Kazakh leader says he’ll stay amid unrest

Olzhas Auyezov |

Kazakhstan’s president has stripped his powerful predecessor of a role as head of the country’s security council after demonstrators stormed and torched public buildings in the republic’s worst unrest for more than a decade.

The cabinet resigned but that failed to quell days of demonstrations initially triggered by a New Year’s Day fuel price rise but quickly encompassing wider political demands.

The protesters seized control of the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. 

All flights to and from Almaty were temporarily cancelled, the source said.

Eight police and national guard troops have been killed and 317 were injured during unrest in several regions of Kazakhstan, Sputnik news agency reported on Wednesday, quoting the interior ministry.

Protesters chanted slogans against Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who had retained wide authority 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.

Nazarbayev’s hand-chosen successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said he had taken over as head of the powerful Security Council, a post that had been retained by Nazarbayev.

The former president has still been widely seen as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the puropose-built capital which bears his name. 

His family is believed to control much of the economy.

In a TV address, Tokayev did not mention his predecessor by name. 

Tokayev said there had been casualties among security forces and added that he would not leave the country and would stay in the capital city of Nur-Sultan.

He promised to act with “maximum toughness” amid the unrest.

Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.

Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev’s nephew from a post as No 2 at the State Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

After clashes between protesters and riot police using tear gas and flash grenades, police appeared to have abandoned some streets on Wednesday.

A resident of the main city Almaty who mingled with protesters said most of those he met appeared to come from impoverished outskirts or nearby villages and towns.

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

“There is complete anarchy in the street. Police are nowhere to be seen,” he said.

Footage posted on the internet showed protesters chanting below a giant bronze statue of Nazarbayev, strung with ropes in an apparent attempt to pull it down. 

A woman who posted it to Twitter said it was filmed in the eastern city of Taldykorgan.

Earlier, an Instagram live stream by a Kazakh blogger had shown a fire blazing in the office of the Almaty mayor, with apparent gunshots audible. 

Videos posted online also showed the nearby prosecutor’s office burning.

Early on Wednesday, Reuters journalists had seen thousands of protesters pressing towards Almaty city centre, some of them on a large truck. 

The city’s police chief said Almaty was under attack by “extremists and radicals”.

States of emergency were declared in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and westerly Mangistau province. 

The internet was shut down in what monitoring site Netblocks called “a nation-scale internet blackout”.

Though the unrest was triggered by a fuel price rise, crowds expressed clear anger at Nazarbayev’s continued influence.

Footage showed police and security officials in civilian clothes breaking up a small group of protesters in the city of Shymkent, hauling away men and pushing them into a police car and a white van as some chanted “Nazarbayev, go away!”.

In the city of Aqtobe, what appeared to be several hundred protesters gathered on a square shouting: “Old Man, go away!”.

A video posted online showed police using water cannon and stun grenades against protesters near the mayor’s office there.

After accepting the cabinet’s resignation, Tokayev ordered acting ministers to reverse the fuel price rise, which doubled the cost of liquefied petroleum gas from the start of the year. 

The gas is widely used to power vehicles in Kazakhstan where official prices had made it much cheaper than petrol.

Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability under Nazarbayev helped attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries. 

But political analysts said a younger generation was demanding liberalisation as in other former Soviet states.

“I think there is an underlying undercurrent of frustrations in Kazakhstan over the lack of democracy,” said Tim Ash, emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.

“Young, internet-savvy Kazakhs, especially in Almaty, likely want similar freedoms as Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Kyrgyz and Armenians, who have also vented their frustrations over the years with authoritarian regimes.”

The unrest was the worst in Kazakhstan at least since 2011, when at least 14 protesters were killed by police during a strike by oil workers in the western city of Zhanaozen.