Moscow – Unprecedented protests have led to the de facto resignation of one of the longest-serving rulers of the former Soviet republic. Kazakhstan’s president has fired his entire government and declared a state of emergency in several areas on Wednesday in a bid to quell protests that have engulfed the country. But it was his predecessor, a former president who still wields considerable influence over the country, whose resignation on Wednesday made clear the seriousness of the unrest.
At least 190 people were injured in clashes in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, its public health department said Wednesday.
Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country with a population of about 19 million, is tightly controlled by its dictatorial regime. The government tolerates little opposition and has sought to bridge differences. Unauthorized demonstrations are illegal.
The dramatic rise in the price of liquefied natural gas, a popular fuel for vehicles in the country, sparked unrest in the western region of Mingstau on January 2. The price per liter suddenly doubled, rising from about 12-14 US cents at the end of 2021 to 28 cents in the new year.
Authorities promised to bring gas prices back under control, but protests quickly spread across the country. By Tuesday, tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets, and clashes in some cities had turned violent.
In Almaty, the former capital and still a business hub, police used stun grenades and tear gas to try to regain control when protesters set fire to vehicles. As of Wednesday morning, about 100 police officers had been injured and more than 200 detained, according to the Interior Ministry.
Protesters included political demands in their initial demands for lower fuel prices. According to local media reports, protesters in Almaty chanted “Get the old man out”, quoting Nursultan Nazarbayev, a predecessor to President Qasim Jomart Tokayev.
Nazarbayev formally handed over the reins of government to Tokayev in 2019, a controlled leave from the highest office. But Nazarbayev, who holds the honorary title of “Al-Basi” (“Head of State”) and heads the Security Council, still has significant influence in Kazakhstan’s politics.
On Wednesday, Nazarbayev resigned as head of the Security Council. Tokayev also assumed the role and issued a warning that his government was “ready to work hard” to meet the protesters’ challenge.
In a televised speech overnight before Nazarbayev resigned from the council, Tokayev promised that the protesters’ “legal” demands would be met, but added: “The government will not fall.”
Before the announcement that Nazarbayev was resigning, videos posted on social media showed protesters occupying the city administration building and a presidential residence in Almaty, setting both on fire.
The country’s capital, Noor Sultan, was under a state of emergency on Wednesday. Local media reported that some members of the security services had joined the protesters on the streets. There were reports that local TV channels and Internet service providers were facing major shutdowns across the country.
Kazakhstan is a close strategic ally of Russia, which is very sensitive to any unrest in the former Soviet republic, which Moscow considers its backyard.
President Vladimir Putin’s government has repeatedly accused the West of fomenting “revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. Russian diplomats are set to begin a series of important meetings with US officials to discuss a list of security demands – most importantly Putin’s insistence that NATO refrain from extending to any east.
Concerns over the formation of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border have raised tensions between Russia and the West, and it is feared that Putin is preparing to invade Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that Kazakhstan had not asked Russia for help in dealing with the protests, adding that it could resolve its own problems.
“It is important that no one from outside intervenes,” Peskov said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.