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Kazakhstan government resigns as protests over increased fuel prices roil country

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Kazakhstan government resigns as protests over increased fuel prices roil country

The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Kazakhstan’s founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 and ushered loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev into the presidency

Kazakhstan government resigns as protests over increased fuel prices roil country

Demonstrators stand in front of police line during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, 5 January 5, 2022. AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted the government’s resignation on Wednesday after a fuel price increase in the oil-producing Central Asian country triggered protests.

Tokayev sacked the Central Asian country’s cabinet in a bid to head off unprecedented unrest across the nation that followed an energy price hike. He also imposed states of emergency in Almaty, the financial capital, and Mangystau province from 5 to 19 January. An overnight curfew will be in place in both territories from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am, with restrictions on movement in and out of the areas.

Earlier Tokayev had called for a return to calm in a video posted on Facebook. “The government will not be felled, but we don’t need conflict,” Tokayev said in the address.

The protesters in Almaty yelled “old man out” — a reference to Tokayev’s still-powerful predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev — and “government resign” before police moved in, sparking battles with demonstrators.

Tokayev took office in 2019, handpicked as a successor by Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. One of five ex-Soviet nations in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is of crucial importance to Russia as an economic partner and home to a large ethnic Russian population.

Its authoritarian government tolerates little real opposition and has been accused of silencing independent voices and media. Spontaneous, unsanctioned protests are illegal despite a 2020 law that passed easing some restrictions of freedom of assembly.

Limits appeared to have been imposed on the internet on Wednesday, with messenger apps Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp all unavailable. Two independent media websites that reported on the protests also appeared to be blocked.

Smaller rallies had been staged in cities across the republic of 19 million people from Sunday, beginning with the town of Zhanaozen in Mangystau.

The initial cause of the unrest was a spike in prices for LPG in hydrocarbon-rich Mangystau, but a government move to lower the prices in line with protesters’ demands failed to calm them.

Reports by independent media suggested that Tokayev’s announcement of a new price of 50 tenge (11 US cents) per litre, down from 120 at the beginning of the year, failed to weaken the rallies in Zhanaozen and Mangystau’s capital Aktau as demonstrators aired new demands.

Footage from Aktau shared on social media Tuesday showed thousands of protesters — who had camped in the city centre overnight — encircled by police. Most had dispersed from the city centre by Wednesday, state broadcaster Khabar reported.

But protests continued on Wednesday. Protesters stormed the mayor’s office in Almaty. Police fired stun grenades and tear gas at a crowd of several thousand protesters, some armed with batons and shields seized from police, but were unable to prevent the protesters from entering the building, an AFP correspondent said.

On Wednesday afternoon AFP correspondents in Almaty witnessed men dressed in police uniform throw down their shields and helmets into a pile and embrace protesters. The men in police uniform refused to be interviewed.

“They have come over to our side,” yelled one woman as she embraced a fellow protester.

The protests are the biggest threat so far to the regime established by Kazakhstan’s founding president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 and ushered loyalist Tokayev into the presidency.

In 2011, at least 14 striking oil workers were killed in Zhanaozen as police crushed a protest over pay and working conditions, the deadliest unrest since the republic gained independence in 1991.

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 policy-making privileges as well as immunity from prosecution.

With input from AFP

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