Moscow: In an unprecedented challenge to Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime, protesters angry over rising fuel prices stormed the country’s main airport on Wednesday, seized several government buildings – setting some ablaze – and demanded that the “father of the nation” step aside.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, referring to protesters as “terrorists”, appealed to Russia for military support in putting down the unrest as part of the countries’ defence alliance. Moscow agreed the bloc known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation would deploy troops to help him. The alliance is dominated by Russia but also includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Riot police prepare to block protesters in the centre of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday.Credit:AP
Citing “threats to the national security and sovereignty” of Kazakhstan caused “in part by intervention from abroad,” the six-nations decided to deploy “peacekeeping forces” for a “limited period with the goal of stabilising and normalising the situation in the country,” according to a brief statement posted at 1.20am on Thursday, Moscow time, on the Kremlin website, Bloomberg reported.
The demonstrations – very rare for the Central Asian country of about 19 million people – are considered the greatest outpouring against Nursultan Nazarbayev’s three-decade rule since the fall of the Soviet Union. The 81-year-old former president stepped down in 2019 but has continued to hold major sway behind the scenes under the official “father of the nation” title.
As protests raged for a fourth day, Tokayev said he had replaced Nazarbayev as head of the country’s powerful National Security Council. Earlier, Tokayev dismissed his ministerial cabinet and declared a two-week state of emergency for the entire country. The Internet was blocked throughout the nation.
A police official Almaty said on Thursday that dozens of people were killed in the attacks on government buildings. There were attempts to storm buildings during the night and “dozens of attackers were liquidated,” police spokeswoman Saltanat Azirbek said, AP reported. She spoke on state news channel Khabar-24. The reported attempts to storm the buildings came after widespread unrest in the city on Wednesday, including seizure of the mayor’s building, which was set on fire.
Demonstrators, one of which holds a national flag, gather near a police line during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Demonstrations started after the government raised the price of fuel at the weekend.Credit:AP
What are the protests in Kazakhstan about?
Price caps on liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, were raised on Saturday, and the cost of fuel doubled within days. The protests started over the weekend in oil-rich western Kazakhstan, where the quality of life is considered poorer than other parts of the country and an estimated 70 to 90 per cent of vehicles there are powered with LPG, such as propane, which is cheaper than petrol.
The demonstrations spilt over into other parts of the country by Tuesday night, when an estimated 5000 people gathered in Almaty. By late Wednesday, the Internet in most of the country was reportedly shut off, and popular messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram were unavailable. Several television channels also went dark.
In an attempt to quell the unrest, Tokayev has said the government would introduce a price cap on fuel in the western Mangystau province. In a tweet, he blamed the protests on “destructive individuals who want to undermine the stability and unity of our society” and said the government would meet to discuss “the socioeconomic demands” of protesters.
But while the protests started over the rising cost of fuel, analysts said the demonstrations represent a broader discontent with the regime led by Nazarbayev, who handpicked Tokayev as his successor.
Video posted to social media showed protesters attempting to pull down a statue of Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, near Almaty – a potential watershed moment in a country where the capital, Nur-Sultan, is named after the former president.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, sacked his predecessor, former president, security chief and “father of the nation”, Nursultan Nazarbayev, left, to try to quell unrest. Credit:AP
Who is Nazarbayev?
Kazakhstan’s de facto ruler-for-life, Nazarbayev has ruled Central Asia’s largest country since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He built a sweeping security state that crushed any opposition and used the country’s natural resources, including oil, as a personal fund for his regime.
He maintained close bonds with Russia and hosts of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the rocket launch complex leased to Russia. But Nazarbayev also has been receptive to Chinese investment and outreach with the West for greater economic ties. In a 2017 move that angered some Russian officials, Nazarbayev ordered the official script of the Kazakh language to be switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin, or Roman, alphabet.
In 2020, Nazarbayev’s regime showed an unexpectedly whimsical side – he had the country’s tourism board launch an advertising campaign using the “very nice” catchphrase of the fictional film journalist Borat. Kazakh officials were at first outraged by the guileless Borat character created by comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen. But later Kazakhstan tried to leverage the film’s popularity.
Why does unrest in Kazakhstan matter for the region?
The turmoil could ripple across the region. Moscow considers Kazakhstan part of its sphere of influence. The Kremlin has previously reacted negatively to political upheavals in former Soviet republics – particularly in Ukraine and Belarus – fearing a weakening of its hand and potentially inspiring opposition at home to President Vladimir Putin.
China also has been expanding its political and economic influence across Central Asia, seeing Kazakhstan as pivotal to its massive global infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Why has Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency?
On Wednesday, protesters in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, stormed the city hall and several other government buildings. Thick black smoke billowed from windows. Protesters in the western region of Aktobe, near the Russian border, also reportedly stormed the city administration building. Security forces in some cities did not move to disperse crowds but engaged in clashes with protesters in others.
Tokayev vowed “maximally tough action” to continued unrest. But within hours, protesters had taken control of the Almaty airport. He described the unrest as a “terrorist threat” as eight police and security officers were confirmed dead and 317 injured after rioters smashed public buildings and broadcasters’ headquarters with clubs and axes.
The state of emergency declared until January 19 in Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Mangystau is an attempt to quash the demonstrations. It bans mass gatherings, includes a curfew from 11pm to 7am and restricts movement.
Almaty healthcare authorities said at least 40 people were hospitalised during protests on Tuesday night alone. Almaty police said more than 30 of the 120 cars burnt were police vehicles.
Tokayev said he would not to flee the country under any circumstances.
“Together we will overcome this dark moment in the history of Kazakhstan and emerge stronger,” he said.
A resident of Almaty who mingled with the protesters on Wednesday said most of those he met appeared to come from the city’s impoverished outskirts or nearby villages and towns.
At the main square, vodka was being distributed and some people were discussing whether to head towards the city bazaar or a wealthy residential area for possible looting, the resident said.
“There is complete anarchy in the street. Police are nowhere to be seen,” he said.
What happens now?
Tokayev’s office said early on Wednesday he accepted the government’s resignation and appointed Alikhan Smailov as acting prime minister. He was previously the first deputy prime minister.
But that is unlikely to appease many Kazakhs if Nazarbayev’s regime remains in power. Much of the anger centres on an elite that takes advantage of the country’s rich resources while ordinary citizens get a much smaller share of the wealth.
Troops from an alliance of countries led by Russia will now be sent to Kazakhstan to reinforce the country’s riot police, seen here in Almaty on Wednesday.Credit:AP
In Aktau, capital of the Mangystau region, some protesters shouted “Old man out”, according to reports, a reference to Nazarbayev. In Almaty, a regional office of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party was one of the buildings set on fire.
Nazarbayev, however, has the support of Putin. Similar backing proved critical for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko to maintain his rule when he faced mass protests in 2020.
The Kremlin statement on the alliance didn’t include any details on the size of the deployment or which countries would send troops. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “closely watching the situation”.
“We stand for a peaceful solution to be found to all problems in line with the constitution and laws and with the help of dialogue rather than through street riots and violations of laws,” the ministry said in a statement. “This is the goal of the steps being taken by” Tokayev.
“Hopefully, the situation will be normalised as soon as possible in the country, with which Russia has a strategic partnership and allied, fraternal and people-to-people contacts,” it added.
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