Russian troops were loading onto planes taking-off from Kazakhstan Thursday after President Vladimir Putin said their mission to quell protests that turned into unprecedented violence in the Central Asian country had ended.
The decision to dispatch troops was a first for the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), an alliance of ex-Soviet states often touted by Russia as a NATO equivalent, following an urgent plea from Kazakhstan’s leadership.
At a ceremony marking the end of the mission, soldiers lined up as anthems from each of the six member countries were played before official speeches.
“The peacekeeping operation is over,” said Russian General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of the contingent that included troops from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the pullout would be completed by Wednesday next week, several days ahead of a January 22 deadline set by the alliance to complete the withdrawal.
“We must come home. We’ve completed our mission,” Putin told Shoigu during their meeting.
The plea from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, during the height of the unrest, for Moscow to intervene was a turning point of the protests.
The move sparked concerns that Moscow would leverage the mission to shore up influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.
During his first visit to Kazakhstan’s main city Almaty on Wednesday — where life has been gradually returning to normal — Tokayev praised the “psychological importance” of the CSTO mission.
The financial hub of 1.8 million people was devastated during clashes between security forces and government opponents that gave way to a spree of looting.
– Return to normal –
One strategic complex the troop contingent was guarding was Almaty airport, which was reportedly seized by government opponents last week.
The airport’s press service said that it was handling both domestic and international flights again on Thursday.
Last week’s violence erupted on the back of rallies over a rise in fuel prices and against a background of deteriorating living standards and endemic corruption.
Tokayev has framed the clashes as a coup attempt assisted by local and international terrorists and said that economic damage from the violence “could total $2-3 billion”.
Putin hinted that the violence was reminiscent of “colour revolutions” instigated with foreign help and at least 12,000 people have been detained, police said, with at least three journalists reportedly under arrest.
AFP correspondents in Almaty earlier Thursday witnessed a funeral for a serviceman killed during the clashes, which was attended by dozens of soldiers and featured sombre military music.
– ‘Provoked by West’ –
The official narratives, which lack evidence, resonated with retired engineer Malik Shaimukhambetov who blamed the shootouts in his city on “foreign aggression,”.
“I see these events as a kind of Orange Revolution provoked by the West,” Shaimukhambetov said, referring to political protests that erupted in Ukraine in 2004.
Alongside the claims of foreign interference, the violence last week has highlighted infighting at the very top of the hydrocarbon-rich country’s elite.
Tokayev this week launched an attack on his long-ruling mentor and predecessor Nazarbayev, 81, who was a focal point for protests and widely viewed as Kazakhstan’s main player prior to the crisis.
On Thursday the national security committee announced that former committee head Karim Masimov and two of his deputies had been arrested and were under investigation for “actions aimed at the forcible seizure of power, and abuse of office”.
The status of another former deputy head of the committee, Nazarbayev nephew Samat Abish, remained unclear, despite the presidential press service announcing another official in his place last week.
Masimov was a key ally of Nazarbayev and seen as perpetuating the octogenarian’s political influence after he stepped down from the presidency in 2019.
Neither Nazarbayev or his immediate family have made public appearances since the crisis began, although his press secretary has claimed he was in the capital.
His oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva has been absent from parliament where she serves as a lawmaker.
The 58-year-old is at her home in Almaty recovering from the coronavirus, media reported Thursday, citing her assistant.
Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter Aliya Nazarbayeva, 41, thanked Kazakh citizens for the “moral support” she claimed they had shown her father during the crisis.