More than 2,000 Russian-led troops have begun to withdraw from Kazakhstan after being deployed when peaceful protests against rising energy prices turned into unprecedented violence, killing dozens.
The decision to send peacekeepers was a first for the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), often touted by Russia as an equivalent of NATO 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’s mission, soldiers lined up as the anthems of each of the six CSTO member countries were played before official speeches began.
“The peacekeeping operation is over … the tasks have been completed,” said Russian General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of the CSTO contingent which sent troops from Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet republic on January 6.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said that “collective peacekeeping forces (…) are beginning to prepare equipment and materials for loading into the aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ military transport aviation and to return to permanent deployment points”.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev said on Wednesday that Russian and allied forces “played a very important role in terms of stabilizing the situation in the country” during his first visit to the country’s main city, Almaty.
The financial center of 1.8 million people was devastated in clashes between security forces and government opponents that sparked a wave of looting.
Claims of foreign interference “Undoubtedly, this 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 the CSTO contingent was guarding was Almaty airport, which was reportedly seized by government opponents last week.
The airport’s press service said it was operating domestic and international flights again on Thursday.
Earlier on Thursday, AFP correspondents attended the funeral of a soldier killed in the clashes, which was attended by dozens of soldiers and featured somber military music.
Tokayev presented the clashes as a coup attempt assisted by local and international terrorists.
His Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin hinted that the violence was reminiscent of “color revolutions” sparked by foreign interference.
These accounts have resonated with some Almaty residents, despite the lack of evidence provided by authorities.
Retired engineer Malik Shaimukhambetov blamed the shootings in his town on “foreign aggression”, which he said had toppled state troops and allowed gangs to take over government buildings.
“I see these events as a kind of orange revolution brought about by the West,” Shaimukhambetov said, referring to political protests that erupted in Ukraine in 2004.
Tokayev said the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops would take no more than 10 days.
Concern was growing that Moscow could use the mission to strengthen its influence in Kazakhstan.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier warned that “once the Russians are in your house, it is sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.
Last week’s violence in Kazakhstan erupted following peaceful protests against rising fuel prices and amid deteriorating living standards and rampant corruption.
(AXADLETM with AFP)
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