Kazakhstan protests turn deadly as crowds storm, torch public buildings

Protests around Kazakhstan have killed eight security personnel and injured 317, a news agency said on Wednesday, as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev failed to quell public outrage over the influence of his powerful predecessor.

Demonstrations started over fuel price rise, but widespread outrage at regime is apparent

Kazakh protesters clash with police during violent demonstrations

1 year ago
Duration 0:33
Protesters in Kazakhstan clashed with police officers and soldiers Wednesday as demonstrations intensified over the price of fuel and the ongoing influence of a powerful former president.

Protests around Kazakhstan have killed eight security personnel and injured 317, a news agency said on Wednesday, as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev failed to quell public outrage over the influence of his powerful predecessor. No figures on civilian casualties were released.

Protesters, initially angered by a New Year's Day fuel price rise, have stormed and torched public buildings and chanted slogans against security chief Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has retained wide authority despite stepping down as president in 2019 after nearly 30 years in power.

Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old former president, has still been widely seen as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital that bears his name. His family is believed to control much of the Kazakh economy, the largest in Central Asia.

Tokayev said he had taken over from Nazarbayev as head of the country's Security Council and promised to act with "maximum toughness" amid the worst unrest for more than a decade. Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev's nephew as No. 2 at the State Security Committee Wednesday, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

A man takes a photo of windows of a police kiosk damaged by demonstrators during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Wednesday. Demonstrators denouncing the doubling of prices for liquefied gas clashed with police in Kazakhstan's largest city and held protests in about a dozen other cities in the country. (Vladimir Tretyakov/The Associated Press)

The cabinet also resigned, but that failed to quell the demonstrations.

Tokayev said on state television shortly before midnight that he had called on other countries in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of ex-Soviet states including Russia, for assistance in restoring order. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the organization would dispatch peacekeepers, in a statement published by Russia's news agency. He did not say how many peacekeepers would be sent, or when they would arrive.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service, Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks during his televised statement to the nation in Nur-Sultan on Wednesday. (Kazakhstan's Presidential Press Service/The Associated Press)

Tokayev claimed the unrest was led by "terrorist bands" that had received help from unspecified other countries. 

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.

Police fired on some protesters at the presidential palace before fleeing. They have clashed repeatedly with demonstrators in recent days, deploying water cannons in the freezing weather, tear gas and concussion grenades.

Both the United States and Russia appealed for calm.

Kazakhstan declared emergencies in the capital, main city and provinces after demonstrators stormed and torched public buildings, the worst unrest for more than a decade in a tightly-controlled country that promotes an image of stability.

Demonstrators, including one person holding police ammunition, gather during a protest in Almaty on Wednesday. (Vladimir Tretyakov/The Associated Press)

'Old man, go away!'

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

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.

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

At the main square, vodka was being distributed and some people were discussing whether to head toward 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.

An Instagram live stream by a Kazakh blogger showed a fire blazing in the office of the Almaty mayor, with apparent gunshots audible nearby. Videos posted online also showed the nearby prosecutor's office burning.

Riot police walk to block demonstrators during a protest in Almaty on Wednesday. (Vladimir Tretyakov/The Associated Press)

Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters journalists saw thousands of protesters pressing toward Almaty city centre, some of them on a large truck. Security forces, in helmets and riot shields, fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades.

The city's police chief said Almaty was under attack by "extremists and radicals," who had beaten up 500 civilians and ransacked hundreds of businesses.

Authorities appeared to have shut the country off the internet as the unrest spread. Netblocks, a site that monitors global internet connectivity, said the country was "in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout."

The unrest is the biggest test yet of Tokayev, 68, who took power in 2019 as hand-picked successor to Nazarbayev, a former Communist Party boss who had become the longest-serving ruler in the former Soviet Union by the time he stepped down. 

Kazakhstan's reputation for political stability under three decades of one-man rule by Nazarbayev helped it attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries, but the pandemic has led to economic pressures, as elsewhere.

The interior ministry said earlier that government buildings were also attacked in the southern cities of Shymkent and Taraz overnight, with 95 police wounded in clashes. Police have detained more than 200 people.

A video posted online showed police using a water cannon and stun grenades against protesters in front of the mayor's office in Aktobe, capital of another western province.

Riot police officers hold their weapons ready as they try to stop demonstrators during a protest in Almaty on Wednesday. (Vladimir Tretyakov/The Associated Press)

Kazakhstan has been grappling with rising price pressures. Inflation was closing in on nine per cent year-on-year late last year — its highest level in more than five years — forcing the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75 per cent.

Some analysts said the protests pointed to more deep-rooted issues.

"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."

European and international election observers continually condemned the legitimacy of presidential elections in Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, who regularly won with over 95 per cent of the vote. Voting irregularities and detentions of government opponents were also noted in the 2019 vote, which Tokayev won with a more modest 71 per cent total.

The Kremlin said it expected Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia, to quickly resolve its internal problems, warning other countries against interfering.

Expressing concern over the situation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russian accusations that the United States had instigated the unrest were "absolutely false."

A view shows a burning police car during a protest following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty early Wednesday. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press