Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has sacked his cabinet and imposed states of emergency in the country’s largest city and an oil-rich western region following mass protests triggered by a rise in fuel prices.
Tokayev said on Wednesday morning that he had accepted the resignation of the cabinet led by Prime Minister Askar Mamin, and ordered the acting cabinet to reinstate price controls on Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG).
He also ordered the acting cabinet to broaden price controls to petrol, diesel and other “socially important” consumer goods.
The moves followed clashes in Almaty overnight between police and thousands of protesters who had called for the government’s resignation.
Some of them yelled “old man out” – a reference to Tokayev’s still-powerful predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev – while others attacked vehicles. Police used tear gas and stun grenades to stop a crowd of protesters from storming the mayor’s office.
In a bid to quell the unrest, Tokayev early on Wednesday imposed states of emergency in Almaty as well as the western Mangistau province.
The decrees, he said, would last two weeks and include an 11pm (17:00 GMT) to 7am (01:00 GMT) curfew, movement restrictions, and a ban on mass gatherings.
“Calls to attack government and military offices are absolutely illegal,” Tokayev had said in a video address earlier in the night. “The government will not fall, but we want mutual trust and dialogue rather than conflict.”
Messenger apps Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp were all unavailable in the Central Asian country, while two independent media websites that reported on the protests appeared to have been blocked.
The protests broke out in the town of Zhanazoen in the western Mangistau region on January 2, a day after the government lifted caps on prices for Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG).
Mangistau depends on the comparatively cheap LPG as the main fuel for automobiles and the AFP news agency said any jump in prices would have affected the price of food, which has seen steep increases since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The protests quickly spread to other parts of Mangistau and western Kazakhstan, including the provincial centre, Aktau, and on to Almaty and the national capital, Nur-sultan.
As tensions escalated, Tokayev tweeted late on Tuesday that authorities had taken a decision to lower LPG prices in Mangistau “in order to ensure stability in the country”.
The move restored the price cap of 50 Kazakh tenge ($0.11) per litre, or less than half the market price, in the western province.
But reports by independent media suggested that the announcement failed to weaken the protests in Zhanaozen and Aktau. Footage from Aktau shared on social media Tuesday evening showed thousands of protesters who had camped in the city centre overnight encircled by police.
Arrests of activists and small spontaneous marches were also reported in Nur-Sultan, which is named in honour of founding leader Nazarbayev.
On Wednesday morning, however, Tokayev said the emergency decrees had improved the situation in protest-hit cities and towns.
The country’s interior ministry meanwhile said more than 200 people had been detained across the country for attacking government buildings.
It said 95 police officers had been wounded but did not give any figures on injuries among protesters.
Public protests are illegal in the country of 19 million unless their organisers file a notice in advance, and Bruce Pannier, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe, told Al Jazeera that the demonstrations “caught everyone by surprise, especially that they spread so fast”.
“They started for economic reasons, the doubling in the prices of gas, but they quickly took a political angle with people calling for free elections of local officials, calling for the ouster of top officials, the government,” he said.
The protests will hurt the reputation of the Kazakh government, which has always been a “fairly stable” country, said Pannier, adding that other Central Asian leaders will be watching for regional implications.
“The fact that Kazakhstan is a stable country in Central Asia, which has had some problems in some of the countries in the past, there’s going to be ripple effects,” he said.
“And I imagine all the governments in those countries are going to be watching real closely what happens, for no other reason than to make sure they don’t make the kind of mistakes that the Kazakh authorities did by allowing this situation to get out of hand as it did today.”
Tokayev, who faces no political opposition in parliament, took office in 2019.
He was handpicked as a successor by Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Nazarbayev, who is 81 and had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, retains control over the country as chairman of the security council and “Leader of the Nation” – a constitutional role that affords him unique policymaking privileges as well as immunity from prosecution.