By Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) - The West must pull Kazakhstan out of Moscow's orbit or Russian President Vladimir Putin will draw the Central Asian state into "a structure like the Soviet Union", a former minister who is now a Kazakh opposition leader told Reuters.
Protests that began as a response to a fuel price rise swelled this week into a broad movement against Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped aside as president in 2019 after decades in office but has remained the real power in Kazakhstan.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor, has called in forces from ally Russia as part of a Moscow-led alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker and government minister who is leader of an opposition movement called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, said the West needed to enter the fray.
"If not, then Kazakhstan will turn into Belarus and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will methodically impose his programme - the recreation of a structure like the Soviet Union," Ablyazov told Reuters in Russian from Paris. "The West should tear Kazakhstan away from Russia."
"Russia has already entered, sent in troops. CSTO is Russia. This is an occupation by Russia," he said.
He did not say how the West should pull Kazakhstan out of Russia's orbit, or whether it should use force.
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, is wedged between Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
China would stand aside in Kazakhstan and simply observe events, Ablyazov said.
Sentenced in absentia in Kazakhstan for fraud, embezzlement and for organising a murder, Ablyazov, 58, lives in France where he has been granted refugee status. He has dismissed the charges against him in Russia and Kazakhstan as politically motivated.
He served as energy minister in the 1990s under Nazarbayev but relations soured. Kazakh authorities say Ablyazov instigated and bankrolled protests in 2016 that forced Nazarbayev to delay unpopular land-ownership reforms.
Ablyazov cast Nazarbayev, who was Kazakh Communist Party chief before becoming president, as a dictator who had led Kazakhstan's people into a geopolitical dead-end while enriching a venal elite.
"Nazarbayev - he is not in the country right now - but it doesn't mean anything because he has telephone and communications - and everyone in power including Tokayev will do what he orders," he said, describing Tokayev as the former president's "furniture".
"I see myself as the leader of the opposition," Ablyazov said. "Every day the protesters call me and ask: 'What should we do? We are standing here: What should we do?'"
He said he was ready to go to Kazakhstan to head a provisional government if the protests escalated.
"I would not only return - people keep on asking when I will return and blame me for not returning to lead the protests - but people don't understand how difficult it would be for me to return as Russia has sentenced me to 15 years and Kazakhstan to life," he said.
Ablyazov dismissed suggestions that the West had financed the protests as an attempt to distract attention from the fact that the roots of the protests were domestic.
"I know the Soviet cliche of a Western spy, but I would be happy to be an American or European spy because then we would live like the people in America or Europe - and everyone would laugh," he said. "Sadly the West doesn't help me; the West hinders me."
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Alex Richardson, Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)