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Violent protests break out in Kazakhstan as President vows 'tough' response

Hundreds have been arrested in protests that started after a fuel price hike.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

PROTESTORS STORMED THE mayor’s office in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty earlier today as unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian nation spun out of control.

Sparked by a New Year energy price increase, protests swept across Kazakhstan in a rare challenge to the ex-Soviet country’s authoritarian government.

After a night of unrest that saw more than 200 people detained, several thousand protesters stormed the headquarters of the Almaty city administration on Wednesday afternoon and appeared to have seized control of the building.

Police fired stun grenades and tear gas at the crowd, some armed with batons and shields seized from police, but were unable to prevent them from entering the building, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

Local media reported that parts of the building were on fire and that protesters were targeting other government facilities.

The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Kazakhstan’s founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 and ushered loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev into the presidency.

The demonstrations began over a New Year increase in prices for Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), which is widely used to fuel cars in the west of the country.

Government resigns

Thousands took to the streets in Almaty and in the western province of Mangystau, saying the price rise was unfair given oil and gas exporter Kazakhstan’s vast energy reserves.

Clashes erupted overnight in Almaty, with police firing stun grenades and tear gas into a crowd of more than 5,000 people that marched through central streets shouting anti-government slogans and sometimes attacking vehicles.

The interior ministry said 95 police officers were injured, adding protesters “succumbed to provocations” and “groups of citizens blocked roads and blocked traffic, disrupting public order”.

Tokayev moved quickly to try to head off the unrest, accepting the resignation of the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Askar Mamin.

He also imposed states of emergency in the capital Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Mangystau province from 5 January until 19 January.

An overnight curfew will be in place in the areas from 11pm to 7am, with restrictions on movement in and out.

Protests in the capital were smaller and sporadic, but an order published on the presidential website said the state of emergency was necessary ”in connection with a serious and immediate threat to the safety of citizens”.

Tokayev had called for a return to calm in a video posted on Facebook.

“The government will not be felled, but we don’t need conflict,” Tokayev said in the address.

‘Old man out’

 The protesters in Almaty yelled “old man out” — a reference to Tokayev’s still-powerful predecessor Nazarbayev — and “government resign” before police moved in, sparking battles with demonstrators.

Tokayev was handpicked as a successor by Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of five ex-Soviet nations in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is of crucial importance to Russia as an economic partner and home to a large ethnic Russian population.

Its government tolerates little real opposition and has been accused of silencing independent voices and media.

Spontaneous, unsanctioned protests are illegal despite a 2020 law that passed easing some restrictions of freedom of assembly.

Limits appeared to have been imposed on the internet on Wednesday, with messenger apps Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp all unavailable. Two independent media websites that reported on the protests also appeared to be blocked.

Smaller rallies had been staged in cities across the republic of 19 million people from Sunday, beginning with the town of Zhanaozen in Mangystau.

Fuel price rise outrage 

The initial cause of the unrest was a spike in prices for LPG in hydrocarbon-rich Mangystau, but a government move to lower the prices in line with protesters’ demands failed to calm them.

Reports by independent media suggested that Tokayev’s announcement of a new price of 50 tenge (11 US cents) per litre, down from 120 at the beginning of the year, failed to weaken the rallies in Zhanaozen and Mangystau’s capital Aktau as demonstrators aired new demands.

Footage from Aktau shared on social media yesterday showed thousands of protesters – who had camped in the city centre overnight – encircled by police.

Most had dispersed from the city centre by today, state broadcaster Khabar reported.

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In 2011, at least 14 striking oil workers were killed in Zhanaozen as police crushed a protest over pay and working conditions, the deadliest unrest since the republic gained independence in 1991.

Nazarbayev, who is 81 and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, retains control over the country as chairman of the security council and “Leader of the Nation” — a constitutional role that affords him unique policy-making privileges as well as immunity from prosecution.

Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed his unrest-gripped Central Asian nation on Wednesday, vowing a “tough” response to mass protests over a New Year energy price hike.

Ex-Soviet Kazakhstan has been roiled by protests since the start of the year that saw demonstrators earlier Wednesday storm government buildings and authorities cut internet and mobile phone access nationwide in response.

Tokayev addressed the country for a second time since the protests began, assuring Kazakhs that he has no plans to step down from his post after he sacked his cabinet earlier Wednesday.

“As president, I am obliged to protect the safety and peace of our citizens, to worry about the integrity of Kazakhstan,” he said in Russian on Kazakh television.

He said that the country had seen “massive attacks on law enforcement officers” and claimed that at least several had been “killed” or “wounded”.

“Crowds of bandit elements are beating up servicemen, mocking them, leading them naked through the streets, abusing women, robbing shops,” he claimed.

“As head of state and from today onwards as chairman of the security council, I intend to act as tough as possible,” Tokayev said.

“Together we will overcome this black period in the history of Kazakhstan.”

Tokayev was handpicked by Kazakhstan’s founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019.

But Nazerbayev had retained control over the country, until now as chairman of the security council, and as “Leader of the Nation” — a constitutional role that affords him unique policy-making privileges as well as immunity from prosecution.

© AFP 2022

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