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Russian troops have crossed the border into Kazakhstan following violent protests

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russian troops have crossed the border into neighboring Kazakhstan following a week of violent anti-government demonstrations there. Kazakhstan's president called in a Russian-led regional security force after protesters torched government buildings and vandalized businesses. The crisis in Kazakhstan comes right as Russia and the U.S. are scheduled to begin a series of talks about Ukraine this week. For more, we are joined now by NPR's Moscow correspondent, Charles Maynes. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: Charles, these protests began a week ago after the price of fuel essentially doubled. But even after the government restored price controls, the demonstrations continued. So what's driving this unrest?

MAYNES: Well, you're right. So it started off as anger over fuel prices, and that reflected discontent over income inequality in this country that's a large exporter of oil and gas. You know, what mostly began as peaceful protests seemed to suddenly shift midweek when events really took a violent turn. You had government buildings torched, deadly clashes with security forces, businesses looted. And there's this growing evidence that some of these same political elites may have had a hand in stoking some of this violence as they themselves took advantage of this popular unrest to fight for power and edge out rivals.

RASCOE: Wow. I mean, what's the evidence for that?

MAYNES: Well, you know for one, amid the unrest, Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, fired the former president - this was Nursultan Nazarbayev - from his post as head of the Security Council. He took the job for himself. Now, until he passed the presidency to Tokayev in 2019, Nazarbayev was the authoritarian ruler of Kazakhstan for its entire post-Soviet existence. But it seems that President Tokayev has used this crisis to edge out Nazarbayev, who hasn't been seen or heard from since the unrest. Meanwhile, just yesterday, Tokayev had his intelligence chief, Karim Massimov, who was a former prime minister under Nazarbayev, arrested for suspicion of high treason.

RASCOE: So what's the situation on the ground now? There are reports of police hunting down the protesters in their homes?

MAYNES: Yeah, it's still hard to get information because of an internet blackout, but a picture is coming into view, and it's not a pretty one. There were a thousand people reportedly injured according to the UN. We have dozens, if not far more, dead, including 18 police. The government says 5,500 people have been arrested. Now, President Tokayev insists the situation has stabilized as his forces continue what he calls an anti-terrorist operation with shoot-to-kill orders against foreign fighters who he blames for the unrest. In fact, as you know, they're searching for them in house-to-house sweeps.

Now, that argument of a foreign threat has given justification for Tokayev to invite Russian troops into the country as part of this regional security presence. The Russians are guarding what's being called strategic facilities. Now, there's no evidence of them taking part in an active way in suppressing protests. Yet, interestingly, Russia is also evacuating its own citizens on military planes from Kazakhstan starting today, which suggests that Moscow is not at all convinced that things have settled down entirely.

RASCOE: So how many troops does Russia have in Kazakhstan now? And weren't the Russians already putting troops on the border of another former Soviet country, Ukraine?

MAYNES: Right. You know, really, these protests came out of nowhere and surprised Moscow, as well. They've got - they're part of this 2,500-strong regional security force. Meanwhile, Russia and the U.S. are about to engage in high-stakes diplomacy in Geneva, and the focus will be Ukraine, which, as you note, is where Moscow is using threat of an invasion by some 100,000 Russian troops to try and muscle security guarantees. And that has huge implications for NATO's presence in Eastern and central Europe. Now, most of all, Russia wants binding assurances that Ukraine won't be allowed to join NATO. And NATO, which also meets with Russian officials later this week, says it's not Russia's decision who becomes a member. So seeming they're at loggerheads. In fact, before flying out to Geneva this morning, the head of the Russian delegation said he was not optimistic at all. He didn't even rule out cutting short his trip. But these are experienced negotiators on both sides, so let's see what they can negotiate.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.