Unprecedented mass protests grip Kazakhstan

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President warns he will act with “maximum harshness” against protests.

Kazakhstan’s president has said he will take over the position of its long-running leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the face of unprecedented protests that have erupted in the Central Asian country.

Mass protests are sweeping towns and cities across Kazakhstan, with thousands of protesters seizing government buildings and overrunning police, shaking the authoritarian regime of one of the former Soviet Union’s longest lasting rulers.

The protests, first sparked by a sharp hike in fuel prices since Tuesday, have spread to most parts of Kazakhstan and authorities have declared a state of emergency in some regions. In the country’s second-largest city and former capital, Almaty, crowds stormed the main city administration building and reportedly set fire to Nazarbayev’s former residence. Videos posted online by local media sites showed smoke billowing from the city administration building, while police fought street battles with demonstrators nearby. Videos show protesters storming government buildings in many other cities as well.

Mobile internet was down across the country and most social media applications were reported blocked, according to users on the ground. A state of emergency was also declared in the capital, Nur-Sultan, as well as Almaty and the western region Mangystau.

Kazakhstan has been dominated by Nazarbayev since it became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, thirty years ago. In 2019, the ailing 81-year-old stepped aside to give the presidency to his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, but Nazarbayev retained power behind the scenes by moving to become chairman of Kazakhstan’s national security council.

On Wednesday as the protests swelled, president Tokayev gave a televised address where he said he was now chairman of the national security council, the position held by Nazarbayev.

Tokayev did not refer to Nazarbayev or mention his name, and it was unclear if that meant the former leader was leaving public life.

Tokayev also promised a ruthless crackdown on the protests, pledging he would not leave office and would “act with maximum harshness.”

He accused the protests of being paid conspirators and said security forces would restore order.

“And so I, as head of state and from today chairman of the Security Council, am determined to act with maximum harshness,” he said in the address broadcast on state news channels. “Whatever happens I will stay in the capital,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Tokayev also announced he had accepted the resignation of his government and promised to reverse the fuel price hike and restore price caps on some key goods. But the protests continued despite those announcements.

The scale of the protests was unprecedented in Kazakhstan, where politics are tightly controlled and demonstrations have to be authorized by the government to be held legally.

Nazarbayev’s exit from public life would put a dramatic end to the rule of a leader, who has shaped Kazakhstan for three decades and was also a key ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The upheaval has major implications for other former Soviet states and is being closely watched in Russia.

It is the second time in a year and a half that a long-time former Soviet leader of one of Russia’s key neighbors has faced a massive uprising after the failed protests in Belarus year.

The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday said the Russian government had not received a request for assistance from Kazakhstan’s government and that the crisis should be resolved by the Kazakhs themselves.

Russia’s foreign ministry in a statement called for a peaceful solution to the crisis, saying that must be achieved through legal constitutional means, not violence.

The price hike that sparked the unrest had almost doubled the cost of liquefied natural gas (LNG) used in vehicles. The demonstrations initially began around four days ago in the western oil city of Zhanaozen. In 2011, that city saw Kazakhstan’s last major protests, that were violently put down by security forces.