Armenian troops will withdraw from Kazakhstan after the end of a Russia-led peacekeeping mission to quell anti-government protests.
On Tuesday, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that the Russian-led forces would leave the country within 10 days. Kazakhstan appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for military assistance several days after the eruption of nationwide protests on January 3. Dozens of lives have been claimed in deadly clashes between police and protesters. While the protests in Kazakhstan settle, the Armenian government has faced widespread domestic criticism for its troop deployment.
The demonstrations in Kazakhstan began in the oil town of Zhanaozen over a spike in the price of liquified petroleum gas, which is used as fuel for cars, cooking and heating appliances. Within a few days, the protests spread across the country, as grievances multiplied to include systemic corruption and income inequality.
The protests took a violent turn on January 5 as police used teargas, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse peaceful protesters, who reacted by throwing stones at them and commandeering their vehicles, according to video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW). That evening, protesters in the capital city Almaty seized several state and public buildings, including city hall and the international airport, and set numerous buildings and cars on fire.
Tokayev has said multiple times that international terrorist organizations orchestrated the demonstrations, without providing evidence for his claim. On January 5, Tokayev appealed to the CSTO to “assist Kazakhstan in overcoming this terrorist threat.”
That same day, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan announced as the rotating head of the CSTO Collective Security Council that the bloc, which includes Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, would send peacekeeping forces “for a limited time” to Kazakhstan for the purpose of “stabilizing and normalizing the situation in that country.” He said that the national security and sovereignty of Kazakhstan were under threat due to dangers that “arose as a result of external intervention.”
On January 7, the Ministry of Defense of Armenia (MoD) confirmed that Armenia had sent 100 soldiers as part of a mission of over 2,000 peacekeepers. The soldiers would assist exclusively in the “protection of buildings and infrastructures of strategic importance,” according to the MoD. This is the first joint deployment of CSTO forces in the 30-year history of the bloc.
That day, Tokayev instituted a “shoot to kill without warning” mandate during a televised address. He said the protests were an attempt at an armed takeover of the government staged by militants from across Central Asia and the Middle East.
“This is evidenced by the synchronous attack on the headquarters of regional authorities, law enforcement agencies, pre-trial detention centers, strategic facilities, banks, a TV tower and TV channels,” he said.
Pashinyan also referred to the “involvement of international terrorist organizations.”
“It is obvious that our actions are aimed at stabilizing the situation as soon as possible and returning the country to normal life. This is an extremely important moment for the provision of basic living conditions for the citizens, as well as for the security of objects of strategic importance,” he said during the virtual extraordinary session.
International human rights groups have criticized the use of excessive force by domestic police and the military against protesters.
“For years, Kazakh authorities have used vague and overbroad ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ laws and measures to arbitrarily restrict free expression and peaceful dissent,” HRW said in a news report.
“The flurry of reports and images from Kazakhstan showing dead protesters and troops indiscriminately firing live rounds suggests that police and soldiers are flouting norms on use of force designed to protect among others, the right to life,” said Letta Tayler, an associate Crisis and Conflict director at HRW on January 7.
“While the situation appears to have calmed down in Kazakhstan, the crisis is far from over. Nothing is more important now than free access to independent information, full accountability for what has happened and a commitment to respect human rights moving forward,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia on January 12.
The government has largely restricted Internet access since January 5, limiting press coverage of the demonstrations to official briefings. A vast majority of people were not able to connect to the Internet until January 10, when it was restored for a few hours a day, according to NetBlocks. Consequently foreign press outlets have been unable to contact local journalists to verify reports throughout the protests, while international journalists have been denied entry to the country.
While it is difficult to independently confirm the casualty count, local officials reported that 164 people had been killed as of Monday, yet later retracted that number. Over 10,000 people have been arrested, according to official data.
The Armenian government has faced domestic criticism for its participation in the CSTO peacekeeping contingent. Some argued that Armenian soldiers should not serve a regime that publicly supported Azerbaijan during the 2020 Artsakh War. Others recalled that the CSTO rejected requests for military assistance from Armenia following the Azerbaijani border incursions, ongoing since May 2021.
In July 2021, CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas said that the “border incident” did not invoke CSTO mutual defense obligations, since it did not constitute an attack on a member country.
Others have pointed to the irony of a government formed through anti-government protests sending troops to quell anti-government protests in another country.
Twenty non-governmental organizations signed a public letter condemning the decision to send Armenian soldiers to Kazakhstan “with the purpose of getting involved in internal political processes.”
“The people of any country must elect their own government, and no other country has the legitimate right to intervene in their internal political life. The Armenian armed forces today have a mission to protect our country’s borders and must not serve the interests of foreign dictators indifferent to the threats to the security of Armenia who welcome ethnic cleansing in Artsakh,” the letter read.
Opposition factions in the National Assembly have also criticized the deployment of Armenian soldiers to Kazakhstan. The Armenia Alliance has demanded that the parliamentary committees on defense and foreign relations hold a joint meeting to clarify further information about the decision.
“There are many issues, which for us are questionable, starting from the deployment of a group of our troops, to its size, its organization, on what foundations…All of the arguments, based on which Armenia agreed [to deploy troops]. On what basis has Armenia agreed, and what forced Armenia to send a military unit, which in our opinion is wrong?” said Armenia Alliance deputy Gegham Manukyan during a parliamentary session on Tuesday.
Secretary of the Security Council Armen Grigoryan responded to criticisms that Armenia is providing the CSTO with the help it was denied, during a televised interview on January 7.
“It’s a matter of responsibility. If Armenia has an interest in the CSTO mechanisms functioning, then the answer is a clear yes,” he said.
He also said that the unrest in Kazakhstan is not a “revolutionary process, but a terrorist one.”
According to Eugene Chausovsky, nonresident fellow at the Newlines Institute, Russia led the troop deployment in Kazakhstan to support a “pro-Russian government that is strategically aligned with the Kremlin.”
“No less importantly, Russia wants to send a message that it is willing to act to stem the risk of such violent unrest and political disorder from breaking out in other Moscow-friendly states, as well as potentially within Russian territory itself,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.