MOSCOW — The sixth day of violent unrest turned into a massacre in the streets of Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, leaving dozens of protesters and at least 13 law enforcement officials killed, as well as hundreds of ‘others injured.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who just a week ago was seen as the weak shadow of Kazakhstan’s Security Council President Narsultan Nazarbayev, admitted he was the one who gave the security forces local authorities ordered to “shoot to kill” the demonstrators without warning on Thursday. Never before has a post-Soviet leader confessed to such a terrifying order.
On the eve of Thursday’s bloodshed, Tokayev claimed he was fighting “international terrorist gangs”, referring to Kazakh demonstrators who took to the streets this week to protest the social and economic unrest in the country. . The president said local security forces had failed to control the situation and admitted that he had asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian-led military alliance with a “force of peacekeeping “of 3,600 troops – to help quell the unrest, which increasingly appears to be escalating into civil war. The CSTO obliged, with the arrival of Russian troops on Thursday.
“Tokayev needed the CSTO as a club to demonstrate to its commanders that, ‘See, Moscow is backing me, there is a Russian soldier standing next to you shoulder to shoulder,'” the pro-Kremlin political expert Sergei Markov at the Daily Beast. , as Russian special units boarded military jets en route to Almaty. “This is the first time that the CSTO forces have been deployed in a foreign state, and it is a message to Washington: Vladimir Putin has his own effective NATO, capable of performing military tasks.
For about three decades, the Russia-led alliance of six former Soviet republics, including Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, remained a rather irrelevant organization with a series of internal problems. Just a few years ago, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he would not allow his soldiers to fight in foreign states as part of the alliance.
“We do not hide our position on the CSTO, they are simple: no matter who our allies are and what their interests are abroad, we will never fight on foreign territory,” Lukashenko said in 2016 But after a year of opposition protests, massive arrests and Western sanctions, Lukashenko seems to have radically reneged on his promise to “never”. Belarusian soldiers are said to be on their way to Kazakhstan on Friday to join the special unit of Russian airborne forces.
According to the Russian parliamentary commission responsible for the decisions of the CSTO, the “peacekeeping mission” in Kazakhstan should last at least a month. “We understand the scenario, more or less: it is the neutralization and arrests of [protest] leaders and the security of infrastructure and objects of strategic importance, ”deputy head of the committee, Yuriy Shvytkiy, told Interfax on Friday.
The timing of Putin’s message coincides with the Biden administration’s talks with 29 NATO countries on what to do about the giant Russian army deployed along the Ukrainian border, ahead of the long-awaited summit Poutine-Biden of January 10. Putin demanded that NATO cease its expansion towards Eastern Europe and give Moscow “legal guarantees” to this effect.
“Just before the important talks, Putin shows that he has one more tool in his arsenal: not only can he deploy [his] “polite men” in Donbass or Crimea, he can also send CSTO military forces to a neighboring country, “Sergii Leshchenko, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, told Daily Beast on Thursday.
Leschenko does not think Putin will adopt a similar strategy with Ukraine, “unless Putin uses a request from the separatist leaders to deploy CSTO forces in the Donbass”. He added: “The difference is that Tokayev, the head of a CSTO country, asked for foreign soldiers to help him.
The Daily Beast spoke to international observers in Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia, who all agreed that at least for now, it looks like Putin is lucky again with his timing, having used the troubles of Kazakhstan to demonstrate to the West that it is Russia and Russia alone which deals with the damage in the post-Soviet countries.
“Personally, I think President Tokayev has a devious plan to kill a ton of protesters and then blame the Russians.“
“Last year, Putin did not help Armenia, a member country of the CSTO, in its war against Azerbaijan, but deployed thousands of Russian peacekeepers to Karabakh to stop the war and exert influence in two countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, ”Mansur Mirovalev, a Kiev-based expert on Central Asia told the Daily Beast. “Now the Russian soldiers are back in Kazakhstan, where so far Russia has no military base. We don’t know when and if they will be leaving.
Before the unrest, Kazakhstan had close economic and political ties with the West: American Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and other American companies operated freely in Kazakhstan. Democratic reforms in the country, however, are a different story. Four years ago, the government called the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan political party an extremist organization and revoked the licenses of 88 foreign television stations, according to a report by Freedom House, an American NGO.
Carnegie Moscow Center editor-in-chief Alexander Baunov believes this year’s anti-dictatorship protests have in fact strengthened Kazakhstan-Russia ties. “In addition, we must not forget that there is a huge undefended border, over 2,000 kilometers, of open fields between Russia and Kazakhstan. It is in the interests of Russian security to keep the peace, ”Baunov told the Daily Beast.
In Kazakhstan, President Tokayev said 20,000 “gunmen” attacked Almaty on Thursday, refusing to line up with protesters on the grounds that “there can be no negotiations with criminals”. Meanwhile, independent journalists on the ground in the capital have reported “utter anarchy”.
“In inviting the CSTO forces, President Tokayev made a choice between three options his country was facing: radical Islamization, powerful Chineseization and the Russian world. To Putin’s incredible luck, he chose Russia, ”Nina Khrushcheva, Russian expert in international affairs and New School university professor, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Putin is going to put out the fire in Central Asia this time.”
Some experts point out that with the growing number of casualties on the streets of Almaty, the reputation of Putin-led CSTO forces is certainly at stake.
“Personally, I think President Tokayev has a devious plan to kill a ton of protesters and then blame the Russians,” veteran Russian military observer Ilya Barabanov told The Daily Beast. “But at least for now, the Russian soldiers cannot be accused of killing the protesters on Thursday, they only landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday evening.”