The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kazakhstan president gives shoot-to-kill order against protesters, dismissing calls for negotiations

A burned-out administrative building in central Almaty on Jan. 7, after violence that erupted following protests over hikes in fuel prices. (Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Kazakhstan’s president said Friday he has ordered his troops to “shoot to kill without warning” in an effort to crush anti-government protests that have raged this week.

Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in the resource-rich Central Asian country of 19 million, as the first “peacekeeping” troops from a Russian-led military alliance arrived following President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request for foreign intervention to deal with widespread protests over a decrepit political system and dramatic energy price hikes.

Russian paratroopers helped local forces clear out the protesters occupying the airport so that round-the-clock flights could bring in some 2,500 troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave the order on Jan. 7 after protests over fuel prices erupted into a countrywide wave of unrest. (Video: The Washington Post)

Some protesters have also issued a list of demands for peaceful political change. Dozens have been killed across the country so far, and authorities said that nearly 4,000 “riot participants” have been detained and at least 18 police officers killed.

Here’s what you need to know about Kazakhstan’s unrest and Russian intervention

In a speech, Tokayev said the lives of “hundreds of civilians and servicemen” have been damaged. He dismissed calls “from abroad” for negotiations as “stupidity” and vowed to crush the demonstrations.

“What negotiations could there be with criminals and murderers? We had to deal with armed and trained bandits and terrorists, both local and foreign. Therefore, they need to be destroyed, and this will be done in the near future,” he said in a televised address.

Tokayev claimed that more than 20,000 bandits with “high combat readiness and animal-like cruelty” attacked Almaty alone.

In contrast to this portrait of the demonstrators as hardened militants, several thousand demonstrated peacefully Friday in the city of Zhanaozen, one of the first hot spots of the riots. They issued the most specific list of demands to date, asking for a change in power, freedom for civil rights activists and a return to a 1993 version of the constitution, which is considered to have a more democratic tone and a clearer division of power than the current one.

Tokayev also promised to “turn the Internet back on” after a nationwide blackout, but he warned it would be accessible only for certain periods and highly monitored by the government. “Free access to the Internet does not mean you can freely post your musings, slander and insults, your incitements and calls,” he said.

Internet services have been severely disrupted since Wednesday, global Internet monitor NetBlocks said, with connectivity at about 5 percent of normal levels as of Friday morning.

Earlier Friday, Tokayev said in a statement that security forces have “mostly” regained control of the country. “The constitutional order has been basically restored in all regions,” he said.

A timeline of how the crisis in Kazakhstan unfolded

In recent days, protesters stormed government buildings nationwide and briefly held the Almaty airport. Although authorities have now regained control of the airport, it will remain closed for civilian aircraft until Sunday, state television reported. Several other cities are restoring domestic flights, but rail and road transportation remain limited because of dozens of checkpoints set up as part of a nationwide state of emergency.

Hundreds of people were reported Friday to be assembling in Aktau and Zhanaozen, two cities in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west. There were also sporadic demonstrations of up to 3,000 people in other cities.

Violent clashes continued Friday in Almaty, the country’s most populous city, as authorities carried out what they called an “anti-terrorist operation.” The Interior Ministry said a main square was “cleansed” of protesters, although videos showed heavy gunfire continuing through the night and into Friday. In the morning, people gathered near a government building with signs bearing slogans such as, “We are residents of Almaty, not terrorists.”

By the end of the day, Almaty authorities said they had regained control over all government buildings, but they warned residents to stay home because “terrorists and their gangs continue to maintain furious resistance,” state television reported.

Bodies spotted in central Almaty were slowly being removed, according to Russian newspaper RBC. People were cautioned against approaching a government building in the square, with troops reportedly firing shots in the air to warn people off.

Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in Kazakhstan’s main city of Almaty on Jan. 6. (Video: Reuters)

Public dissatisfaction that started over high fuel prices has escalated into a major challenge to a political system largely unchanged since the former Soviet state gained independence three decades ago.

The Kremlin said Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has held calls with Tokayev in the past two days to discuss joint action “to fight international terrorism and to ensure order and security of Kazakh citizens.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is also coordinating efforts with his Kazakh counterpart.

Moscow previously has deployed peacekeepers to countries that Putin fears are slipping out of his political orbit, which extends to many former Soviet states. Leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have complained that such troops prop up pro-Russian separatist forces.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, whose troops will be part of the CSTO intervention, told state media Thursday that demonstrators had tried to seize control of major airports in Kazakhstan to block the deployment of the alliance’s forces.

While the CSTO has long been seen as Russia’s answer to NATO, its first joint action is against domestic unrest rather than combating an attack from an external force. Kazakhstan and the bloc’s other members, however, have attempted to cast the intervention as a bid to protect the state against “foreign-trained terrorist gangs,” although they have provided no evidence to back the allegations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States remained “very concerned about the ongoing state of emergency” in Kazakhstan and urged authorities to respond “appropriately, proportionately and in a way that upholds the rights of protesters.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted that the “rights and security of civilians must be guaranteed,” adding: “External military assistance brings back memories of situations to be avoided.”

China, however, has come out firmly in support of Tokayev, the Kazakhstan president, with leader Xi Jinping calling him to say that China firmly supports the country’s stability and rejects any attempts by “external forces” to provoke unrest or “color revolutions” in the country. Xi referred to protests in Eastern Europe in the 2000s that overthrew pro-Russian governments — upheavals that he and like-minded leaders see as instigated by the West.

China, which shares a land border with Kazakhstan, has invested billions in the country’s energy sector.

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Tokayev declared a two-week national state of emergency Wednesday, instituting an overnight curfew as well as a ban on mass gatherings. The restrictions came as the country’s sizable Orthodox Christian community prepared to celebrate Christmas on Friday.

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, such as propane, which powers most vehicles in the country’s west.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Jan. 5 that he asked a Russia-led military alliance for help to quell anti-government protests. (Video: Reuters)

Oil and gas production, a significant part of Kazakhstan’s economy, has sputtered 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.

Cheng reported from Seoul.