- Protesters torched buildings in the largest city
- President says government botched fuel price hikes
- The ex-chief had retained influence since his resignation in 2019
ALMATY, Jan.5 (Reuters) – The Kazakh president on Wednesday sacked the powerful head of the country’s Security Council in a bid to quell the worst unrest that has rocked the Central Asian nation for more than a decade.
Protesters, initially angered by the rise in fuel prices on New Year’s Day, stormed and set fire to public buildings and chanted slogans against security chief Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retained broad authority despite his resignation of president in 2019 after nearly three decades at the helm.
The cabinet also resigned on Wednesday, but that failed to quell the protests, which quickly came to encompass broader political demands beyond gas prices.
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Protesters took control of the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. All flights to and from Almaty have been temporarily canceled, the source said.
Earlier, riot police used tear gas and flash grenades against protesters, but then appeared to abandon some streets in Almaty, witnesses said.
The United States and Russia have both called for calm.
Nazarbayev’s chosen successor to the presidency, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said in a nationwide televised address that he had taken over as head of the State Security Committee, a post which had been retained by Nazarbayev.
The 81-year-old former president is still widely regarded as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital that bears his name. His family is believed to control much of the Kazakh economy, the largest in Central Asia.
In his televised address, Tokayev did not name his predecessor. Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard since the protests began.
Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev’s nephew as number 2 of the State Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
A resident of Almaty who mingled with protesters on Wednesday said most of those he encountered appeared to be from the impoverished outskirts of the city or from neighboring villages and towns.
In the main square, vodka was being distributed and some people were discussing whether to head to the city’s bazaar or a wealthy residential area for possible looting, the resident said.
“There is total lawlessness in the streets. The police cannot be found,” he said.
Images posted online showed protesters chanting under a giant bronze statue of Nazarbayev, strung with ropes in an apparent attempt to bring it down. A woman who posted it on Twitter said it was filmed in the eastern town of Taldykorgan.
Earlier, a live Instagram broadcast from a Kazakh blogger showed a fire in the mayor’s office of Almaty, with apparent gunshots audible. Videos posted online also showed the nearby prosecutor’s office on fire.
Early Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw thousands of protesters rushing towards downtown Almaty, some of them in a large truck. The city’s police chief said Almaty was under attack by “extremists and radicals”.
A state of emergency has been declared in Nur-Sultan, Almaty and western Mangistau province. The internet was shut down in what monitoring site Netblocks called a “nationwide internet outage.”
Although the unrest was sparked by rising fuel prices, crowds made clear their anger at Nazarbayev’s continued influence.
“OLD MAN, GO ON”
In the town of Aqtobe, what appeared to be several hundred demonstrators gathered in a square shouting, “Old man, go away! “. A video posted online showed police using water cannons and stun grenades against protesters near the mayor’s office.
After accepting the cabinet’s resignation, Tokayev ordered acting ministers to reverse the rise in fuel prices, which has doubled the cost of liquefied petroleum gas since the start of the year. Gas is widely used to fuel vehicles in Kazakhstan where official prices have made it much cheaper than gasoline.
The unrest saw the price of Kazakhstani dollar bonds drop nearly 6 cents, the worst result since the market collapse peaked in 2020 after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more
Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability under Nazarbayev has helped attract hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment in its oil and metallurgical industries. But political analysts have said that a younger generation is demanding the liberalization seen in other former Soviet states.
“I think there is an undercurrent of frustrations in Kazakhstan over the lack of democracy,” said Tim Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.
“Internet-savvy young Kazakhs, especially in Almaty, probably want freedoms similar to those of Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Kyrgyz and Armenians, who have also expressed their frustrations over the years with authoritarian regimes.”
The unrest has been the worst in Kazakhstan at least since 2011, when at least 14 protesters were killed by police during a strike by oil workers in the western city of Zhanaozen.
The Kremlin has said it expects Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia, to resolve its internal problems quickly, warning other countries against interference.
Expressing concern over the situation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russian accusations that the United States was causing the unrest were “absolutely false”.
Kazakhstan is grappling with increasing pressure on prices. Inflation was approaching 9% year-on-year at the end of last year – its highest in more than five years – forcing the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75%.
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Additional reporting by Pavel Mikheyev, Maria Gordeyeva, Tamara Vaal and Karin Strohecker; Written by Olzhas Auyov, Mark Trevelyan, Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan, Timothy Heritage, Andrew Cawthorne and Gareth Jones
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