ALMATY: Over 2,000 Russia-led troops began withdrawing from Kazakhstan after being deployed when peaceful protests over an energy price hike turned into unprecedented violence claiming dozens of lives.
The decision to despatch peacekeepers was a first for the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), often touted by Russia as a Nato equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia — a region with long historical ties to Russia.
At a ceremony marking the end of the CSTO mission, soldiers lined up as anthems from each of the six CSTO member countries were played before official speeches began.
“The peacekeeping operation is over … the tasks have been fulfilled,” said Russian General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of the CSTO contingent that saw troops from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan sent to the former Soviet republic on Jan 6.
The Russian defence ministry said the “collective peacekeeping forces …are starting to prepare equipment and materiel for loading into the planes of the military transport aviation of the Russian aerospace forces and returning to the points of permanent deployment”.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Wednesday that Russian and allied forces “played a very important role in terms of stabilising the situation in the country” during his first visit to the country’s main city, Almaty.
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.
Claims of foreign meddling
“Without a doubt, it was of great psychological importance in repelling the aggression of terrorists and bandits. The mission can be considered very successful,” he added.
One of the strategic buildings that the CSTO 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.
AFP correspondents earlier Thursday witnessed a funeral for a serviceman killed during the clashes which was attended by dozens of soldiers and featured sombre military music.
Tokayev has framed the clashes as a coup attempt assisted by local and international terrorists.
Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin hinted that the violence was reminiscent of “colour revolutions” instigated by foreign meddling.
Those narratives resonated with some residents of Almaty, despite the lack of proof provided by authorities.
‘Provoked by West’
Retired engineer Malik Shaimukhambetov blamed the shootouts in his city on “foreign aggression”, which he said had subverted state troops and allowed gangs to seize government buildings.
“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.
Tokayev said the phased withdrawal of the foreign troops would take no more than 10 days.
Concern had mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to shore up its influence in Kazakhstan.
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”.
Last week’s violence in Kazakhstan erupted on the back of peaceful demonstrations over a rise in fuel prices and against a background of deteriorating living standards and endemic corruption.