Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has promised to act “robustly” in response to nationwide protests prompted by a sharp rise in fuel prices, as he took over as head of the country’s Security Council.
Tokayev’s remarks, delivered in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, came as the worst unrest for more than a decade shocked the vast Central Asian nation.
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He said there had been casualties among security forces during four days of demonstrations which began at the weekend in the town of Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich western Mangystau region, after price caps on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were lifted.
More than 200 people have been arrested nationwide in connection with the protests, which have since spread to a number of other towns and several cities.
Tokayev said he would not leave the country despite the widespread show of public anger, committing instead to remain in the capital city of Nur-Sultan, where a state of emergency has been declared.
“This is a matter of the security of our state. I am confident the people will support me,” he said, before pledging to come forward with unspecified proposals for the “political transformation” of Kazakhstan in the “near future”.
A state of emergency has also been declared in the country’s largest city Almaty, where earlier on Wednesday protesters stormed the local mayor’s office and appeared to have seized control of the building.
The developments in Almaty came after Tokayev, who blamed “financially-motivated conspirators” of fomenting the protests, sacked Kazakhstan’s government in an apparent bid to assuage those taking to the streets.
Tokayev also ordered the reinstating of price controls on LPG, and for caps to be applied to petrol, diesel and other “socially important” consumer goods in the former Soviet republic.
Meanwhile, authorities appeared to have shut the internet off as the unrest spread, with connectivity levels plunged to nearly zero across the country, according to global internet monitoring group Netblocks.
“Kazakhstan is now in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout after a day of mobile internet disruptions and partial restrictions,” the NetBlocks monitor tweeted. “The incident is likely to severely limit coverage of escalating anti-government protests.”
⚠️ Confirmed: #Kazakhstan is now in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout after a day of mobile internet disruptions and partial restrictions.
The incident is likely to severely limit coverage of escalating anti-government protests.
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) January 5, 2022
Peter Zalmayev, executive director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a non-profit organisation, told Al Jazeera the situation was threatening to “spiral out of control”.
“The formal excuse for the protests is the lifting of the cap on LPG, in a country where salaries are pretty modest by world standards,” Zalmayev said.
“But on the other hand, we are seeing increasingly political demands being added by the protesters, to the point where one of their main demands – the ouster of the government – has been met but it does not satisfy them any longer. This is a very scary situation … and officials are now smelling real trouble,” he added.
Major test for Tokayev
Kazakhstan is tightly controlled and cultivates an image of political stability, helping it attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries.
Public protests are rare in the country, whose parliament is devoid of opposition, and deemed illegal unless their organisers file a notice in advance.
The unrest is the biggest test yet of Tokayev, 68, who took office in 2019 as the hand-picked successor to former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev held power for three decades and had until now continued to wield significant influence as the leader of the Security Council after unexpectedly stepping down from the presidency three years ago.
But the former president, 81, has not been seen or heard from in public since the start of the protests.
It was unclear if his apparent sidelining would satisfy the demonstrators, some of whom were heard chanting “Old man, go away!”, a traditional anti-Nazarbayev slogan.
Footage shared on social media also appeared to show protesters attempting to pull down a statue of the former president on Wednesday in the town of Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region.
Kazakhstan: Statue of former President Nazarbayev reportedly being pulled down in the capital of the Almaty region, Taldykorganpic.twitter.com/hGTzSmXDh2
— Peter Leonard (@Peter__Leonard) January 5, 2022
Earlier, Tokayev had removed Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish from his post of first deputy head at the State Security Committee, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
The situation in Kazakhstan has also provoked alarm in the wider region, with Kazakhstan’s close ally Russia saying on Wednesday that it expected the country to quickly resolve its internal problems.
Moscow, which is acutely sensitive to unrest in former Soviet republics it regards as part of its sphere of influence, also warned other countries against interfering in the situation.