Kazakhstan protests: president appeals to Moscow-led security bloc

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declares state of emergency and says he plans to act ‘as toughly as possible’

Riot police officers in Almaty Riot police eye demonstrators in Almaty on Wednesday. Photograph: EPARiot police eye demonstrators in Almaty on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA

and in Aktobe province

Kazakhstan’s president has appealed to a Moscow-led security bloc to help regain control amid protests sparked by fuel price rises, after demonstrators took over government buildings and reportedly stormed the airport in Almaty, the country’s commercial capital and largest city.

In a televised address late on Wednesday, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he had turned to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – after what he described as “attacks” by foreign-trained terrorist gangs

“Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalised, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty … to take all possible actions to protect our state,” he said, in his second televised address in a matter of hours.

Previously, Tokayev vowed to crack down ruthlessly on the protests, saying that he would “act as toughly as possible” – and adding that he had no plans to flee the country.

Earlier in the day, there were violent clashes between police and demonstrators in the city and the mayor’s office was set on fire, with smoke and flames visible from several floors of the imposing building.

Many flights were diverted or cancelled after the apparent storming of the airport in Almaty.

In other cities, including Aktobe in the west of the country, crowds tried to storm government buildings. There were reports and videos of police cars set on fire and security vehicles seized by the crowd. There were no reliable figures for casualties.

Kazakhstan protests: government resigns amid rare outbreak of unrest

Tokayev accepted the resignation of the government on Wednesday morning and introduced a state of emergency in several provinces in an attempt to gain control of the situation, but failed to deter angry crowds. Later, the state of emergency was extended to the entire country.

Tokayev also announced that his predecessor and benefactor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, would step down as head of the security council. Much of the anger has been directed at Nazarbayev, a former Soviet-era communist boss who became Kazakhstan’s first president and ruled until 2019 and who wielded immense power behind the scenes.

The protests began in the west of the country at the weekend, after a sharp rise in fuel prices, but have spread quickly and taken Kazakhstan’s authorities and international observers by surprise.

“The authorities are trying everything to calm things down, with a mix of promises and threats, but so far it’s not working,” said Dosym Satpayev, an Almaty-based political analyst. “There will be imitations of dialogue but essentially the regime will respond with force, because they have no other tools.”

Smoke rises from the city hall in AlmatySmoke rises from the city hall in Almaty. Photograph: Yan Blagov/AP

Tokayev has blamed the protests on “destructive individuals who want to undermine the stability and unity of our society”.

At times, authorities have shut down mobile internet and blocked access to messaging apps, and on Wednesday the internet went down across much of Kazakhstan. Authorities said army units had been brought into Almaty to restore order.

Images of police being overpowered by protesters are likely to cause alarm in the Kremlin, as another country neighbouring Russia succumbs to political unrest. Kazakhstan is part of an economic union with Russia and the two countries share a long border.

“We hope for the earliest possible normalisation of the situation in the country, with which Russia is linked by relations of strategic partnership and alliance through fraternal, human contacts,” the Russian foreign ministry said. Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for Vladimir Putin, said it was important no foreign countries interfered in Kazakhstan.

Tokayev spoke to the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who crushed a huge uprising with brutal force in 2019. Before calling Tokayev, Lukashenko spoke to Putin, the Belarusian news agency Belta reported.

The trigger for protests in Kazakhstan was a sharp rise in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), used by many to power their cars, particularly in the west of the country. Protests began at the weekend in the oil city of Zhanaozen, where in December 2011 police fired on protesters, killing at least 16 people.

map of Almaty

It soon became clear that the anger was not focused only on LPG prices, and a government announcement that the price would be fixed at a lower level has done nothing to quell the protest.

Instead, there is broader discontent with Tokayev, president since 2019, and Nazarbayev.

“Nazarbayev and his family have monopolised all sectors, from banking to roads to gas. These protests are about corruption,” said 55-year-old Zauresh Shekenova, who has been protesting in Zhanaozen since Sunday. “It all started with the increase in gas prices but the real cause of the protests is poor living conditions of people, high prices, joblessness, corruption.”

Darkhan Sharipov, an activist from the civil society movement Wake Up, Kazakhstan, said a group of about 70 activists had set off to march to the centre of Almaty on Tuesday night, but many of them were detained and held at a police station for several hours.

“People are sick of corruption and nepotism, and the authorities don’t listen to people … We want President Tokayev to carry out real political reforms, or to go away and hold fair elections,” he said.

The five former Soviet Central Asian republics have been largely without protest in their three decades of independence, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which has had several revolutions.

Kazakhstan has never held an election judged as free and fair by international observers. While it is clear there is widespread discontent, the cleansing of the political playing field over many years means there are no high-profile opposition figures around which a protest movement could unite, and the protests appear largely directionless.

“There are some local figures, but nobody who could unify forces across the country, though with time they could appear,” said Satpayev.

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