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Russian troops are sent to Kazakhstan to help quell deadly violence


The violence in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan escalated sharply last night. State-run media say dozens of people were killed, including at least 13 members of the security forces. Russian troops have been sent to Kazakhstan at the government's request to help quell the violence. It's the worst violence in Kazakhstan since they gained independence three decades ago. Joining us now to help explain the events is Peter Leonard, the Central Asia editor for Eurasianet. Peter, remind us how all of this started and how it all seems to have just escalated so quickly.

PETER LEONARD: Yes. Well, hello. So it began on January the 2 in a oil town in western Kazakhstan, where local people were protesting against the sudden surge in prices for liquefied petroleum gas, which is the gas that most people there use to power their cars. And so this sort of began as quite a sort of a local, you know, cost of living protest. But inspired by this rally, people in cities nearby began coming out onto the streets in very large numbers that Kazakhstan is not very used to. And this eventually spread all the way across Kazakhstan, all the way to Almaty, which is the country's old capital. Kazakhstan is a country, you know, about the size of Western Europe. It's a huge country. And so to see it - sort of the protests spread across such a kind of a large area so quickly was quite a sight. So by the January the 4th, this had kind of escalated into a big nationwide movement. And we saw the - kind of the most vocal and, indeed, subsequently violent protests unfolded in Almaty, the business capital of Kazakhstan, on the 4.

MARTÍNEZ: This nationwide movement that you mentioned, any indication that it's organized or does this seem spontaneous?

LEONARD: It seems absolutely spontaneous. And there's a reason for that - is that Kazakhstan is an authoritarian former Soviet. It still kind of rules very much in the - kind of the Soviet model. And as a result, all opposition has been pretty much crushed, and independent media, most of it, has been sidelined. And so as a result, it means that whenever these things happen, it's very difficult for any sort of one leader to sort of emerge as the focal point of these kind of movements. And so this has sort of been the nature of this wave of protests. We don't really know who is leading any of these rallies or any of these protests. And I think that accounts to some extent for the kind of chaos that's ensued.

MARTÍNEZ: Will the Russian-led peacekeepers from the former Soviet republics mean that the violence will, at least for now, be quelled?

LEONARD: Well, quelled - I don't know if quelled - maybe crushed would be the more...


LEONARD: ...Correct word to use because although these appear to be protests, which then sort of degenerated into unrest - I mean, that's beyond dispute - the Kazakh government came out yesterday and basically cast all of these events as the work of terrorists acting on behalf of shady criminal groups. And so the reaction from the government has now been to basically treat this as a terrorist act. And so I think the response is going to be very harsh and very, very bloody, indeed. And we're already seeing evidence of that with news of dozens of protesters having been killed already.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Peter Leonard, Central Asia editor for Eurasianet. Peter, thank you.

LEONARD: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "FEELINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.