Russia's Putin vows to defend ex-Soviet allies like Kazakhstan after unrest

President Vladimir Putin at the Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) virtual meeting on Jan 10, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW/ALMATY (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Monday (Jan 10) vowed to protect Russia and its ex-Soviet allies from what he called outside efforts to destabilise their governments with public protests, after Russian-led troops helped Kazakh authorities subdue nationwide protests.

And Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that his country had defeated an "attempted coup d'etat" during historic violence last week.

"We won't let anyone disturb the situation in our homes and won't allow scenarios of so-called color revolutions to be played out," Mr Putin told a televised video conference of leaders of the six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated bloc whose deployment of troops to Kazakhstan was the first time it had sent forces to shore up a government under pressure from popular unrest.

"Of course, we understand that the events in Kazakhstan aren't the first and will be far from the last attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of our states," Mr Putin said, alleging that some of the Kazakh protesters had been trained in camps outside the country.

Mr Tokayev told the video conference that "armed militants" had used the backdrop of protests to try to seize power.

"The main goal was obvious: the undermining of the constitutional order, the destruction of government institutions and the seizure of power. It was an attempted coup d'etat," he said.

The dramatic intervention by the CSTO - Russia's version of Nato for western Europe - helped embattled President Tokayev crush an uprising that started in protests over fuel-price increases but rapidly led to the seizure of government buildings around the country.

Mr Tokayev has fired a number of top security officials in the wake of the unrest and authorities charged one with treason.

At least two dozen people were killed and about 8,000 have been detained, authorities said.

China backed the crackdown, while the United States and other western capitals were critical of the harsh moves.

Russia and China have long denounced the "colour revolutions" that have over the last several decades toppled autocratic leaders and brought pro-western governments to power.

Mr Putin blamed technology for fuelling the destabilising events in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region.

"Using Internet communications and social networks, efforts are continuing to draw our citizens into protests, which are the forerunners of terrorist attacks," Mr Putin said, calling on the CSTO to propose new steps to block "attempts at destructive external intervention" in the region.

Kazakh authorities suspended Internet access for several days at the height of the protests last week. The Kremlin has been tightening regulation of foreign technology companies for years.

Mr Putin said that the Russian-led troops would leave Kazakhstan as soon as their mission is completed and the country's president requests it, but did not specify a date. He said the forces had helped Kazakh authorities restore control over the entire country.

A burned-out automobile in central Almaty on Jan 6, 2022, following the protests in Kazakhstan. PHOTO: AFP

The Central Asian country of 19 million people has been left reeling in the wake of the worst violence in its recent history, but life in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty appeared to be returning to normal on Monday, with internet coverage restored as the nation observed a day of mourning for those killed in the clashes.

The CSTO has deployed just over 2,000 troops and 250 pieces of military hardware, the Kazakh leader said, vowing that the detachment would leave the country "soon".

The government said Monday that foreign media reports had created "the false impression that the Kazakhstan government has been targeting peaceful protesters".

"Our security forces have been engaging with violent mobs who were committing brazen acts of terror," the foreign ministry said in the statement.

Mr Tokayev said in the meeting that his country's security personnel "have never fired and will never fire on peaceful demonstrators".

Kazakhstan's government has struggled to firm up its narrative of the unrest.

On Sunday, the information ministry retracted a statement that said more than 164 people had died in the unrest, blaming the publication on a "technical mistake".

Officials previously said 26 "armed criminals" had been killed and that 16 security officers had died.

In total, nearly 8,000 people have been detained for questioning, the interior ministry said Monday.

Nur-Sultan, the city that replaced Almaty as capital in 1997 and which was renamed in honour of 81-year-old founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019, saw comparatively little unrest.

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The contours of the political crisis that engulfed Kazakhstan are unclear but the ruling elite has been roiled.

On Saturday, authorities announced the arrest on treason charges of Karim Masimov, a high-profile Nazarbayev ally who was dismissed from his post as security committee chief at the height of the unrest.

Nazarbayev, now 81, who was widely regarded as holding the strings in the oil-rich Central Asian country despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019, has not spoken in public since the crisis began.

Nazarbayev's press secretary said Saturday that Nazarbayev was in "direct contact" with Tokayev and called on Kazakhs to "rally around" the president.

Nazarbayev hand-picked Tokayev, who is 68, as his successor when he stepped down after more than a quarter-century as head of state. Tokayev's spokesman said Sunday that he was "taking decisions independently".

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