Protesters in Kazakhstan burn down government buildings as unrest sweeps the country.
Despite concessions from the governing party, a rebellion in the resource-rich Central Asian country prompted by a gas price hike has taken on a political dimension.
The uprising started on Sunday in western Kazakhstan as a reaction to rising gasoline costs. With thousands of anti-government protestors storming government offices, TV stations, the airport, and several businesses four days later, the revolt has turned into a full-fledged onslaught on an entrenched Kazakh elite universally regarded as dictatorial and corrupt.
Thousands of protesters stormed the main government building in Almaty, the country’s biggest city, according to video broadcast online on Wednesday.
As the throng dispersed that afternoon, smoke billowed from the structure. Local news reports stated that the provincial chapter of the ruling Nur Otan party, as well as the previous presidential house, were set on fire.
Reported skirmishes between demonstrators and police, who deployed stun grenades and tear gas to disperse the throng, were reported by news outlets. Before marching to the president’s mansion, protesters set fire to the prosecutor’s office in Almaty.
Protesters destroyed 120 cars, including 33 police vehicles, and damaged over 400 shops, according to Almaty police, and more than 200 people were jailed. According to the country’s Internal Affairs Ministry, eight law enforcement officers were killed in the fighting. According to local media, police in the oil city of Atyrau opened fire on protestors, killing at least one person.
After the government raised the price of liquefied petroleum gas to roughly 100 tenge, or 22 cents per litre, peaceful demonstrations erupted in the oil town of Zhanaozen on Sunday. The demonstrations had expanded throughout the nation by the time the government declared on Tuesday that the price hike would be reversed, with larger demands for more political participation and enhanced social benefits.
Protesters seized control of the country’s major airport early Wednesday, apparently dissatisfied with a statement that the whole administration would be fired and fresh legislative elections will be held.
Following pro-democracy rallies in Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus in 2020, the protests echoed throughout the continent, forcing President Vladimir V. Putin to see yet another revolt against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned government.
The demonstrations are a message to the Kremlin, according to Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia specialist in Moscow, who describes Kazakhstan’s administration as “a reduced clone of the Russian one.”
“There is no question that the Kremlin would not want to see such a government start talking to the opposition and concede to their demands,” he continued.
Mr. Putin is hoping to use three meetings with Western delegations next week to rewrite post-Cold War international security accords on Ukraine and what Russia perceives to be its area of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The uprising also seemed to signal a rupture with Kazakhstan’s previous ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stood down as president in 2019 but continued to be involved in the country’s affairs.
Protesters toppled a monument of Mr. Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region, while they screamed “shal ket,” which means “Old man, go!” in Kazakh. He has remained silent on the demonstrations, leaving it to his hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to deal with them.
While initially accommodating, the government has become more hostile to the demonstrators, declaring a nationwide state of emergency.
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Mr. Tokayev said on Wednesday that he would take over all official authority levers and pledged to “act with greatest firmness.” On Wednesday afternoon, Kazakhtelecom, the nation’s major telecoms firm, turned down internet connectivity throughout the country.
He also extended what seemed to be an open invitation to Moscow to interfere in the demonstrations late Wednesday night. He claimed he was turning to Russia’s equivalent of NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to “help Kazakhstan defeat this terrorist danger,” calling the protestors “a gang of international terrorists.”
Kazakhstan, with a population of 19 million people and a GDP per capita of $27,000 and more than $35 billion in reserves, is by far the wealthiest nation in Central Asia, yet it was nevertheless conceivable for the country to collapse into anarchy in a matter of days.
Foreign oil firms, notably in the United States, may be concerned about the instability. ExxonMobil and Chevron have put tens of billions of dollars into western Kazakhstan, where the upheaval started earlier this month. A Chevron-led team is now working on a $37 billion project to enhance production at the on-land Tengiz oil field, which is one of the world’s biggest energy ventures.
The spike in gas prices enraged many Kazakhs since their nation is not only a beneficiary of tens of billions in energy investments, but also an oil and gas exporter. The price hike adds to the country’s economic woes, which have been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, which has highlighted huge socioeconomic disparities.
Mukhtar Umbetov, a rights activist who took part in demonstrations in Aktau, stated that although economic issues and the pandemic may have ignited the unrest, the lack of democratic mechanisms was the main reason. “All legitimate methods to engage in politics have been abolished,” he stated of the Kazakh administration.
“People don’t have any political middlemen who would fix issues that exist in the nation,” he stated over the phone from Aktau, on the Caspian Sea.
Nonetheless, he added, in a nation where the average monthly wage is $570 — and many people make much less – economic resentments should not be overlooked. “Kazakhstan is wealthy, but its natural riches serve the interests of a tiny number of individuals rather than the general public.”
As the demonstrations progressed, the protestors’ demands grew to encompass greater political reform. The direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders, rather than the present system of presidential appointment, is one of the reforms they propose.
Mr. Nazarbayev, the nation’s dictatorial former ruler who ran the country for 30 years after independence in 1991, has gotten a lot of flak. Mr. Tokayev was elected president following elections that were widely seen as rigged by Western observers.
Mr. Nazarbayev was thereafter publicly acknowledged as the country’s “leader,” and Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, was renamed in his honour. Despite the official transfer of power to Mr. Tokayev, he was largely considered as Kazakhstan’s shadow president until recently.
That, however, looks to be about to change. Mr. Tokayev fired Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, Samat Abish, from the job of first deputy head of the country’s national security agency, a successor to the K.G.B., on Tuesday. Mr. Tokayev took over as chairman of the country’s Security Council from Mr. Nazarbayev on Wednesday.
Mr. Tokayev said that the demonstrations were “well orchestrated” and that they were part of a “meticulously thought-out scheme of conspirators, who were financially motivated.” He said that “crowds of bandit elements beat and humiliated military, dragged them nude through the streets, mistreated women, and looted businesses,” and that “crowds of bandit elements beat and mocked servicemen, took them naked through the streets, molested women, and robbed shops.”
According to Mr. Dubnov, a Central Asia scholar, Mr. Tokayev’s accession established two centres of power, with Mr. Nazarbayev and his family wielding broad influence, and the new president attempting to carve out a larger role for himself, splitting Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and intelligentsia.
Mr. Dubnov said, “The government has been delayed because it is split and has no understanding what young people in Kazakhstan actually want.” “On the other side, the demonstrators lack a leader who can properly define it.”
The former Soviet Union nations are keeping a close eye on the demonstrations. The developments in Ukraine pose another prospective threat to authoritarian leadership in a neighbouring nation for Russia.
After pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Ukraine in 2014, Russia engaged militarily, and the Kremlin backed Belarusian tyrant Aleksandr G. Lukashenko as he ruthlessly suppressed nonviolent rallies against his dictatorial government in 2020.
The events in Kazakhstan have been depicted by pro-Kremlin media as a planned conspiracy against Russia. The demonstrations were described as a “dirty trick performed on Moscow” by Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-government newspaper, ahead of “crucial negotiations between Russia and the US and NATO” next week.