by Dasha Litvinova | The Associated Press
MOSCOW — Nearly 8,000 people were detained by police in Kazakhstan during protests that erupted into violence last week and the worst unrest in the former Soviet nation since it gained independence 30 years ago, officials said. said on Monday.
President Kassim-Jomart Tokayev on Monday described the unrest as “terrorist aggression” against the mineral-rich Central Asian nation of 19 million after initially peaceful protests against rising energy prices, and dismissed those reports. It was reported that the authorities had targeted peaceful protesters as “disinformation”.
Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry said 7,939 people had been detained across the country. The National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s intelligence and counter-terrorism agency, said on Monday that the situation “has stabilized and is under control.”
Monday was declared a day of mourning for victims of violent unrest, which the health ministry says killed 164 people, including three children.
The demonstrations began on January 2 after vehicle fuel prices nearly doubled and quickly spread across the country, with political slogans reflecting widespread discontent with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government.
In a concession, the government announced a 180-day price limit on vehicle fuels and a moratorium on utility rate hikes. As the unrest escalated, the Council of Ministers resigned and the president replaced Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former longtime leader of Kazakhstan, as head of the National Security Council.
One of the main slogans of last week’s protests, “Old Man Out”, was a reference to Nazarbayev, who served as Kazakhstan’s independence president until he resigned in 2019 and appointed Tokayev as his successor. Nazarbayev retained substantial power at the top of the National Security Council.
Despite concessions, the protests turned extremely violent for several days. In Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, protesters set fire to the city hall and stormed the airport and briefly occupied it. There were reports of sporadic firing on the streets of the city for several days.
The authorities declared a state of emergency over the unrest, and Tokayev requested help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance of six former Soviet states. The group has authorized the sending of about 2,500 mostly Russian troops to Kazakhstan as peacekeepers.
Tokayev has said the demonstrations were instigated by “terrorists” with foreign backing, although the protests showed no clear leaders or organisations. On Friday, he said he ordered the police and military to shoot to kill “terrorists” involved in the violence.
In a statement on Monday, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said the peaceful protest was “hijacked by terrorist, extremist and criminal groups,” including radical Islamist fighters with war experience.
Speaking on Monday at an extraordinary virtual summit of the CSTO, Tokayev promised to reveal to the world “additional evidence” of a “terrorist offensive” against Kazakhstan. He insisted that the demands of the peaceful protesters had been “heard and met by the state,” and that the unrest that followed included “groups of armed militants” whose goal was to overthrow the government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed that sentiment, calling the unrest an “act of aggression” masterminded by foreign countries.
“The events in Kazakhstan are not the first and not the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states from outside,” Putin said at the summit.
The Kazakh president said that “constitutional order” had been restored and that “large-scale counter-terrorism operations” in the country would soon end with the CSTO mission.
The foreign terrorists involved, Tokayev later on Monday alleged, “mostly came from Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan,” and some came from Middle East countries.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee said on Monday that “hotspots of terrorist threats” in the country had been “neutralised”. The committee also told Russia’s Interfax news agency that authorities had released well-known Kyrgyz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, whose arrest over his alleged involvement in the unrest sparked outrage in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Ruzakhunov was shown in a video on Kazakh television saying that he had gone to the country to take part in the protests and was promised $200. In the video, apparently taken in police custody, Ruzakhunov had bruises on his face and a large cut on his forehead.
Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry had called for Ruzakhunov’s release, and the country’s authorities called on Monday to launch an investigation into the torture allegations.
Ruzakhunov returned to Kyrgyzstan on Monday evening. He told a local TV channel that he had come to Almaty to visit a friend on January 2, but several days later, when protests turned violent, he decided to return to Kyrgyzstan and was taken into custody.
In prison, Ruzhkhanunov heard from cellmates that the fastest way to go to Almaty for the purpose of participating in the protest and to offer money for it was to be deported home, so he decided to do so.
“It was a path (home), so I decided to trap myself, even though I didn’t,” said Ruzakhunov.