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Kazakhstan: President appoints new PM as Russia-led troops to withdraw

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By Josephine Joly  with AFP, Reuters
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China's First Vice Premier of the State Council Han Zheng (R) and Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov (L) attend a meeting in Beijing on March 19, 2019.
China's First Vice Premier of the State Council Han Zheng (R) and Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov (L) attend a meeting in Beijing on March 19, 2019.   -   Copyright  ANDREA VERDELLI / AFP

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced Tuesday that a contingent of Russia-led forces would begin leaving Kazakhstan in two days, as the country's parliament elected ex-finance minister Alikhan Smailov as new Prime Minister.

Addressing the government and parliament in a video conference call broadcast live, 68-year-old Tokayev also promised to conduct reforms, rein in inflation, and boost wages as the energy-rich post-Soviet country emerges from a week of deadly unrest.

Kazakhstan and Russia have framed last week's unrest that grew out of a peaceful protest against an energy price hike in the west of the country and left dozens dead as a coup attempt assisted by foreign "terrorists", but have provided little evidence to support the claim.

Following a request from Tokayev, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) deployed troops to bring about order and buttress the authorities.

On Tuesday, Tokayev announced that "a phased withdrawal" would begin in two days and should take "no more than 10 days."

"The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed," he said.

The CSTO mission of more than 2,000 troops was despatched at the peak of the crisis last week, after armed clashes between government opponents and security forces and a looting spree rendered parts of the largest city Almaty almost unrecognisable.

The decision to despatch troops as peacekeepers was a first for the CSTO, often touted by Moscow as a NATO equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia, a region with long historical ties to Russia.

Concern has mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to shore up its influence in Kazakhstan.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned last week that "once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave".

Kazakhstan's new Prime Minister

Meanwhile, Tokayev, who earlier sacked the government in an attempt to ease dissent, nominated Alikhan Smailov as the country's new Prime Minister, and the lower house of parliament swiftly voted him in for the job.

The 49-year-old official previously served as Kazakhstan's Finance Minister from 2018 to 2020.

In 2019, he became the first deputy prime minister in the previous cabinet which Tokayev dismissed.

The death toll from last week's protests is unclear, as reliable information is hard to verify in the tightly controlled former Soviet country.

However, Kazakh security forces have detained almost 10,000 people over the unrest, Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry revealed on Tuesday.

The crisis has laid bare infighting at the very top of the government.

Tokayev's mentor, founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has yet to appear publicly since the crisis began, although his aide has claimed that the 81-year-old strongman was in the capital Nur-Sultan and in dialogue with Tokayev.

Former national security committee chief Karim Masimov — a key Nazarbayev ally viewed by many as perpetuating the retired president's influence over government — was also arrested on Saturday.

But Tokayev appears to have further bolstered his position by backing acting prime minister Alikhan Smailov to take on the job permanently.

Earlier, he had blamed the committee formerly controlled by Masimov for deserting Kazakhstan's cities during the crisis.

"Despite a sufficient military arsenal, without engaging in battle, they left the buildings, leaving weapons and secret documents there," Tokayev revealed, pledging to reform the security structures to make "defence of citizens" their top priority.

"A terrorist war was unleashed against our country. The enemy showed extreme cruelty and readiness to take any steps, he sowed fear among the population in order to suppress even the very idea of resistance," Tokayev added.

"We could have lost the country."