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Kazakhstan protests: government resigns amid rare outbreak of unrest

Kazakhstan’s president has accepted the government’s resignation hours after declaring a state of emergency across much of the country in response to a rare outbreak of unrest.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has appointed Alikhan Smailov as acting prime minister, the president’s office said early Wednesday. Smailov was previously the first deputy prime minister.

The political moves follow protests, fueled by rising fuel prices, that started this weekend in the west of the country and have spread rapidly.

On Tuesday evening, video footage from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, showed lines of riot police and numerous crowd control vehicles gathering in the center of the city.

Police used stun grenades and tear gas after crowds refused to disperse, AFP reported, with more than 5,000 people estimated to be in attendance. Later, there were unverified reports of police cars on fire in Almaty, and videos from a number of other towns appeared to show protesters braving sub-zero temperatures and a large presence of security forces.

Mobile internet was down and messaging apps were blocked in much of the authoritarian Central Asian nation.

“All calls to storm or attack government buildings are absolutely illegal,” Tokaev said in a video address on Tuesday evening.

in a tweet, Tokayev blamed the protests on “destructive individuals seeking to undermine the stability and unity of our society”. However, in an effort to quell the unrest, he said the government would meet on Wednesday to discuss “the socio-economic demands” of protesters.

Late on Wednesday, he declared a state of emergency for Almaty and the western province of Mangystau, which is expected to last for two weeks.

Protests started this weekend in the oil town of Zhanaozen, the same place where police fired on protesters in December 2011, killing at least 16 people.

The first spark for outrage was the soaring price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which many use to power their cars, especially in western Kazakhstan. The price doubled in a few days.

Riot police in central Almaty, where more than 5,000 people are said to have taken part in protests. Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov/AP

Tokayev said the government in Mangystau province would introduce a price cap of 50 tenge (about 8 pence) per liter on LPG, about half the current market price.

In some places, however, the protests have taken on a more political hue, showing pent-up frustration at a lack of government accountability in the authoritarian country.

Tokayev is the hand-picked successor to Nursultan Nazarbayev, a Soviet-era communist boss who became Kazakhstan’s first leader after independence, ruling for nearly three decades until he stepped down in 2019. The 81-year-old still wields enormous power behind the scenes, and the country’s capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor in 2019.

Under Nazarbayev and his successor, a small elite have amassed enormous wealth, while the lives of many ordinary Kazakhs are still hard, especially in the resource-rich west of the country. Rare protests have been brutally crushed and the regime faces no real opposition in parliament.