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Russian troops are in Kazakhstan to help quell deadly anti-government protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian-led troops are now deployed in Kazakhstan, part of a violent crackdown on anti-government protests. The country's president asked for Moscow's help to stop the demonstrations. People protested rising fuel prices at first. But this has turned into a much wider conflict, with many people dead. Protesters burned a presidential home, and at one point, took control of the airport in the capital. Let's discuss this with William Courtney is a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and also now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation. Ambassador, welcome.

WILLIAM COURTNEY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand what the protesters really want?

COURTNEY: The protests have been building for a long time, partly because the government has become more autocratic over the last 30 years. The government has become more corrupt, particularly at the top, with Nazarbayev and his family - President Nazarbayev and his family. The ordinary people have - the incomes have not been keeping up with the wealth that Kazakhstan has earned through its energy. So this is a surprise. But it is a latent issue that has been building.

INSKEEP: You mentioned a few things that I feel we ought to just explain for people. You mentioned energy. Kazakhstan is not a very populist place. But it is an enormously energy-rich place. You also referred to President Nazarbayev. That's a guy who was president for decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. But didn't he step back a couple of years ago? And isn't this, at least in theory, a replacement government? Is it actually a continuation of the same government?

COURTNEY: It's actually a continuation of the same government. The Nazarbayev power elite still has been controlling Kazakhstan. The career diplomat, President Tokayev, who has been put forward, does not have an independent power base in Kazakhstan.

INSKEEP: So there's the question of Russian troops. Were they already effectively in the area? It's my understanding that this used to be part of the Soviet Union. And it's my understanding that Russian troops largely never left Central Asia when the Soviet Union fell apart.

COURTNEY: In parts of Central Asia, such as Tajikistan, that's true. But in Kazakhstan, they mostly left except at the Baikonur space launch facility.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting.

COURTNEY: So Russia now seems to be inserting a couple thousand troops. But it will be wary not to put its troops in harm's way because that would be unpopular back in Russia, for Russian soldiers to die. And it would be very unpopular in Kazakhstan for Kazakhstanis to be killed by Russian soldiers.

INSKEEP: What is President Vladimir Putin's interest here?

COURTNEY: President Putin wants to have stability. He likes authoritarian regimes around Russia's border. Kazakhstan has always been cooperative with Russia. And the United States and the West have generally encouraged a cooperative relationship. But some ultranationalists in Russia believe that Russia should take several of the regions of northern Kazakhstan that border on Russia.

INSKEEP: Let's try to figure out a little bit more about the protesters here. We heard on the program yesterday a voice from Kazakhstan saying that it's hard to identify exactly who the leader of the protests would be. But there had been protests for years in Kazakhstan. That's the reason that President Nazarbayev, at least theoretically, stepped back a couple of years ago was because of protests. Should we think of these as democratic protesters? Are they driven by something else? What do you know?

COURTNEY: They're driven by animus toward the autocratic regime. And they're driven by economic concerns. But this is a genuine, popular uprising, as we saw in Ukraine in the Orange Revolution of Maidan, as we saw a couple of years ago in Belarus. The true leaders probably have yet to emerge. But we will likely see some leaders coming forth sometime soon. The protesters are generally peaceful people. But they have - kind of boiling over now with outrage at the government.

INSKEEP: How brutal has the crackdown on them been as best you can determine from afar?

COURTNEY: So there've been two aspects to cruelty. One has been the regime, just within the last 24 or 48 hours, has used a fair amount of force against peaceful protesters in Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan. Dozens have been killed, according to reports. And then secondly, the regime is probably using its own thugs to set fires to buildings in order to portray the protesters as not being peaceful.

INSKEEP: A couple of other interests I'd like to ask about. We asked about Russia, which sent in the troops. China is not terribly far from Kazakhstan, actually borders on Central Asia. Does China have an interest here?

COURTNEY: China does have an interest because Kazakhstan sits astride much of the Silk Road between China and Europe. So the - Europe is one of the three largest markets in the world. So for China, having good relations with Kazakhstan is important. But China does not have a political background and political interest in Kazakhstan the way Russia does.

INSKEEP: Does the United States have an interest in the outcome of these demonstrations?

COURTNEY: The United States has an interest in having a peaceful resolution of the disputes. But this is really for Kazakhstanis to resolve themselves, not with outside interference.

INSKEEP: William Courtney is a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan. Thanks so much, ambassador.

COURTNEY: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.