Kazakh president fires rare criticism at predecessor after unrest

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Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued rare criticism of his long-ruling predecessor Tuesday, and said he expected Russian-led forces to leave the troubled Central Asian country in the next 10 days.

The oil-rich country's descent into chaos has laid bare infighting at the top of a government once dominated by Tokayev's mentor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The older man retains the constitutional status of "Leader of the Nation" despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019.

Addressing lawmakers in a video conference broadcast live, Tokayev fired an eyebrow-raising broadside at Nazarbayev as the post-Soviet country reels from unprecedented violence that began with peaceful protests over an energy price hike.

Tokayev, 68, said Nazarbayev's rule had created "a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards".

"The time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis," Tokayev added, noting that "very profitable companies" would be asked to pay money into a state fund.

"The current system is oriented towards major structures and is based on the principle: 'everything for friends and laws for everyone else'," he said.

- UN rights experts concerned -

Both Kazakhstan and Russia have framed last week's unrest that left dozens dead and almost 10,000 people arrested as a coup attempt assisted by foreign "terrorists", but have provided little supporting evidence.

UN-mandated independent human rights experts on Tuesday criticised the Kazakh security forces' "unrestrained use of force" and said they were concerned that Tokayev had chosen to describe the protesters as "bandits and terrorists".

Such terms "should not be used to silence those who do not share the government's opinion, who are protesting about social and economic conditions, and expressing political views," they said.

In an address to the nation last week, Tokayev said 20,000 "armed bandits" had attacked Almaty and authorised his forces to shoot to kill without warning.

France, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, called for Kazakhstan's sovereignty to be fully respected, and urged talks to de-escalate the situation.

- Phased withdrawal -

Following a request from career diplomat Tokayev, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) deployed troops to bring about order and shore up the authorities.

On Tuesday, Tokayev announced "a phased withdrawal" would begin in two days and take "no more than 10 days".

"The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed," he said.

But Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the troops would depart only when the situation was "fully stabilised".

The CSTO mission of more than 2,000 troops was deployed at the peak of the crisis, after armed clashes between government opponents and security forces and a looting spree trashed parts of the largest city Almaty.

The decision was a first for the CSTO, often touted by Moscow as a NATO equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia, a region with long historical ties to Russia.

Concern has mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to entrench its influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that "once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave".

- First family thirst -

Tokayev appeared to further bolster his position by backing acting prime minister Alikhan Smailov to take on the job permanently Tuesday -- a nomination that won the unanimous support of lawmakers.

Former national security committee chief Karim Masimov -- a key Nazarbayev ally viewed as perpetuating the retired president's influence over the government -- was arrested on treason charges Saturday in connection with the unrest.

Even if Nazarbayev -- the son of shepherds who rose through the communist party's ranks -- is now being sidelined politically, dislodging his family's extensive interests in Central Asia's largest economy may take time.

In a significant move Tuesday, Tokayev announced plans to bring an end to a widely criticised private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev's youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, 41.

"This should be done by a state organisation, like in other countries," he said.

But middle daughter Dinara and her husband Timur Kulibayev control Halyk, the largest commercial bank, and are among the richest people in the country. Kulibayev is moreover a key player in the flagship oil sector.

Oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva's political career, mainly in the rubber-stamp legislature, has been marked by a series of controversial statements and perceptions of an abrasive style.

The 58-year-old's reported business interests are also rumoured to be extensive.

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