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Kazakhstan death toll rises to 164, US-Russia talks start in Geneva

Talks begin in Europe to ease tensions between the West and Russia as the republics of the former Soviet Union become a tinderbox. There's a simmering war in eastern Ukraine, a bloody uprising in Kazakhstan and mass repression in Belarus.

(CN) — American and Russian diplomats on Monday began a week of high-stakes talks to defuse tensions between NATO and Moscow and avert a major war in Europe.

Last week's bloody uprising in Kazakhstan hangs over the talks and makes for a lethal reminder of just how dangerous of an economic, social and geopolitical cocktail Russia and other former Soviet states have become and shows the potential for the world's great powers – China, Russia, the United States and the European Union – to stumble into catastrophic conflict.

By Monday, the death toll from the mass protests and riots against the authoritarian Kazakhstan regime rose to 164 civilians, according to news reports and health officials. Sixteen police officers were killed and more than 1,300 others were injured, the Russian news agency Tass reported. More than 1,000 civilians were injured too.

The uprising took place in Almaty, the country's largest city close to the Chinese border, and in other cities, causing extensive destruction. The government said 1,270 businesses were damaged, more than 100 shopping malls and banks were looted and about 500 police cars were burned. Key administrative buildings, including a presidential palace and mayor's office in Almaty, were burned.

As Russian and American diplomats sat down for talks in Geneva to rekindle mechanisms for cooperation and understanding, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared the violence the result of a coup d'etat attempt and Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly accused the U.S. of being behind the unrest.

“The events in Kazakhstan are not the first and far from the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states from the outside,” Putin said, speaking with the regional leaders and allies of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan. He claimed the uprising was an attempt at a “color revolution” meant to destabilize Kazakhstan.

Russia accuses the U.S. of being behind a “color revolution” in Ukraine in 2013 that led to the overthrow of a pro-Russian president. In retaliation, Russia annexed Crimea, a critical strategic spot for Russia and home to a vital navy base.

Eight years later, a war simmers in eastern Ukraine and Kyiv is desperately seeking entry into NATO, but that is something the Kremlin has warned is a red line.

The talks in Geneva come as NATO accuses Russia of preparing to invade Ukraine and annex it in a wild bid by Putin to rebuild the former Russian empire. The Kremlin accuses the West of intruding ever more insidiously into its historic sphere of influence in a bid to destabilize the country and, in the mind of Russian nationalists like Putin, bring it to its knees.

Russia experienced a wave of crime, ruinous privatization, social strife and decline in the 1990s with its entry into Western free market systems and Putin is credited at home with bringing order back to the country. But he is accused of fueling a dangerous rise in nationalism, reimposing a Soviet-like police state, divvying up the country's wealth among his cronies and himself, eliminating political freedoms at home, meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and joining China in a Cold War-like conflict with the West.

The events in Ukraine are the chief reason for the abysmal state of relations between Russia and the West and they will be at the heart of talks this week. The talks will take place in Geneva and Brussels and include EU, European, NATO, Ukrainian and Russian diplomats. It is far from clear if the talks will result in any concrete agreements.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (Denis Balibouse/Pool via AP)

After the Crimea annexation, Russia was thrown out of the G-8 group of rich nations, sanctioned economically and cast as a pariah mafia state run by Putin, who is portrayed by the West and its media as a cold-blooded killer and ace diplomatic gambler whose control of the Kremlin makes Russia little else but a foe.

Events in Kazakhstan, then, may be seen as adding a new dangerous layer to these tensions.

On Thursday, the Kremlin sent about 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan, its mineral-rich neighbor with historic ties to Russia, to help the Kazakhstan regime regain control.

The troops were sent upon the request of Tokayev as part of a Russia-led military pact called the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This was the first time troops were deployed under the pact.

The alliance is made up of former Soviet republics and is meant to counter NATO, which has expanded its operations ever closer to  Russia's borders and in doing so enraged the Kremlin.

The Kazakh government said more than 7,500 people have been arrested. It accused “terrorists” and foreign militants as being behind the uprising and Tokayev gave a shoot-to-kill order last week.

Unlike many of its former Soviet neighbors in Central Asia, Kazakhstan was considered a sleepy, relatively prosperous and stable republic under an autocratic one-party regime. It was deemed friendly to the U.S. and American energy giants Exxon and Chevron have been active there exploiting its mineral riches.

But the real facts on the ground in Kazakhstan are shrouded in uncertainty due to a lack of independent information and the government blocking internet access.

The government's removal of a cap on fuel prices at the start of the new year was seen as stoking the revolt, but tensions have long been brewing in the autocratic state over disparate living standards for the ruling elite and other sections of the population.

Protest groups are calling for more political freedoms and electoral reforms in a country seen by many as a dictatorship.

Demonstrators have called for an end to the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, an 81-year-old former Soviet-era politician who became the country's first president following the collapse of the Soviet Union and remained the head of state until 2019, when his close ally Tokayev took over.

Many protesters shouted “Old Man Out!” in reference to Nazarbayev and images posted on social media showed a statue of the ex-president being torn down.

Nazarbayev has built a cult of personality around himself and established a corrupt oil-rich regime, according to many analysts.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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