Kazakh President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev on Wednesday called participants in the fuel-price protests that have swept the Central Asian nation this week “terrorists,” accusing them of attempting to undermine their country at the behest of foreign powers, and ultimately asked Russia and the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to come to Kazakhstan’s defense. Shortly thereafter, Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia and current CSTO Chair, announced the organization would send “peacekeeping forces” into Kazakhstan for a “limited period,” citing Tokayev’s allegations of foreign meddling and Article 4 of the Treaty.
The administration of US President Joe Biden denied the allegations Wednesday in no uncertain terms. “There are some crazy Russian claims about the U.S. being behind [the Kazakhstan protests], so let me just use this opportunity to convey that as absolutely false and clearly a part of the standard Russian disinformation playbook we’ve seen a lot of in past years,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Notably, Tokayev’s public comments provided no explanation or evidence to substantiate his claims of foreign interference, and allegations of illicit foreign funding and color revolutions are not unusual among leaders in the former Soviet space, as exemplified in various statements by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Protests initially broke out in the Western Kazakh region of Mangystau on Sunday, before spreading to other major cities. The near doubling of consumer fuel prices over the past year has struck a raw nerve in Kazakhstan, a country with vast oil wealth, but whose citizens earn a median monthly income of $215 (USD), and whose bottom 10 percent of wage earners subsist on $71 per month, according to statistics provided in a 2020 OECD report. What started with complaints about rising prices soon gave way to a panoply of broader societal grievances. Social media outlets on Wednesday quickly filled up with images of burning government buildings and protestors felling statues of long-time post-Soviet leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.
His statement appeared to signal a marked departure from earlier efforts to provide such concessions as price controls and government reshuffles as demonstrations gained momentum across the country earlier this week.
“We must conduct counter-terrorist operations in order to rebuff them,” Tokayev said, referring to the protestors as “genuine terrorists.” He went on to state that these “bands of terrorists are, in fact, international, [and] have undergone serious training abroad, and their attacks on Kazakhstan must be viewed as an act of aggression.”
The CSTO is a union of several former Soviet states, including: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (Treaty) states that an act of aggression against one CSTO state will be treated as an act of aggression against all of them. The Treaty defines aggression as an “armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty.” Earlier Wednesday, Reuters reported that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Kazakhstan could solve its own problems; Tokayev’s appeal appears to have brought about a policy reversal.
Kazakh authorities had previously responded with a smattering of concessions and regulatory measures. The former included the government’s resignation, state-ordered fuel price controls, and most recently, stripping Nazarbayev of his role at the helm of the country’s National Security Committee (NSC) after much of the protestors’ furor appeared to be directed at the former leader. After having led the country for some 30 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency in 2019, but remained the country’s most powerful man by virtue of his position on the NSC, and his appointment to the newly created position of First President. Regulatory measures included the declaration of a state of emergency, and mass arrests of protestors.
As these measures appeared to fail in tranquilizing the uprisings, Kazakhstan swiftly shut off the internet, a move it has deployed liberally during past protests to prevent activists from sharing their causes via social media. A 2021 Freedom House report noted Kazakhstan’s continued tendency to disrupt the internet during protests—including protests that had received formal government approval.
As reports of violent crackdowns and mass arrests continue to trickle out of Kazakhstan, which has in recent days become embroiled in mass protests ignited by surging energy prices, international organizations are imploring the country’s authorities to respect its obligations under international human rights law.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Marie Struthers, Director of Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia division, said the Kazakh authorities bear the blame for the unfolding vitriol due to long-standing rights abuses, and urged the authorities to respect the protestors’ rights to peaceful assembly: “The protests unfolding in Kazakhstan, which have turned violent, are a direct consequence of the authorities’ widespread repression of basic human rights. For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakhstani people in a state of agitation and despair. … Kazakhstan’s commitments under international law and its own constitution enshrine the right to peaceful assembly. The authorities must honor these obligations, protect peaceful protesters and respect free speech.” She also urged Kazakhstan to release arbitrarily detained protestors, and to ensure “fair trials in accordance with international human rights law” to those accused of having committed violent crimes.
Hugh Williamson, Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, struck a similar chord, while also calling attention to specific reported instances of abuse. “Footage shows police and security forces using stun grenades, water cannon, and tear gas in response to the protests,” he wrote. “During this crisis, it is vital that Kazakhstan respects the right to peaceful assembly and free speech, and upholds its international human rights obligations. When policing crowds, force should be used as a last resort, and if force is justified, it must be proportionate to the threat and deployed in a way that minimizes damage, injury, and indiscriminate impact.”