AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As Americans continue to face a number of domestic crises at home, events halfway around the world in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan are shaping up to be exactly the kind of trouble that could soon pose a threat to American interests abroad – particularly as Russian President Vladimir Putin has become involved and grown more aggressive in the region. While most major news outlets have covered the basic play-by-play of events, first-hand accounts of the chaos unfolding, which I have chronicled here, paint a picture of a struggle that could soon escalate into a wider geopolitical conflict.
Over the past week, a wave of violent protests has rocked the central Asian country of Kazakhstan, with dozens killed in clashes with security forces. Although the uprising initially began in response to drastic price increases over the past year, it has quickly grown into a broader reaction against the country’s authoritarian government and leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Protests are ongoing in at least seventeen cities, and dozens of towns and villages, including Almaty, Karaganda, Koskhketau, and far-western Zhanaozen. The demonstrations began on January 2nd, when the Kazakhstani regime arbitrarily increased the price of natural gas by nearly 100 percent, which automatically inflated the cost of all products and services.
The domestic crisis quickly escalated into an international one on Thursday as Putin deployed paratroopers to the country in what he called a “peacekeeping” mission. As the West watches anxiously for further signs of Russian aggression in what could become another flashpoint like Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, continues to be a battleground.
The scenes unfolding on the ground are nothing short of tragic.
One man who I spoke with, Yernar, has been busy transporting bodies to the temporary morgue established at the basement of an office building at the center of Almaty. The floor is soaked with blood, frozen to the ground in the frigid winter air. Two days earlier, Yernar had peacefully demonstrated with his neighbors on the Republic square, demanding talks with the authorities.
Shortly after the government shut the internet down Friday morning, the Russians launched an “anti-terrorist” operation, opening fire on the unarmed protesters. Yernar told me at least thirty people died, and dozens were seriously wounded.
Now, he is left trying to reattach corpses back to decapitated heads – the results of so-called “brotherly help” from Russia. He pleads to anyone who will listen to tell the world of what is happening here.
The total number of victims from the Russian-led operation is still unknown. The official numbers only include 17 dead policeman and soldiers and 748 injured police and soldiers. According to the Interior Ministry, among protesters there are 26 dead and 18 injured. But independent sources from hospitals stated that at least 1,500 wounded victims were treated in Almaty. Witnesses continued to hear machine guns from the center of the city.
In the city of Taldykorgan, 141 miles from Almaty, civic defense commanders activated the city’s alarms several times. One participant in the protests, Adilzhan, told me that demonstrators took control of the local airport.
On Monday, Adilzhan joined thousands of angry Kazakhs who populated public squares in their cities, demanding negotiations with their representatives over rising energy costs. After three days with no response from the government, the protesters put forward a set of political demands, namely a right to elect their representatives in a direct democratic vote.
According to Adilzhan, the Russian-led foreign military forces will now have to face a growing number of Kazakh protesters who, according to some estimates reached at least 20,000 in strength. Some military and police reportedly also joined the protest.
In conversations with these two men, they testified to the dream for genuine democracy underpinning their demonstration as well as the extent of the suffering caused by the Russian incursion.
Minutes before the Russians and Belorussians reached Almaty, the Kazakhstan’s leader allegedly allowed the military and police to shoot at protesters without warning.
Putin has at least three reasons to intervene. First, Russian’s gas and oil pipelines are structured like a spider web, and Kazakhstan is vital in maintaining the supply to other parts of Europe and Asia.
Second, the Kremlin wants to prevent more U.S. military bases in Central Asia, particularly inside former Soviet republics bordering Russia.
Finally, the Russian space agency also has important assets inside the country, including the Cosmodrome, which is located in the town of Baikonur and contains a strategic launchpad. The first group of Russian forces landed in that area.
For the Kazakhs, though, their protests are now primarily about protesting the violence and oppression that has been brought to bear on them by Russian forces.
Free elections is precisely the demand of the Kazakhs who took to the streets to topple the kleptocratic regime. “We thought that people, not elites, should elect leaders of the region and the city,” stated one protester who introduced himself as Zholaman Seilov.
“Nobody from outside inspired us, either,” Adilzhan shared with me, referring to the statement by the Collective Security Treaty Organization that blamed foreign influences for the unrest. “It is a Kazakh internal matter. Now we must force the alien invaders to leave,” he added.
Explaining his motives to call for foreign military intervention, the Kazakh leader claimed that Russian, Belorussian, and Armenian forces were peacekeepers. This view is disputed by Boris Vishnevsky, a Russian opposition politician from the Yabloko party who thinks the opposite is true.
“It is correct that the Russian forces, like the Soviet forces, are not peacekeeping.” Putin’s forces can only “make” war, Vishevsky stated. “It is worse than a mistake. It is a crime,” he concluded.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.
We hope you've enjoyed this article. While you're here, we have a small favor to ask...
Support the AMAC Foundation. Our 501(c)(3) powers the AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisory Services. This team of nationally accredited advisors offers on-time, on-the-mark guidance for those approaching or receiving Social Security – at no cost.Donate Now