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MOSCOW — Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in Kazakhstan through Thursday, as the first “peacekeeping” troops from a Russia-led military alliance arrived in the country, whose beleaguered leader requested foreign intervention after widespread and sometimes bloody protests against high energy prices and a decrepit political system.
The death toll climbed — to at least 26 demonstrators and 18 members of the security forces, according to the government — with some 3,000 people reportedly detained as of early Friday.
© Azamat Sarsenbayev/AFP/Getty Images Protesters gather in a square outside an administration office in Aktau, the capital of Kazakhstan’s Mangistau region on Thursday.Gunshots and explosions were heard late Thursday as security forces attempted clearing a major Almaty square where the government and demonstrators have repeatedly clashed. In recent days, protesters stormed government buildings nationwide and briefly held the Almaty airport, though the Interior Ministry said early Friday it controlled all administrative and law enforcement buildings. At least one police officer was found decapitated, the Associated Press reported.
Russia’s Defense Ministry posted video footage and photos of the country’s troops preparing to enter its Central Asian neighbor, where anti-government demonstrations are entering a sixth day. Public dissatisfaction that started over high fuel prices have escalated into a major challenge to a political system largely unchanged since the former Soviet state gained independence three decades ago.
After receiving a Wednesday request from Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Collective Security Treaty Organization dispatched some 2,500 peacekeepers to Kazakhstan, the group’s secretary general told Russian state news agency RIA. Russian troops were on the ground as of Thursday.
Stanislav Zas, the CSTO official, said that the forces were there to protect infrastructure — Russia leases a rocket launch site in Kazakhstan — and would not be used to disperse demonstrations.
Moscow has in the past deployed peacekeepers to countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin fears are slipping out of his political orbit, which extends to many former Soviet states. Leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have previously complained that such troops prop up pro-Russian separatist forces.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, whose troops will be deployed as part of the CSTO intervention force, told state media Thursday that demonstrators had tried to seize control of major Kazakh airports to block the deployment of the alliance’s forces.Russian military vehicles wait to be airlifted to Kazakhstan on Thursday. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
While the CSTO has long been seen as Russia’s answer to NATO, its first joint action is ending a domestic protest rather than combating an attack from an external force. Kazakhstan and the other bloc members have attempted to cast the intervention as a bid to protect the state against “foreign-trained terrorist gangs,” though they have provided no evidence to back the allegations.
The stakes are especially high for Russia, effectively the leader of the alliance, as its presence risks alienating a public that is demanding a change in Kazakhstan’s regime but has yet to show any anti-Russian sentiment. About a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population are ethnic Russians.
The United States is monitoring the Moscow-led deployment and looking out for reports of potential human rights violations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Thursday briefing. “We have questions about the nature of this request and whether it … was a legitimate invitation or not. We don’t know at this point.”
“External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief, in a tweet. “Rights and security of civilians must be guaranteed.”Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West
Tokayev, the Kazakh president, declared a two-week national state of emergency Wednesday, instituting an overnight curfew as well as a ban on mass gatherings. The restrictions come as the country’s sizable Orthodox Christian community prepares to celebrate Christmas Friday.
“Today, more than ever, it is important for us to show solidarity and solidarity in order to ensure peace and stability in the country,” Tokayev said in a statement of congratulations to Orthodox Christians. “I am sure that together we will overcome all difficulties and trials, preserving our main asset — the unity of our people!”
Internet services have severely disrupted since mid day Wednesday, global Internet monitor NetBlocks said, with connectivity at about five percent of normal levels as of Friday morning.
Kazakh authorities have oscillated between cracking down on protesters and giving in to some demands. On Thursday, they announced a 180-day cap on the price of vehicle fuel. The demonstrations began after the government lifted a price cap on liquefied petroleum gas, which fuels a majority of vehicles in the country’s west.
Oil and gas production, a significant part of the Kazakh economy, has stuttered as the unrest continues. U.S. energy giant Chevron, which owns half of a joint venture that runs the major Tengiz oil field, said Thursday that production had been cut after protests disrupted its logistics.© Alexander Bogdanov/AFP/Getty Images Damaged cars in central Almaty on Thursday.