Kazakh leader denies fleeing country and says he was just taking ‘deserved rest’ during uprising

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Former Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev has denied claims that he has fled the country and there was a rift between him and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Mr Nazarbayev said in a video released on Tuesday. This is the 81-year-old’s first appearance since violent protests began in the country in the beginning of the year.

The four-and-a-half minute video showed the leader, who held onto power for almost three decades since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, sitting with four Kazakh flags in the background.

“There is no conflict or standoff in the elite. Rumours about this are absolutely unfounded,” Mr Nazarbayev said, and denied reports that there was a battle for influence between him and his successor.

“In 2019 I handed over my powers to president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and since then I am a pensioner. I am currently taking deserved rest in the capital of Kazakhstan and I have not gone anywhere,” he added, according to the official transcript of his address.

The whereabouts of the former president, who holds the honorific title “leader of the nation”, was a matter of speculation as deadly protests raged in the country this month.

Several rumours had claimed that he had moved to Switzerland, Dubai, China or even that he is dead.

The unrest started as a demonstration against rising fuel prices on 2 January but soon spread to the entire nation. In response, President Tokayev announced a 180-day cap on fuel prices but protesters did not relent.

He then gave orders to shoot protesters without warning and even called in troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russia-led military alliance of six former Soviet nations, to quell the unrest.

More than 220 people died during the protests and thousands have been arrested.

On Wednesday, security forces in the city of Almaty were on high alert amid calls for fresh protests by an opposition group led by former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, according to Reuters. Security forces blocked streets and cordoned a city square.

During the unrest, reports emerged that members of Mr Nazarbayev’s circle may have used the protests to attempt a power grab. Soon after, Mr Tokayev removed the former leader as the head of the country’s security council, a position he held even after stepping down as president.

In the following days, many of Mr Nazarbayev’s close aides were removed from key positions, including former prime minister and head of the security services Karim Masimov. He was later arrested on charges of treason.

Some people saw Mr Tokayev’s move as a means to destroy the former leader’s patronage who had a cult following. The capital city, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in 201 in Mr Nazarbayev’s honour.

However, Mr Tokayev hasn’t made any direct reference to the former leader and has maintained his silence.

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