Russian-Led Alliance Begins Withdrawing Troops From Kazakhstan

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MOSCOW — A Russian-led military alliance on Thursday began the process of withdrawing troops from Kazakhstan, Moscow said, after a weeklong deployment that helped stabilize the Central Asian country amid a wave of political unrest that left dozens dead and thousands injured.

Troops of the alliance, the Collective Treaty Security Organization, a NATO-like group that includes Russia and five other former Soviet states, have begun handing over strategic facilities that they were guarding to the local authorities and were preparing to leave the country, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A least one military transport plane with Russian troops on board has already departed from the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, according to video footage from the scene. The Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said at a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday that the withdrawal should be completed by next Wednesday.

Russian and Kazakh officials had said this week that the troops would be withdrawn once the unrest had been brought under control, amid concerns among many in Kazakhstan that they would be stationed indefinitely in the country, permanently anchoring it in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

Many people in Kazakhstan had “negative” feelings about the presence of Russian troops in their country and therefore “the decision was made to announce as quickly as possible that their mission had been fulfilled,” Dimash Alzhanov, a political analyst, said in a phone interview from Almaty.

By extending a helping hand at the time of crisis, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had achieved a geopolitical triumph, Mr. Alzhanov said. But “such a favor has its own price and will not be forgotten,” the analyst noted. “We will know what that price will be later.”

Last week, Kazakhstan was plunged into the worst political crisis in its three decades as an independent country, after protests over a fuel price hike spread across the country and turned Almaty, its most prosperous city, into a scene of armed street battles.

While protests were largely peaceful in the west of the country, they spiraled out of control in several big cities and most of all in Almaty, with the police there either unwilling or unable to contain violence that led to mass looting and the burning of cars and buildings. The airport in Almaty was captured by a mob and only reopened to flights on Thursday.

The Kazakh authorities have been sending contradictory messages about the origins of the violence. In a speech on Monday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said, without presenting evidence, that his country had been overrun by a group of international terrorists. He also said that 20,000 “bandits” had attacked Almaty in a Twitter post that was later removed from his official account.

Adding to the overall sense of confusion, the authorities still haven’t released an official tally of how many people died in the clashes, and many Kazakhs have been unable to locate relatives and friends. More than 9,800 people have been detained in the aftermath of the crisis, according to the authorities.

Some analysts say they believe that the violence stemmed from an internal power struggle among the country’s elites, pointing to the removal of various government and security officials that followed the unrest.

On Thursday, the National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s most powerful security agency, said that it suspected Karim Masimov, its former chief who was dismissed during the turmoil last week, of attempting to stage a coup. Mr. Masimov and two of his deputies have been arrested.

Mr. Masimov was one of the most powerful allies of the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, according to Mr. Alzhanov. Mr. Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019, when Mr. Tokayev, his handpicked replacement, took over. Mr. Tokayev has since made comments implying that Mr. Nazarbayev was responsible for the cronyism and corruption that many analysts feel contributed to the unrest.

Many in Kazakhstan, however, doubt that Mr. Masimov could have orchestrated the unrest on his own.

“Masimov with two of his deputies could never organize a coup to push Tokayev out of power without Nazarbayev and his family,” Baltash Tursumbayev, a former Kazakh deputy prime minister, told TV Rain, an independent Russian television station.

Mr. Nazarbayev has not appeared in public since the crisis began, fueling speculation about his whereabouts and the fate of his family members, who are among the richest people in Kazakhstan. He was dismissed last week from his post as chairman of the government’s Security Council.

On Monday, in a speech to senior government officials and members of Parliament, Mr. Tokayev vowed to implement reforms in the country that would address wide income inequality and tackle the corrupt practices that analysts say have enriched the country’s elite, and which experts believe have contributed to the unrest.

However, even as he has tried to signal a break with past ways of doing things, he has also continued with some of the repressive tactics honed by his predecessor.

Several journalists were detained in Kazakhstan during and after the protests. At least three, including Nurzhan Baimuldin, who criticized the decision to invite Russian troops to Kazakhstan, have been sentenced to administrative detention.

While access to the internet has been mostly restored, Orda.kz, one of the main independent news websites has been blocked.

“The man at the top of the system has changed,” said Mr. Alzhanov, the political analyst, referring to Mr. Nazarbayev’s greatly diminished influence. “But the construction and the framework of the authoritarian model have remained intact.”



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