President of Kazakhstan regains control after crackdown on protests

Valery Sharifulin TASS via Getty Images

(ALMATY, Kazakhstan) – There are signs that the President of Kazakhstan is slowly regaining control of the country, following a bloody crackdown by security forces to end days of mass protests and after arrival Russian-led troops to support the government.

For the second day in a row, Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, was strangely calm and under military control, according to an ABC News reporter. The city, the former capital, was the epicenter of protests this week, where crowds stormed key government buildings and invaded the airport. But under the guise of an internet blackout, security forces using live ammunition have cleared the streets over the past three days in clashes that have left dozens dead, according to the government.

The streets were mostly deserted on Saturday, but the occasional sound of gunfire could be heard. It was not clear, but some of the shots appeared to be warning shots fired by soldiers, warning people to stay away from police lines, according to the ABC News reporter, who did not named for security reasons. The main square, the main protest site, was occupied by security forces and blocked by armored vehicles.

A curfew is in effect that evening and authorities have told people to stay inside. Military units have set up checkpoints and control access to the city. Most stores are closed and people are struggling to find basic groceries except for the bread which is always delivered, according to the ABC reporter. The city center is ransacked, many shops looted and the roads are littered with burnt cars. Several journalists on the ground reported seeing corpses lying in the street.

The protests began a week ago, sparked by rising gas prices, but quickly spread and turned into the largest uprising against the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan since gaining independence after the fall of the Soviet Union . Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Wednesday called on Russia for help, asking a Moscow-led military alliance of former Soviet countries to send troops. A few thousand Russian parachute units have since arrived in the country, along with several hundred from Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

The internet blackout in the country made it difficult to get a clear picture of the situation in other cities on Saturday, but there were signs the protests had died down. Kazakhstan’s interior ministry said police now had “full control” over Aktob, a city that has seen large protests. In Aktau, another protest center, a Russian state journalist showed police removing a small number of protesters from the central square.

Security forces were engaged in a shooting for several hours near a village on the outskirts of Almaty, according to a reporter with the Russian state news agency Sputnik.

Kazakhstan’s interior ministry said police arrested more than 4,400 people during the protests. At least 26 protesters and 18 members of the security forces were killed and hundreds injured in the unrest, authorities said.

Tokyaev spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, telling him the situation was “stabilizing” but that “hotbeds of terrorism” remained and that he would fight them “with the utmost determination”, according to an office reading. of the President of Kazakhstan.

Tokayev and the Kremlin claimed the unrest was perpetrated by “foreign terrorist” groups. In many places, protests have been largely peaceful, although in Almaty they have been overtaken by intense violence, with crowds of men sacking government buildings and widespread looting. Men armed with apparently organized assault rifles were seen and appear to have fought with security forces. But peaceful protests appear to continue in the city – as troops marched through the square on Wednesday, a group of young people stood with a banner saying, “We are not terrorists.”

Kazakhstan’s security services also arrested the former head of the country’s internal security agency, Karim Masimov, on Saturday for treason, in a surprise move that fueled speculation in Kazakhstan that an internal struggle was also taking place among the elite during the protests.

Masimov had led the powerful KNB security service until he was sacked this week by Tokayev, when the president rejected his government as a concession to the protests.

A statement posted on the security agency’s website said Masimov and other unnamed individuals were suspected of “state treason” and had been held in a detention center for two days. Charges against him carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Masimov was a key ally of Kazakhstan’s longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Communist Party leader who ruled the country for three decades.

Nazarbayev, who is 81, passed the presidency to Tokayev in 2019, but had retained considerable power behind the scenes as chairman of the national security council and has the honorary title of “head of the nation.”

This week, amid the unrest, Tokayev announced that he was replacing Nazarbayev as chairman of the security council, a move seen as the signal for Nazarbayev’s end to power.

Nazarbayev’s impeachment now combined with the arrest of his key ally in Tokayev’s government has prompted some to claim that Tokayev is using the upheaval to end his former boss’s influence in government and cement his own.

Nazarbayev’s whereabouts – as has not been seen in public since the protests began – have become a topic of interest among Kazakhs. Nazarbayev’s spokesman on Saturday denied several reports that Nazarbayev had left Kazakhstan with his daughter. The spokesperson said Nazarbayev was in the capital Nure-Sultan – which bears his name – and was in regular contact with Tokayev.

A reporter working for ABC News contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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