By Rob Picheta, Anna Chernova, Radina Gigova and Ivan Watson, CNN
“Peacekeepers” from a Russia-led military alliance of post-Soviet states will be sent to Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country following deadly protests against a hike in fuel prices, Armenia’s Prime Minister said Wednesday.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — which includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — decided to send collective “peacekeeping forces” for a “limited” period of time “in view of the threat to national security and the sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” according to a statement from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is also chairman of the alliance.
The move follows an appeal from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for help from the alliance after unrest broke out across Kazakhstan on Wednesday, including in the largest city, Almaty.
Eight police officers and national guard personnel were killed in riots in different regions of the country, according to Kazakhstan’s local outlet Tengrinews.kz. It also said 317 officers and personnel were injured, citing the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“In the cities of Almaty, Shymkent, and Taraz, attempts were made to attack akimats [local administration offices], where windows, doors were broken and other material damage was caused,” said a statement on the ministry’s website. “Stones, sticks, gas, pepper, and Molotov cocktails were used by the mob.”
President Tokayev said “terrorists” had captured Almaty airport, including five aircraft, and were battling with the military outside the city.
A number of infrastructure facilities in Almaty have been damaged, Tokayev said. He accused the protesters of undermining the “state system” and claimed “many of them have received military training abroad.”
The protests were ignited when the government lifted price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) at the start of the year, Reuters reported. Many Kazakhs have converted their cars to run on the fuel because of its low cost.
A nationwide internet blackout was in effect in Kazakhstan early Thursday, according to internet freedom watchdog Netblocks. The country saw a nationwide internet shutdown Wednesday afternoon before it was partially restored, the watchdog said in a statement.
A journalist in Almaty told CNN they were experiencing internet outage and lights appeared to be off in buildings near the President’s residence and mayor’s office.
“More than 10,000 people at the city administration building, we call it the Akimat. They have encircled it,” Serikzhan Mauletbay, deputy editor in chief of Orda.kz, said. Mauletbay said stun grenades were used and there is “some kind of fire,” according to an Instagram live video he watched from the scene.
Another journalist described the scene as chaotic and said they could hear and see what they believed were stun grenades going off and shots being fired, but it is unclear what the firing sounds were.
A state of emergency has been introduced throughout the country, state-run media reported. It will be implemented until January 19, with restrictions on movement, including transport, in three major cities and 14 regions.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest nation by landmass, has attracted foreign investment and maintained a strong economy since its independence, but its autocratic method of governance has at times prompted international concern and has seen authorities harshly crack down on protests, according to global rights groups.
Russia maintains close relations with Kazakhstan and Moscow depends on the Baikonur Cosmodrome as the launch base for all Russian manned space missions. The Central Asian nation also has a significant ethnic Russian minority; the CIA World Factbook says around 20% of Kazakhstan’s 19 million population is ethnically Russian.
Amid the turmoil, Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin announced his immediate resignation.
Alikhan Smailov has been appointed acting Prime Minister, and members of the government will continue to serve until the formation of the new cabinet, according to a statement on the presidential website Wednesday.
President Tokayev said a number of measures aimed “to stabilize the socio-economic situation” had been put into place, including government regulation of fuel prices for a period of 180 days, a moratorium on increasing utility tariffs for the population for the same period, and the consideration of rent subsidies for “vulnerable segments of the population.”
On Tuesday, Tokayev said on his official Twitter feed the government has decided to reduce the price for LPG in the Mangistau region to 50 tenge ($0.11) per liter “in order to ensure stability in the country.”
Tokayev said in a national television address Wednesday that he will take control of the Kazakhstan’s Security Council — a move that seemingly sidelines his predecessor, longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led the country since it was a Soviet Republic until his departure in 2019, and has remained an influential but controversial figure behind the scenes and on the council since.
The US State Department’s 2018 human rights report noted Kazakhstan’s 2015 presidential election, in which Nazarbayev received 98% of votes cast, “was marked by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition.”
On Wednesday, State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a statement the US “is closely following the situation in Kazakhstan,” adding “We ask for all Kazakhstanis to respect and defend constitutional institutions, human rights, and media freedom, including through the restoration of internet service.”
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CNN’s Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.