Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has promised an uncompromising crackdown on protesters in the country and has told security forces that they must “use deadly force without warning” against protesters whom he called “bandits and terrorists “.
As relative calm returned to the country on Friday, after several days in which internet and mobile phone networks were shut down, the human toll for the week began to become apparent.
The Interior Ministry said 26 protesters were killed in the clashes, as well as 18 people from police and security forces. Witness reports of shootings and victims suggest that the true figures may be considerably higher. More than 3,800 people were detained, the ministry said.
In a televised speech on Friday, Tokayev said that he had personally given the order to use deadly force in recent days, and also blamed “so-called free media” for helping stoke the unrest.
“Abroad, the two parties are asked to hold negotiations for a peaceful resolution. What idiocy. What kind of negotiations can you have with criminals? They were armed and well-trained bandits, both local and foreign. Bandits and terrorists, who should be destroyed. This will happen in the shortest possible time ”.
Promising that the crackdown would continue, Tokayev said he had created a special interagency group to track down violent protesters. He claimed that “all the demands made peacefully have been heard,” but appeared to dismiss a large proportion of the protesters as criminals, saying that “20,000 bandits” were involved in the riots in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and the center of the recent tumult. This suggested that a large-scale operation could be launched to hunt down others.
The protests were sparked this week by a sudden spike in fuel prices combined with prolonged frustrations over the country’s political and economic situation. Peaceful demonstrations turned violent on Wednesday, with crowds taking over government buildings and widespread looting.
Tokayev’s response included accepting the government’s resignation and announcing fixed fuel prices, but also ordering a crackdown. Earlier on Friday, government figures insisted that security forces had the situation under control across the country, including in Almaty. However, there were reports of further shooting in the city, and in the city of Taldykorgan there were reports that people had attempted to rob a prison.
Almaty airport is closed to all traffic except military traffic until at least Sunday, and is guarded by “peacekeeping forces” sent by Russia and other nations of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
In his speech, Tokayev thanked Russia for sending troops, but said they had not participated in any combat. The Russian Defense Ministry said Russian peacekeepers were protecting key infrastructure sites. The ministry said 75 planes were used to transport troops and equipment to Kazakhstan. The force totals about 2,500 personnel, the regional alliance said.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the situation in Kazakhstan with Tokayev in several phone calls. Chinese President Xi Jinping praised Tokayev for “taking decisive action at critical moments and quickly calming the situation down.” Meanwhile, the West’s response has been muted, a tacit admission that it has little influence over events in the country at a time when diplomatic attention is focused on deterring a Russian foray into Ukraine.
Tokayev has insisted there was “foreign backing” for the protests, a line he used to call for the CSTO’s deployment, and an indictment that autocratic leaders in the region have frequently claimed about largely local protests. So far it has not provided any proof of foreign endorsement.
Some analysts suggest there could be a behind-the-scenes battle between different factions of the country’s elite. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first president to rule from independence in 1991 to 2019 and chose Tokayev as his successor, has not been seen in public since the new year. Much of the anger in the past week has been directed at him and there are rumors that he may have left the country.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism