Kazakh Protesters Seize Airport, Presidential Residence as Toqaev Moves to Quell Unrest

Kazakhstan’s president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, has declared a nationwide state of emergency and stripped his predecessor of a powerful leadership role after thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police and stormed government buildings in an unprecedented wave of unrest in the oil-rich Central Asian nation that was sparked by a fuel price hike.

Angry demonstrators, some of whom were armed with rubber truncheons, sticks, and shields, set fire on January 5 to a presidential residence and the mayor’s office in the country’s largest city, Almaty, where protesters also seized control of the airport, prompting the temporary suspension of all flights.

Police engaged in pitched battles with the protesters, using tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds, but were largely unsuccessful. 

Communications monitors reported a “national-scale” internet blackout, while RFE/RL journalists in the country said both internet and telephone services had deteriorated markedly. 

Toqaev sacked the government earlier on January 5 and later declared the state of emergency in a bid to squelch the protests, which erupted in the western region of Mangystau three days ago over a sudden hike in prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a popular fuel used in vehicles in the oil-rich country, along with general discontent over issues such as corruption, unemployment, and low wages. 

“As president, I am obliged to protect the safety and peace of our citizens, to worry about the integrity of Kazakhstan,” he said in a live address on television. 

In a major move to distance himself from the past, Toqaev also removed his predecessor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, from the powerful post of head of the country’s Security Council. 

Nazarbayev had retained wide authority through the post since stepping down in 2019 as president after three decades in power, the last Soviet-era Communist Party boss still ruling an ex-Soviet state. 

Some protesters laid the blame for many of the country’s problems on him, with demonstrators in the city of Taldykorgan, the capital of Almaty Province, toppling a statue of the former leader. 

Violence also was reported on January 5 in the northern city of Aqtobe, where police fired tear gas at protesters who tried to enter the regional government building by force. 

An RFE/RL correspondent at the scene saw several people with leg injuries. 

Protests in Kazakhstan

Protests also continued in other cities and towns, including Aqtau, Zhanaozen, and Oral, where dozens of people were reportedly detained. 

Protesters voicing discontent over issues such as corruption, unemployment, and low wages have clashed with police in several of Kazakhstan’s main cities. 

Limits appeared to have been imposed on the internet to interrupt the ability of demonstrators to mobilize, with web monitoring group NetBlocks reporting a nationwide “blackout.”

Messenger apps Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp were all said to be unavailable in Kazakhstan, while the website of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and those of independent media that reported on the protests also appeared to be blocked. 

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 200 people were detained during a previous night of unrest in Almaty and elsewhere, but observers say that number appears to be underestimated. The ministry also said that at least 95 officers have been injured in the clashes. 

Cabinet resignation 

A decree order published on the presidential website on the morning of January 5 said Toqaev had accepted the resignation of the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Asqar Mamin, in line with the constitution. 

First Deputy Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov was appointed as interim prime minister, and current members of the government will continue their duties until a new cabinet is formed, according to the order. 

Before its resignation, the government announced it was restoring the price cap of 50 tenge ($0.11) per liter on LPG, or less than half the market price, in Mangystau. 

Demonstrators in Aqtau and Zhanaozen argued that the removal of some officials wouldn’t bring lasting results and called for the dissolution of parliament, where no genuine opposition political forces are represented, and new limits to presidential powers, among other things. 

Zhanaozen was the scene of a 2011 police crackdown against oil workers protesting over pay and working conditions that claimed the lives of at least 16 of them. 

In addition to replacing the prime minister, Toqaev appointed a new first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB) to replace Samat Abish, a nephew of powerful former President Nursultan Nazarbaev. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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