Kazakh protesters torch public buildings, emergency declared, Cabinet resigns

by Reuters
Wednesday, 5 January 2022 13:53 GMT

* Buildings on fire in biggest city

* President says government botched fuel price increase

* Blow to stable image of oil-producing ex-Soviet republic (.)

By Olzhas Auyezov

ALMATY, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Kazakhstan declared emergencies in the capital, main city and provinces on Wednesday after demonstrators stormed and torched public buildings, the worst unrest for more than a decade in the tightly controlled country.

The Cabinet resigned, but that failed to quell the anger of the demonstrators, who have taken to the streets in response to a fuel price increase from the start of the new year.

Though the unrest was triggered by the price rise, there were signs of broader political demands in a country still under the shadow of three decades of one-man rule.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, took office as president of the former Soviet republic in 1990 and only stepped down in 2019. He retained authority as ruling party boss and head of a powerful security council.

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

Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters journalists saw thousands of protesters pressing towards Almaty city centre, some of them on a large truck. Security forces, ranked 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.

A presidential decree announced a two-week state of emergency and nighttime curfew in the capital Nur-Sultan - named after the former president. It cited a "serious and direct security threat to citizens".

States of emergency were also declared in Almaty and in the westerly Mangistau province, where protests first broke out.

Reuters journalists reported the internet had been shut down as the unrest spread. Netblocks, a site that monitors global internet connectivity, said Kazakhstan was "in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout".

Though the unrest was triggered by a fuel price rise, there were signs of broader political demands in a country still under the shadow of three decades of one-man rule.

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.

BONDS PLUNGE

Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, accepted the Cabinet's resignation on Wednesday and ordered acting ministers to reverse the fuel price rise.

Tokayev also named a new first deputy head of the National Security Committee to replace a nephew of Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev himself has not commented or convened the security council since the unrest began.

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

The unrest saw the price of Kazakhstan's dollar bonds plunge by nearly 6 cents, the worst showing since the height of the coronavirus market collapse of 2020.

Analysts said the veneer of stability has masked anger among a younger generation denied the liberalisation seen in other ex-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."

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

Atameken, Kazakhstan's business lobby group, said its members were reporting attacks on banks, stores and restaurants. The city health department said 190 people had sought medical help, including 137 police. City authorities urged residents to stay home.

The interior ministry said 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.

Kazakhstan has been grappling with rising price pressures. Inflation was closing in on 9% 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%.

Tokayev acknowledged the government had botched the lifting of a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas from Jan. 1, which saw the cost more than double. The low-cost fuel is used by many Kazakhs to power their cars with pressurised tanks.

Tokayev ordered the LPG price cap restored and extended to gasoline, diesel and other "socially important" goods. He also ordered the government to develop a personal bankruptcy law and consider freezing utility prices and subsidising rent payments.

He said the situation was improving in protest-hit cities and towns, including Almaty and the surrounding province, where the authorities declared a state of emergency.

A source familiar with the situation said some workers at Mangistaumunaigas, a Kazakh-Chinese oil-producing joint venture based in Mangistau province, were on strike, although this was not affecting output. (Additional reporting by Pavel Mikheyev, Maria Gordeyeva, Tamara Vaal and Karin Strohecker; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, Mark Trevelyan, Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie, Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)

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