Kazakhstan says Russian troops can start leaving this week

BICHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – A Russian-led military alliance will begin withdrawing troops from Kazakhstan in two days, the country’s president said on Tuesday, saying it had achieved its primary goal of helping stabilize the Central Asian nation as she was going through the worst political crisis in its history.

In a speech to senior government officials and MPs, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the withdrawal would take “no more than 10 days”.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu did not mention specific plans for the withdrawal of troops, not knowing when they would actually return home. Speaking to a meeting together with senior army officers, he said the Russian-led soldiers “will continue their mission until the situation completely stabilizes” but that it would be up to “the Kazakh leadership” to decide when that happens. .

So far, the military operation is seen as a geopolitical triumph for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who can again present himself as an effective crisis manager for the countries that Moscow sees as part of its sphere of influence. affecting.

However, a slow withdrawal of the 2,500 Russian-led troops could undermine this, given Russia’s record in sending “peacekeepers” to neighboring countries that do not leave. Troops he sent three decades ago to a breakaway region of Moldova and Georgia’s Abkhazia region, for example, remain there.

Kazakhstan is part of an economic union with Russia, but due to its oil wealth, it was proud to retain more autonomy than many other former Soviet states. A swift exit of the soldiers would most likely strengthen Mr Tokayev’s image, even if it exposed the vulnerability of the post-Soviet strongmen, who were forced to turn to Moscow when their regime was threatened.

Daniil Kislov, an expert on Central Asia and editor-in-chief of Fergana, a website which covers the region, said that inviting the troops to “Tokayev has given Putin a real gift.”

“Putin is happy to seize any opportunity to develop somewhere, whether in Ukraine or another unstable country where a good helping hand from Moscow might be needed,” he said.

For Mr. Tokayev, the rapid dispatch of troops strengthened his grip on power at a time when he was most fragile.

In his speech, Tokayev also announced measures to try to allay anger over the rampant economic inequalities that were at least in part at the root of the protests. He announced a five-year pay freeze for top civil servants, and vowed to destroy corrupt schemes that would have greatly benefited the country’s oligarchs.

The crisis in Kazakhstan erupted last week after peaceful protests in the west of the country over soaring fuel prices suddenly spilled over to the rest of the country. The unrest turned Almaty, the largest and most populous city in the country, into a war zone with government buildings on fire.

More than 2,000 people have been injured so far, the government said, and the health ministry issued and then withdrawn a statement saying at least 164 people had died in the violence. Nearly 10,000 people have been arrested, according to the government.

Tokayev said he made the decision to seek help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Kremlin-led version of NATO for a group of former Soviet countries, when the Kazakh government ” could lose control of Almaty altogether “.

Mr Tokayev has spent most of his career serving the state created by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-serving former president who resigned in 2019 and chose him as his successor. But in his speech, Mr Tokayev appeared to put the blame for his country’s upheaval on his mentor’s shoulders.

Without citing Mr. Nazarbayev by name, he denounced the country’s endemic cronyism and income inequality, and said that thanks to “the first president” a group of people “rich even by international standards” has emerged.

“I think it is time for them to pay their due to the Kazakh people and to help them systemically and regularly,” he said.

There is little serious political opposition in Kazakhstan, where protesters and activists are constantly harassed or pressured to leave the country. But Mr Tokayev’s rare rebuke of his predecessor was indicative of internal political struggles at the highest levels of power.

Over the past week, Tokayev reshuffled the leadership of Kazakhstan’s security forces. Karim Masimov, the head of the main security agency who was widely regarded as a close ally of Mr Nazarbayev, was fired at the height of the crisis and then arrested on suspicion of treason. Several other senior officials were fired, local media reported, citing government agencies.

Only 162 people control half of Kazakhstan’s wealth, according to a recent report by accounting firm KPMG.

“Kazakhstan has the facade of a so-called modern country,” said Elmira Satybaldieva, whose research at the University of Kent focuses on inequalities and labor rights in Central Asia, “but if you scratch the surface, there are horrendous economic disparities and discontent that has brewed for decades.

Kazakhstan, the most prosperous country in Central Asia, is said to have a twelfth of the world’s proven oil reserves, according to the United States’ Energy Information Administration. It also produces about 40 percent of the world’s uranium.

Yet rampant inequalities mean that only 3.5% of the adult population has an annual income above $ 10,000. The country’s minimum monthly wage is around $ 100. Eighty percent of the economic population is “deeply in debt” and cannot afford adequate housing, Ms. Satybaldieva said.

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