Russian troops leave Kazakhstan amid reported power struggle

Russian servicemen at a ceremony marking the beginning of the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops from Kazakhstan on Jan 13, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN (AFP) - Russian soldiers completed their draw down from Kazakhstan, the defence ministry said on Wednesday (Jan 19), as the Central Asian country lifted a state of emergency imposed after unprecedented unrest and signs of a power struggle.

The ex-Soviet country was roiled by clashes sparked during peaceful rallies around the New Year against fuel price hikes. At least 225 people - including 19 servicemen - died in unrest that prompted President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to appeal to Moscow for help.

The crisis has spurred suggestions of a rift between Mr Tokayev and his long-ruling predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who spoke for the first time since the protests on Tuesday and denied any conflict with the president.

The Russian defence ministry said on Wednesday that four planes carrying its remaining troops had departed from the capital Nur-Sultan and Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty.

"The last of the peacekeepers and the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent headed by Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov will return home on these planes," it said.

Video distributed by the ministry showed troops landing at an airport in the southern Russian city of Ulyanovsk, where a ceremony was held to mark their return.

Troops from the alliance of ex-Soviet states including Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia began arriving January 6 after the urgent plea from Tokayev, and started their withdrawal last week.

Their last departure came hours after Mr Tokayev's spokesman Berik Uali confirmed the end of a two-week state of emergency, saying "the unity and integrity of the people, law enforcement agencies and military" had ensured order was restored.

"May there be peace and goodness in our country always!" Mr Uali wrote on Facebook.

But Almaty was tense on Wednesday morning, where AFP correspondents saw police blocking access to several central roads after a banned opposition group called for protests.

The decision to despatch peacekeepers was a first for the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), often touted by Russia as a Nato equivalent.

There had been concerns Moscow would leverage the mission to influence Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned that "once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave".

'Unity and integrity'

The authorities have blamed the violence that centred in Almaty - the financial hub of 1.8 million people - on bandits and "terrorists" with international links.

Protesters clash with Kazakh policemen in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Jan 5, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

That narrative has been complicated by suggestions of infighting at the highest-level of government, with a former national security chief close to Mr Nazarbayev and two of his deputies detained on coup-plotting charges.

Mr Tokayev on Wednesday announced the dismissal of defence minister Murat Bektanov saying that the army's poor performance had forced him to call on the CSTO to intervene.

"Minister Bektanov did not show commanding qualities," Mr Tokayev said, presenting Ruslan Zhaksylykov as his replacement to military officials.

Mr Tokayev said Mr Bektanov had been unable to utilise the military's full potential "in a critical situation" saying authorities "were forced to resort to outside help".

Mr Zhaksylykov had filled the role of deputy interior minister prior to the change.

On Tuesday, Mr Nazarbayev was shown speaking for the first time since the crisis began to deny that he was in a tussle with the man he handpicked to replace him as head of state in 2019.

He said Mr Tokayev had "full" control and described himself as "a pensioner", stressing there is: "no conflict or confrontation between elites".

Calling the violence "a lesson for all of us", Mr Nazarbayev added: "It is important to find out who organised all these pogroms and murders".

It was not clear when Mr Nazarbayev's address, which appeared on his official website, was recorded.

Mr Tokayev became head of the country's security council as the crisis began to peak on January 5 - a position that Nazarbayev previously occupied and was viewed as a check on the head of state's authority.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it would not interfere in Kazakhstan's "internal affairs" and that President Vladimir Putin had "cordial relations" with both Mr Tokayev and his predecessor.

Recent days have seen Mr Nazarbayev's in-laws and relatives leave top government and corporate posts in moves that appear to weaken the former first family's vice-like grip on politics and over Central Asia's largest economy.

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