What is happening in Kazakhstan and why are people protesting?

Unprecedented dissent in the Central Asian country since its independence in 1991

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Protests against fuel price rises in Kazakhstan since January 2 have caused a political crisis in the former Soviet republic.

The government resigned on January 5 on the orders of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as the protests turned violent in several cities, towns and villages in the Central Asian country.

Demonstrators stormed the mayor’s office in Almaty, the largest city, and attempted to break into the presidential residence, according to local news reports.

Many of those who converged on the mayor's office carried clubs and shields, and flames were seen coming from the building, according to the reports.

Police in Almaty said on Thursday that tens of rioters had been “eliminated”, the Interfax news agency reported.

Meanwhile, thousands of people massed outside the presidential residence in the city. A fire was also reported at the Almaty prosecutor’s office. Dozens of police vehicles were set on fire or vandalised.

The Almaty city health department said 190 people had sought medical help, including 137 police. City authorities urged residents to stay home.

Atameken, Kazakhstan's business lobby group, said its members were reporting attacks on banks, stores and restaurants.

What are the protests about?

At the start of the year, prices for liquefied petroleum gas, which most Kazakhs use as car fuel, roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls to be in line with global market pricing.

Although Kazakhstan has extensive gas and oil reserves as well as mineral wealth, discontent about poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party that holds more than 80 per cent of the seats in parliament.

The protests have continued even though the government resigned and the authorities decided to reduce the fuel prices and cap them for the next six months.

In scenes unprecedented since independence in 1991, protesters even attempted to pull down a statue of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president who was the dominant political force in the country for more than three decades but handed power to Mr Tokayev in 2019.

Mr Tokayev had to strip his powerful predecessor of his role as head of the country’s Security Council on Wednesday as protests continued.

“Most important is the anti-oligarchic discourse of the protest, the young breaking with the authorities, the ‘old man should go’,” Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based political analyst who focuses on Central Asia, told Bloomberg News.

How does the president deal with the protests?

Mr Tokayev has promised a firm response to the protests.

“As president, I am obliged to protect the safety and peace of our citizens, to worry about the integrity of Kazakhstan,” he said on Kazakh television, adding that he intended “to act as tough as possible".

He declared a state of emergency in Almaty on Tuesday, imposing an overnight curfew and limiting access to the city. Hundreds of protesters were detained after storming government offices.

Mr Tokayev later imposed a state of emergency for two weeks in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

Widespread internet outages have been reported in the country since Sunday, with authorities believed to have shut down messaging sites including WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.

“Kazakhstan is now in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout,” web monitoring group NetBlocks said. “The incident is likely to severely limit coverage of escalating anti-government protests.”

Law enforcement officers stand guard near the mayor's office during protests triggered by fuel price increases in Almaty. Photo: Reuters

How are other countries reacting?

Russia says it is monitoring the situation closely and will reportedly send troops to “stabilise” the country.

“We are following the events in our fraternal, neighbouring country,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said, calling for a peaceful resolution and an end to the protests.

In the early hours of Thursday, in his second televised speech within hours, Mr Tokayev said that he had appealed for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

He said foreign-trained “terrorist” gangs were seizing buildings, infrastructure and weapons, and had taken five aircraft, including foreign ones, at Almaty airport.

“It is an undermining of the integrity of the state and most importantly it is an attack on our citizens who are asking me … to help them urgently,” he said.

The Kremlin has said it expected Kazakhstan, a close ally, to quickly resolve its internal problems, warning other countries against interfering. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russian accusations that the United States had instigated the unrest were false.

Kuwait's budget carrier Jazeera Airways suspended flights to Almaty on Wednesday due to the situation in the city.

“We will provide an update on our operations when we have further information,” an airline spokesperson said in a statement.

Protesters stormed the mayor's office in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, on Wednesday as unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian nation spun out of control. Photo: AFP

Where are protests taking place?

Kazakhstan is a former part of the Soviet Union. Russia is to the north, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south and China is to the east. It also has a border with Turkmenistan and shares part of the Caspian Sea.

While the south-eastern city of Almaty has witnessed the most unrest since the start of the protests, smaller demonstrations were staged in cities across the republic of 19 million people, beginning with the town of Zhanaozen in Mangystau.

Residents of Almaty who mingled with protesters on Wednesday said most of those they met appeared to come from the city's impoverished outskirts or nearby villages.

At the main square, vodka was being distributed and some people were discussing whether to head towards the city bazaar or a wealthy area for possible looting, the residents said.

“There is complete anarchy in the street,” one resident told Reuters.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 12:10 PM