Kazakhstan government resigns amid protests over rising fuel prices3 min read

Kazakhstans government resigned on Wednesday after protesters angry at a sharp rise in motor fuel prices took to the streets in several key cities, marking a big test for the country’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The protests, described as the biggest in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet Union history based on unclear footage from social media, are a rare event for the tightly controlled country. Kazakhstan, like Russia and other countries in the region, has been struggling with rising prices for basic commodities amid the economic strain of the pandemic.

Late on Tuesday, the government announced a state of emergency in the city of Almaty and the western region of Mangystau until January 19, after thousands of people took part in a third day of protests over fuel prices and voicing broader demands for political change.

Tokayev, who entered office as a loyal ally of predecessor and longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev following a rubber-stamp vote in 2019, said blame for the situation lay with the government and early on Wednesday he accepted its resignation. He also appointed a new temporary prime minister.

Protests have continued since the announcement, with hundreds of demonstrators attempting to storm the Almaty mayor’s office, videos on social media showed, while police responded by firing stun grenades. Other videos showed police cars set on fire and protesters continuing to march through the streets.

More than 200 people had been detained so far, the interior ministry said, during clashes when security forces deployed tear gas. Almost 100 police were wounded, the ministry said.

The mayor of Almaty blamed “provocateurs from within and outside” who he said were behind “destabilisation attempts and extremist actions”.

Some journalists and commentators in Moscow accused unspecified outside forces of intentionally stirring up protests in Kazakhstan to destabilise Russia’s eastern flank, ahead of a round of diplomatic negotiations when Moscow wants to discuss the balance of power to its west.

Washington, Moscow and Nato member states are set to meet for talks next week, when Russia intends to press for “security guarantees” to limit the military alliance’s expansion in Europe.

A commentator for Russia’s state-run RIA news agency said the situation resembled a fresh attempt to foment a “colour revolution” in the former Soviet Union, referring to a string of uprisings in countries neighbouring Russia during the post-Soviet period. Russian politicians have previously blamed the revolts on western involvement.

The first demonstration in Mangystau this week drew protesters unhappy with a doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas — widely used as cheap fuel in cars — to 120 tenge per litre, equivalent to $0.27 cents.

Some officials in western regions agreed to cut the price of fuel, but protesters made new demands, including improvements to the quality of life, the prorogation of parliament and the resignation of Nazarbayev from his position as “Leader of the Nation”, under which, according to reports, he essentially retains control of most of the country’s main spheres.

Tokayev created a special governmental committee to find a compromise, and promised to discuss “demands of a socio-economic nature”, according to his Twitter account.

“I ask the demonstrators not to follow the calls of destructive forces, interested in undermining the stability and unity of our society,” Tokayev wrote on Tuesday night.

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