Kazakhstan declared emergencies in the capital, main city and provinces on Wednesday after demonstrators stormed and torched public buildings, the worst unrest for more than a decade in a tightly controlled country that promotes an image of stability.
The cabinet resigned but that failed to quell the anger of the demonstrators, who have taken to the streets in response to a fuel price increase from the start of the new year.
An Instagram live stream by a Kazakh blogger showed a fire blazing in the office of the Almaty mayor, with apparent gunshots audible nearby. Videos posted online also showed the nearby prosecutor’s office burning.
Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters journalists saw thousands of protesters pressing toward Almaty city centre, some of them on a large truck. Security forces, in helmets and riot shields, fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades.
The city’s police chief said Almaty was under attack by “extremists and radicals,” who had beaten up 500 civilians and ransacked hundreds of businesses.
A presidential decree announced a two-week state of emergency and nighttime curfew in the capital Nur-Sultan, citing “a serious and direct security threat to citizens.” States of emergency were also declared in Almaty and in western Mangistau province, where the protests first emerged in recent days.
Authorities appeared to have shut the country off the internet as the unrest spread. Netblocks, a site that monitors global internet connectivity, said the country was “in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout.”
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted the government’s resignation on Wednesday following the protests, which have spread from the provinces to main cities since price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were lifted on New Year’s Day.
Speaking to the acting cabinet, Tokayev ordered the price hikes reversed and new caps placed on the cost of other fuels.
The government said the regulated price was causing losses for producers and needed to be liberalized, but Tokayev acknowledged the move had been botched.
The unrest is the biggest test yet of Tokayev, 68, who took power in 2019 as hand-picked successor to Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former Communist Party boss who had become the longest-serving ruler in the former Soviet Union by the time he stepped down. Nazarbayev, 81, still retains substantial authority as head of the ruling party and chairman of the security council.
Kazakhstan’s reputation for political stability under three decades of one-man rule by former leader Nazarbayev helped it attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries, but the pandemic has led to economic pressures, as elsewhere.
Tokayev said on Wednesday he had taken over as head of the country’s Security Council and promised to act with “maximum toughness.” He also appointed a new first deputy head of the National Security Committee to replace Samat Abish, a nephew of Nazarbayev.
Scores of injuries
Atameken, Kazakhstan’s business lobby group, said its members were reporting attacks on banks, stores and restaurants.
The city health department said 190 people had sought medical help, including 137 police. City authorities urged residents to stay home.
The interior ministry said government buildings were also attacked in the southern cities of Shymkent and Taraz overnight, with 95 police wounded in clashes. Police have detained more than 200 people.
A video posted online showed police using a water cannon and stun grenades against protesters in front of the mayor’s office in Aktobe, capital of another western province.
Kazakhstan has been grappling with rising price pressures. Inflation was closing in on nine per cent year-on-year late last year — its highest level in more than five years — forcing the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75 per cent.
Some analysts said the protests pointed to more deep-rooted issues.
“I think there is an underlying undercurrent of frustrations in Kazakhstan over the lack of democracy,” said Tim Ash, emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.
“Young, internet-savvy Kazakhs, especially in Almaty, likely want similar freedoms as Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Kyrgyz and Armenians, who have also vented their frustrations over the years with authoritarian regimes.”
European and international election observers continually condemned the legitimacy of presidential elections in Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, who regularly won with over 95 per cent of the vote. Voting irregularities and detentions of government opponents were also noted in the 2019 vote, which Tokayev won with a more modest 71 per cent total.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that Kazakhstan could solve its own problems and it was important that no one interfered from the outside, RIA news agency reported.
Russia’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation in its southern neighbour and counting on the “soonest possible normalization.”
“We advocate the peaceful resolution of all problems within the constitutional and legal framework and dialogue, rather than through street riots and the violation of laws,” it said.