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'Foreign-backed terrorists' are behind protests in Kazakhstan, ambassador says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A state of emergency is still in effect in Kazakhstan after anti-government protests there. The president says his government has survived a coup attempt. Dozens of people have reportedly been killed, thousands detained. A former prime minister in exile has claimed the protests were orchestrated by the country's former leader as part of an effort to retake power. And Russian troops have been called in to help quell the demonstrations. I asked Kazakhstan's ambassador to the U.S., Yerzhan Ashikbayev, how he would characterize what's happening in his country right now.

YERZHAN ASHIKBAYEV: Well, undeniably, those are the darkest days, the most tragic days in the history of my nation. We have never experienced such violence. But indeed, we've been badly hit by those terrorist groups, by different types of extremists who tried to destabilize, really destabilize the situation and who tried to overthrow the government by violent means.

MARTIN: What evidence do you have that these are terrorists and not just citizen protesters? There has been a broad rejection of rising fuel prices in Kazakhstan that takes a real hit on people's pocketbooks, also real complaints about rising unemployment and widespread political corruption. Do you believe any of these protests were legitimate?

ASHIKBAYEV: Let me be clear from the outset - the government of Kazakhstan has no problem with peaceful protesters. Peaceful protesters are not attacking security, law enforcement entities. Peaceful protesters are not beating first-line responders, as ambulances or firefighters. They've been doing exactly what is not associated with peaceful demonstrations.

MARTIN: Former President Nazarbayev was, up until last week, running the country's Security Council. He has since been pushed out. What is the relationship between your government and the former president?

ASHIKBAYEV: Well, by stepping down and transferring powers of the head of Security Council, the first president effectively completed the transfer of power to the current president, President Tokayev.

MARTIN: Do you have any reason to believe that Nazarbayev is stoking the protests for his own political motives?

ASHIKBAYEV: No. I don't have reasons to believe. I don't see any grounds for such an action.

MARTIN: Russian troops are now on the ground in Kazakhstan. Why would you need another country, in this case Russia, to bring in military force?

ASHIKBAYEV: Let me clarify and be very precise. It's not only Russian forces. Those are peacekeeping forces of the CSTO, Collective Security Treaty Organization. They are used to back up the military forces of Kazakhstan.

MARTIN: Because your military is not able to manage this.

ASHIKBAYEV: The situation was grave enough for my president to request such an assistance.

MARTIN: What message does that send to your own people?

ASHIKBAYEV: Well, now the government is in full control of the situation on the ground in all of the cities, and this was also done thanks to the support by peacekeeping troops. Because of that, we had enough resources to stabilize the situation and now to be in full control of the situation on the ground.

MARTIN: I mean, we can't ignore the fact that we are now three decades after Kazakhstan's independence from the former Soviet Union. I want to play a clip of tape from the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, last week. He had this warning to Kazakhstan about the presence of Russian troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: One lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.

MARTIN: Are you on a dangerous course here when it comes to maintaining your independence from Russia?

ASHIKBAYEV: We've seen so many different speculations over the role of Russia, but any knowledgeable expert on Kazakhstan would definitely identify internal domestic triggers for the conflict, for this tragedy. And we're not afraid of Russia. For almost three decades, we are in the same Collective Security Treaty Organization. And we don't have those fears.

MARTIN: When will the Russian troops leave?

ASHIKBAYEV: As soon as the situation is stabilized, they will immediately leave.

MARTIN: I thought I heard you earlier say that the situation had now been stabilized.

ASHIKBAYEV: It's being stabilized. And that's a matter of several weeks, probably, when Russian and, obviously, CSTO member nation troops will leave the country.

MARTIN: Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Yerzhan Ashikbayev, thank you so much for talking with us.

ASHIKBAYEV: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.