Dozens of protesters and at least 12 police have died during the ongoing violence in Kazakhstan, authorities claimed, as “peacekeepers” from a Russian-led military alliance arrived in the country at the request of embattled president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Eyewitnesses in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, described scenes of chaos on Thursday, with government buildings stormed or set on fire and widespread looting. However, many of those demonstrating said the protests had started out peaceful earlier in the week, and turned violent after a heavy-handed government response.
The interior ministry said 2,000 people were arrested on Thursday, while the police spokesperson Saltanat Azirbek told state news channel Khabar-24 that “dozens of attackers were liquidated”. There were also reports of about 400 people in hospital. City officials in Almaty said 353 police officers had been injured and 12 killed, one of whom they claimed had been found beheaded.
It was not immediately possible to verify the figures, but video footage showed violent clashes between protesters and authorities in a number of different cities.
Local journalist Ardak Bukeeva, who spent Thursday speaking with protesters in central Almaty, said demonstrators who stormed the presidential residence in the city told her that dozens of people had been killed during the assault.
Many protesters said they had been prompted to come out earlier in the week due to long-simmering frustrations with the political and economic situation in the country, Bukeeva said. However, on Wednesday, the situation turned violent, with some claiming provocateurs had arrived to deliberately cause trouble, and others noting that police were almost entirely absent from the city centre.
Irina Mednikova, a civil society activist in Almaty, said she saw large pools of blood in the grass around the presidential residence in the city on Thursday morning, and an absence of security forces or police.
“The residence was completely burned. The gates had been rammed open with cars or tractors, all the glass was broken, and inside there was smoke and a terrible smell of burning,” she said.
Internet and mobile phone reception was down in most of the country for much of Thursday, with only state television available to most Kazakhs to receive news about the protests. Wild rumours spread by word of mouth, and it was difficult to verify claims.
Later on Thursday, news agencies reported renewed gunfire in Almaty and military vehicles on the move in the city. State television claimed an “anti-terrorist operation” was under way.
“The terrorists are using civilians, including women, as human shields. The police forces are trying their best to ensure the security of city residents,” state-controlled Khabar 24 told its viewers.
Events have escalated quickly since the protests started over a rise in fuel prices in the west of the country over the weekend. They quickly spread, and by Tuesday thousands of people came into the streets in Almaty.
Valeria Ibrayeva, an art historian who watched the protest from her window overlooking one of Almaty’s main thoroughfares, said by telephone that on Tuesday the crowds were “friendly and smiling, without aggression and with lots of hope”. However, by Wednesday there were attempts to overturn a bus on the street, and widespread looting of shops, she said.
On Wednesday morning, Tokayev declared a state of emergency and accepted the resignation of the government. He also said he was replacing Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ran the country from its independence in 1991 until 2019, as head of the security council.
However, these moves failed to quell the unrest, and late on Wednesday Tokayev appealed for the intervention from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – an alliance made up of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The request was swiftly approved and Russian paratroopers arrived in Kazakhstan on Thursday. The decision to intervene came just hours after Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said there should be no foreign interference in Kazakhstan.
The Russian defence ministry published images of Russian troops boarding military aircraft on their way to Kazakhstan. Russian MP Leonid Kalashnikov told Interfax the troops would stay “for as long as the president of Kazakhstan believes it necessary”. He said they would mainly be engaged in protecting “infrastructure” in the country.
While it is clear that the protests have been accompanied by violence and looting, there is no evidence that foreign-trained “terrorists” are involved, as Tokayev has claimed.
It is also striking that Tokayev felt he could not rely on Kazakhstan’s extensive security resources alone to put down the revolt, and suggests he may have felt unable to count on the loyalty of his forces.
Radio Azattyq, the Kazakh service of Radio Liberty, reported unrest in cities across the country. In Aktobe, protesters had got together to defend the airport and railway station, insisting they did not want violence and demanding negotiations with authorities. In other cities there were burned out cars, a shutdown in public infrastructure and panic as people could not withdraw money from banks and found their cards did not work due to the banking system closing down.
In the town of Taldykorgan, protesters pulled down a monument to Nazarbayev on Wednesday. The former president, who has the official title Leader of the Nation, has not surfaced in public since the protests began, and there were rumours on Thursday he and his family may have fled the country.
Western countries, who were already on high alert over a potential Russian attack on Ukraine, looked on with unease, aware there was little they could do to influence events in Kazakhstan.
“Any forces deployed must have a clear mission and act proportionately in any use of force to defend the legitimate security interests in Kazakhstan,” said the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss.
Additional reporting by Yevgeniya Plakhina