Signs Kazakhstan president regaining control after crackdown on protests

Country's biggest city quiet, but sound of gunshots still reported.

January 8, 2022, 11:24 AM

There are signs Kazakhstan's president is slowly regaining control in the country, following a bloody clampdown by security forces to end days of mass protests and after Russian-led troops arrived to support the government.

For the second day in a row, Kazakhstan's biggest city Almaty was eerily quiet and under heavy military control, according to an ABC News reporter there. The city, the former capital, was the epicenter of the protests this week, where mobs stormed key government buildings and overran the airport. But under cover of an internet blackout, security forces using live fire have cleared the streets over the past three days in clashes that have left dozens killed, according to the government.

The streets were mostly deserted on Saturday, but the occasional sound of gunshots could be heard. It was not clear, but some of the shots appeared to be warning shots fired by troops, directing people not to approach police cordons, according to the ABC News reporter, who is not being named for safety reasons. The main square, the key protest site, was occupied by security forces and blocked off with armored vehicles.

An armed riot police officer detains two protesters during a security anti-terrorists operation in a street after clashes in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 8, 2022.
Vasily Krestyaninov/AP

A curfew is in effect in the evening and authorities have told people to remain indoors. Military units have set up checkpoints and are controlling access to the city. Most shops are closed and people are struggling to find basic groceries, except for bread that is still being delivered, according to ABC's reporter. The city center is wrecked, many shops looted and the roads are strewn with burnt-out cars. Several journalists on the ground have reported seeing corpses lying in the street.

The protests began a week ago, triggered by a rise in gas prices, but quickly spread and developed into the biggest uprising against Kazakhstan's authoritarian government since it gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan's president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Wednesday appealed to Russia for help, asking a Moscow-led military alliance of former Soviet countries to send troops. A few thousand Russian paratrooper units have since arrived in the country, along with several hundred from Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

The internet blackout in the country made it difficult to get a clear picture of the situation in other cities on Saturday, but there were signs protests had faded. Kazakhstan's interior ministry said police now have "full control" over Aktob, a city that saw major protests. In Aktau, another protest center, a Russian-state news reporter showed police removing a small number of protesters from the central square.

A car, which was burned after clashes, is seen on a street in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 7, 2022.
Vasily Krestyaninov/AP

Security forces were engaged in a gun battle for several hours near a village on the outskirts of Almaty, according to a reporter from the Russian state news agency, Sputnik.

Kazakhstan's interior ministry said police have arrested over 4,400 people during the protests. At least 26 protesters and 18 security forces personnel have been killed, and hundreds of people injured in the unrest, according to the authorities.

Tokyaev on Saturday spoke to Russia's president Vladimir Putin, telling him the situation was "stabilizing" but that "hotspots of terrorism" remained and that he would fight them "with the utmost determination," according to a readout from Kazakhstan's president's office.

Tokayev and the Kremlin have claimed the unrest was carried out by "foreign terrorist" groups. In many places the protests have been largely peaceful, though in Almaty they were overtaken by intense violence, with mobs of men ransacking government buildings and there was widespread looting. Men armed with assault rifles, seemingly organized, have been seen and appear to have fought with the security forces. But peaceful demonstrations appear to continue in the city -- as troops advanced on the square on Wednesday, a group of young people stood holding a banner reading, "We are not terrorists."

Kazakhstan's soldiers guard a road in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 8, 2022. The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Kazakhstan's security services on Saturday also arrested the former head of the country's domestic security agency, Karim Masimov, on charges of treason, in a surprise move that fueled speculation in Kazakhstan that an internal struggle has also been going on among the elite during the protests.

Masimov had headed the powerful KNB security service until he was removed this week by Tokayev, when the president dismissed his government as a concession to the protests.

A statement published on the security agency's website, said Masimov and other unnamed individuals, were suspected of "state treason" and that he has been held in a detention center for the past two days. The charge against him carries a maximum sentence of 15 years prison.

Masimov was a key ally of Kazakhstan's long-time ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ex-Communist party boss who has dominated the country for three decades.

Nazarbayev, who is 81, in 2019 passed the presidency to Tokayev, but had retained considerable power behind the scenes as chairman of the national security council and has the honorary title "leader of the nation."

This week, amid the unrest, Tokayev announced he was replacing Nazarbayev as chairman of the security council, a move seen as signaling an end to Nazarbayev's power.

Nazarbayev's removal now combined with the arrest of his key ally in Tokayev's government has prompted some to claim Tokayev is using the upheaval to put an end to his former patron's influence in the government and cement his own.

Nazarbayev's whereabouts -- as has not been seen in public since the protests began -- have become a subject of interest among Kazakhstanis. Nazarbayev's spokesperson on Saturday denied multiple reports that Nazarbayev had left Kazakhstan with his daughter. The spokesperson said Nazarbayev was in the capital Nur-Sultan -- named after him -- and was in regular contact with Tokayev.

A journalist working with ABC News contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.