Kazakhstan’s President Declares Victory Over Protesters

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Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev has declared victory in a bloody confrontation with people protesting widespread corruption and poverty in what is the most serious challenge to Kazakh leadership since independence in 1991.

Kazakhstan authorities arrested Karim Massimov, the former head of the National Security Committee and a two-time prime minister, on suspicion of treason as Russian troops helped bring an end to the biggest protests in decades in central Asia’s biggest oil producer.

Massimov, who also served as chief of staff for former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and other unidentified officials were detained on Jan. 6, the committee said in a statement Saturday, without providing additional details.

The announcement came after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared victory in a bloody confrontation with people protesting widespread corruption and poverty in what is the most serious challenge to Kazakh leadership since independence in 1991. Russian troops led efforts by the Collective Security Treaty Organization to help restore order.

Massimov is a key ally of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime leader who turned over the presidency to Tokayev in 2019 while retaining much of his political and economic power. Nazarbayev, 81, has not been seen in public since the protests exploded this week.

The former president remains in the capital of Nur-Sultan and in contact with Tokayev, his spokesman Aidos Ukibay said on Twitter Saturday. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko spoke with Nazarbayev Friday evening, according to a statement from the Belarusian president’s press service.

“Massimov’s arrest fits into the narrative that these protests exposed a power struggle among the elite,” Kate Mallinson, the founder of Prism Political Risk Management in London, said. “The fact that Tokayev asked the Russians for help is a sign that he doesn’t have the support of the security services.”

The protests were sparked initially by anger at fuel-price rises and quickly spiraled into nationwide anti-government demonstrations accompanied by widespread looting. Thousands took to the streets and seized government buildings in the country of 19 million that’s as large as western Europe and rich in oil and minerals.

Dozens of protesters and police were killed and hundreds wounded in the clashes, as Tokayev gave a shoot-to-kill command to re-establish order. Given the information blackout, with the internet and messenger services remaining largely blocked across the country, the death toll seemed likely to climb. Some videos on social media showed troops firing automatic weapons in Almaty, the largest city, where the president claimed 20,000 “bandits” had attacked government buildings.

Russian paratroopers helped retake Almaty’s airport, according to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, which said 75 aircraft flew its forces to Kazakhstan after Tokayev appealed for aid. Russia placed an officer who led military operations in Syria and Ukraine in charge of the deployment by troops from the CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Tokayev accepted his government’s resignation and removed several top security officials on Jan. 5, including Massimov, in the biggest government shake-up since he assumed power. He also said he was taking over from Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council and pledged to stay in Nur-Sultan “whatever happens.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken with Tokayev several times since Thursday. During one call, Tokayev said the situation in Kazakhstan was stabilizing and requested a video conference with the leaders of the CSTO in the coming days, according to a Kremlin statement Saturday.

While Tokayev has said the CSTO deployment will be short term, appealing to the Russians for help could undermine his domestic authority if he is seen as sacrificing Kazakh sovereignty, according to Mallinson.

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Kazakhstan, officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a transcontinental country mainly located in Central Asia with a smaller portion west of the Ural River in Eastern Europe.

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