The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kazakhstan officials say 164 are dead in protests, country now ‘stabilized’

Kazakhstan's traffic police and soldiers control a road in Almaty on Saturday. (Vladimir Tretyakov/AP)

MOSCOW — Kazakhstan government officials said Sunday that government buildings and institutions in all regions were back under state control after days of violence and bloodshed amid sweeping anti-government protests.

While an ongoing Internet blackout makes the situation on the ground difficult to verify, Interior Ministry officials claimed the country had “stabilized” as a separate English-language message from a presidential aide slammed foreign media for creating what he called a “false impression that the Kazakhstan government has been targeting peaceful protesters.”

The claims, apparently aimed at the international community, appear to be part of an effort to change the public narrative after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced a shoot-to-kill order to security forces during a nationally televised address.

They come as security officers in the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, search door-to-door to root out what the city’s law enforcement chief called “violators of public order.” Almaty’s airport remains closed, and authorities have urged citizens to stay indoors.

The government said Sunday that 164 people have died during the demonstrations, including 103 people in Almaty. Videos on social media showed people lining up at morgues to see whether their relatives were among the dead. Nearly 6,000 people have been detained, according to a Kazakh television report. The Interior Ministry has said that at least 16 law enforcement officers have been killed and more than 1,300 injured.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Tokayev’s shoot-to-kill order “is something I resolutely reject,” adding: “The shoot-to-kill order, to the extent it exists, is wrong and should be rescinded.”

The United States and Russia start negotiations on Monday about Moscow’s demands for NATO not to expand eastward. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the Kremlin’s top negotiator in the talks, dismissed the possibility that the unrest in Kazakhstan would come up in those discussions. The “subject is none of their business,” he told the Interfax news agency, referring to the Americans.

[How the crisis in Kazakhstan went from fuel protests to a ‘shoot-to- kill’ order by the president]

In a video statement posted to YouTube, Erzhan Kazykhan, the president’s special representative for international cooperation, acknowledged Sunday that the demonstrations over energy price hikes started peacefully on Jan. 2 in Kazakhstan’s western regions. Kazykhan said the protests were then “hijacked by terrorists and both local and external groups speaking foreign languages” but did not provide evidence to support those assertions.

A state-run television station then broadcast footage of “an unemployed man from Kyrgyzstan,” which borders Kazakhstan. The man, with a bruised face, said that he was approached by unidentified persons and agreed to participate in the unrest in Almaty in exchange for $200 and that someone bought a ticket to the country for him in early January.

But people on social media quickly recognized him as the well-known Kyrgyz jazz musician Vicram Rouzakhunov, whose family told local media that he often traveled to Kazakhstan for performances — and the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said Rouzakhunov purchased his ticket on Dec. 16, leading many to say the video appeared to be a coerced confession. Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security said that Rouzakhunov is not a terrorist.

The Nur-Sultan law enforcement chief, Yerzhan Sadenov, encouraged residents to report any information they have on “dubious persons” as authorities conduct the door-to-door checks. In a Telegram video message Sunday, he echoed the government’s line that the city is “under control.”

In Kazakhstan, where protests are relatively rare — and the authoritarian government faces little opposition — the Internet blackout throughout most of the country has limited the flow of information. Very few members of the media, especially foreign journalists, have been able to report from the ground because of closed borders.

Darina Zhunussova, a student at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan’s capital, wrote on Twitter, “We can’t trust anyone, we don’t know which sources to believe, we sit for days with no access to internet, we can hardly reach out to our families and friends. We’re scared.”

Why is Kazakhstan claiming foreign links to the unrest? Here’s what we know.

Kazykhan, the presidential aide, said that “peacekeeping” forces from a Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, will remain in Kazakhstan “for a short period of time” and that they “are not involved in the elimination of militant groups and terrorists.” About 2,500 foreign troops landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after Tokayev appealed to the CSTO for assistance.

The CSTO said it will convene an “emergency session” on Monday over video conference, and the Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin will participate. Tokayev’s spokesperson told Kazakh television Sunday that the CSTO forces would “probably stay for a week.”

Kazakhstan, resource-rich and wedged strategically between Russia and China, has long been attractive for foreign investment, something government officials may be trying to protect.

Protesters in recent days stormed government buildings nationwide and briefly held the Almaty airport. Most of the violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators have taken place in Almaty, where several government buildings were seized and set ablaze Wednesday, and near-constant gunfire could be heard on the streets into the weekend as the government announced it was carrying out an “anti-terrorist operation” that “eliminated dozens.”

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