,” and vowed to crush the demonstrations.
“What negotiations could there be with criminals and murderers? We had to deal with armed and trained bandits and terrorists, both local and foreign. Therefore, they need to be destroyed, and this will be done in the near future,” he said in a televised address.
He said that more than 20,000 bandits with “high combat readiness and animal-like cruelty” had attacked Almaty alone.
In contrast to this portrait of the demonstrators as hardened militants, several thousand demonstrated peacefully in the city of Zhanaozen, one of the first hotspots of the riots, on Friday. They issued the most specific list of demands to date, asking for a change in power, freedom for civil rights activists, and a return to a 1993 version of the constitution, which is considered to have a more democratic tone and a clearer division of power than the current one.
Tokayev also promised to “turn the Internet back on” after a nationwide blackout but warned it will be accessible only for certain periods of time and highly monitored by the government. “Free access to the Internet does not mean you can freely post your musings, slander and insults, your incitements and calls,” he said.
Internet services had been severely disrupted since Wednesday, global Internet monitor NetBlocks said, with connectivity at about 5 percent of normal levels as of Friday morning.
Earlier on Friday, Tokayev had issued a statement that security forces had “mostly” regained control of the country. “The constitutional order has been basically restored in all regions.”
In recent days, protesters stormed government buildings nationwide and briefly held the Almaty airport. Though control has now been regained, it will remain closed for civilian aircraft until Sunday, state television reported. Several other cities are restoring domestic flights but rail and road transportation remains limited due to dozens of check points set up as part of nationwide state of emergency.
Into Friday, there were reports of hundreds of people assembling in Aktau and Zhanaozen, two cities in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west. There were also sporadic demonstrations of up to 3,000 people in other cities.
Violent clashes continued on Friday in Almaty, the country’s most populous city, as authorities carried out what they called an “anti-terrorist operation.” The Interior Ministry said that the square had been “cleansed,” though videos showed heavy gunfire continuing through the night and into Friday. In the morning, people gathered near a government building with signs such as “We are residents of Almaty, not terrorists.”
By the end of day, Almaty authorities said control over all government buildings had been regained but warned residents to stay home as “terrorists and their gangs continue to maintain furious resistance,” state television reported.
Bodies spotted in central Almaty were slowly being removed, according to Russian newspaper RBC. People were cautioned against approaching a government building in the square, with troops reportedly firing shots in the air to warn people off.
Public dissatisfaction that started over high fuel prices has escalated into a major challenge to a political system largely unchanged since the former Soviet state gained independence three decades ago.
The Kremlin said Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin held multiple calls with Tokayev in the past two days to discuss joint action “to fight international terrorism and to ensure order and security of Kazakh citizens.” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu is also coordinating efforts with his Kazakh counterpart.
Moscow has in the past deployed peacekeepers to countries that Putin fears are slipping out of his political orbit, which extends to many former Soviet states. Leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have previously complained that such troops prop up pro-Russian separatist forces.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, whose troops will be part of the CSTO intervention, told state media Thursday that demonstrators had tried to seize control of major airports in Kazakhstan to block the deployment of the alliance’s forces.
While the CSTO has long been seen as Russia’s answer to NATO, its first joint action is against domestic unrest rather than combating an attack from an external force. Kazakhstan and the bloc’s other members, however, have attempted to cast the intervention as a bid to protect the state against “foreign-trained terrorist gangs,” though they have provided no evidence to back the allegations.
The United States is monitoring the Moscow-led deployment and looking out for reports of potential human rights violations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Thursday briefing.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted that “rights and security of civilians must be guaranteed. External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided.”
China, however, has come out firmly in support of Tokayev, the Kazakhstan president, with leader Xi Jinping calling him to say that China firmly supported the country’s stability and rejected any attempts by “external forces” to provoke unrest or so-called “color revolutions” in the country.
China, which shares a land border with Kazakhstan, has invested billions in the country’s energy sector. Color revolutions refer to protests in Eastern Europe in the 2000s that overthrew pro-Russian governments that some see as instigated by Western nations.
Tokayev declared a two-week national state of emergency Wednesday, instituting an overnight curfew as well as a ban on mass gatherings. The restrictions came as the country’s sizable Orthodox Christian community prepared to celebrate Christmas on Friday.
Kazakh authorities have oscillated between cracking down on protesters and giving in to some demands. On Thursday, they announced a 180-day cap on the price of vehicle fuel. The demonstrations began after the government lifted a price cap on liquefied petroleum gas, such as propane, which powers most vehicles in the country’s west.
Oil and gas production, a significant part of Kazakhstan’s economy, has stuttered as the unrest continues. U.S. energy giant Chevron, which owns half of a joint venture that runs the major Tengiz oil field, said Thursday that production had been cut after protests disrupted its logistics.
Cheng reported from Seoul.