Shots have been fired in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, as troops entered its main square where hundreds of people were protesting against the government for the third day, witness have reported.
Several armoured personnel carriers and dozens of troops moving on foot arrived on Thursday morning, with shots heard as they approached the crowd, Reuters witnesses said.
On Wednesday, there had been reports of violent clashes and shooting in Almaty and other cities, as well as unverified videos suggesting casualties among protesters.
On Wednesday night, it was announced that “peacekeeping forces” from a Russia-led military alliance will be sent to Kazakhstan to help the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, regain control.
Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – an alliance of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – would dispatch forces to “stabilise” the Central Asian country.
It was not clear how many troops the CSTO would send and how long they would stay in the country. Russian MP Leonid Kalashnikov told Interfax that 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.
Tokayev had appealed to the bloc for help, decrying the actions of “terrorists” and alleging the country had been the victim of “attacks” by foreign-trained gangs after fuel price rises triggered widespread protests.
On Wednesday, demonstrators took over government buildings and reportedly stormed the airport in Almaty, the country’s commercial capital and largest city.
“Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalised, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty … to take all possible actions to protect our state,” said Tokayev, in his second televised address in a matter of hours.
The Kazakh events come at a time when all eyes have been on a possible Russian intervention in Ukraine. Images of police being overpowered by protesters are likely to cause alarm in Moscow, as another country neighbouring Russia succumbs to political unrest. Kazakhstan is part of an economic union with Russia and the two countries share a long border.
The protests began in the west of the country at the weekend, after a sharp rise in fuel prices, but have spread quickly and taken Kazakhstan’s authorities and international observers by surprise.
The protests have swelled amid broader discontent with Tokayev, president since 2019, and Nazarbayev.
“Nazarbayev and his family have monopolised all sectors, from banking to roads to gas. These protests are about corruption,” said 55-year-old Zauresh Shekenova, who has been protesting in Zhanaozen since Sunday.
“It all started with the increase in gas prices but the real cause of the protests is poor living conditions of people, high prices, joblessness, corruption.”
Darkhan Sharipov, an activist from the civil society movement Wake Up, Kazakhstan, said: “People are sick of corruption and nepotism, and the authorities don’t listen to people … We want President Tokayev to carry out real political reforms, or to go away and hold fair elections.”
The five former Soviet Central Asian republics have been largely without protest in their three decades of independence, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which has had several revolutions.
Kazakhstan has never held an election judged as free and fair by international observers. While it is clear there is widespread discontent, the cleansing of the political playing field over many years means there are no high-profile opposition figures around which a protest movement could unite, and the protests appear largely directionless.
“There are some local figures, but nobody who could unify forces across the country, though with time they could appear,” said Satpayev.