Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by telephone with his Kazakhstan counterpart Thursday, urging a quick end to a week of increasingly violent anti-government protests that have rocked the Central Asian nation.
The call came amid reports that dozens of protesters and at least 12 security officers had been killed overnight in street clashes, Kazakh officials told The Associated Press, and more than 2,000 have been detained. Video of the protests showed what appeared to be security forces backed by armored trucks firing down a street in the country’s main city of Almaty.
Russian paratroopers, dispatched as part of an emergency regional peacekeeping mission requested by the Kazakhstan regime, were said to be already working to help tamp down the crisis, which is considered the most serious challenge to the authoritarian regime’s rule in three decades since the country broke away from the disintegrating Soviet Union.
Analysts said Russian President Vladimir Putin, already dealing with crises involving Ukraine and Belarus, is particularly sensitive to another “color revolution” on his border, where popular protests drive an authoritarian government from power. The deployment also includes troops from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Protesters were out in force again Thursday in Almaty, a day after they broke into the residence of embattled President Kassim-Jomart Tokayev and the office of the mayor. Aigerim Tuleuzhanova, a representative of the group for the establishment of the Democratic Party, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Thursday that most of those who were protesting were unarmed young people.
In his talk with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Mr. Blinken “reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis,” the State Department said in a statement.
Mr. Blinken on Twitter described the call as “productive.”
“We are committed to supporting Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of disputes,” he tweeted.
Protests began shortly after the new year in western Kazakhstan after the government allowed a sharp increase in the price of fuel.
But the unrest quickly spread to cities around the vast country, and expanded to include political grievances related to the long rule of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who remains a powerful figure behind the scenes even after stepping down three years ago.
Mr. Tokayev has already removed Mr. Nazarbayev from a top security post in response to the protests, and the government on Thursday said it was imposing a 180-day price cap on vehicle fuel and a moratorium on utility rate increases. Whether that will be enough to defuse the unrest was uncertain Thursday evening.
On-the-ground reports from Kazakhstan have been hard to obtain as the government has shut down much of the internet and popular social media and messaging services used by the protesters.
Russia share a 4,700-mile border with Kazakhstan, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome space center, the operational heart of the Russian space program, is located on Kazakh soil. Officials at the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) said the 2,500-troop deployment into Kazakhstan would be sent not as occupiers but devoted solely to helping re-establish order.
“The sincere wish of our states is real help for Kazakhstan in the difficult situation,” CSTO’s general secretary, Stanislav Zas, told Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency.
But the Biden administration said it was monitoring the situation warily. The U.S. has “questions about the nature of this request and whether it was a legitimate invitation or not,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday.
“The world will, of course, be watching for any violation of human rights and actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions.”
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.