Why it started
Although the protests began over the fuel price but the size and rapid spread of the unrest suggest they reflect wider discontent in the country that has been under the rule of the same party since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, borders Russia to the north and China to the east and has extensive oil reserves that make it strategically and economically important. Despite those reserves and mineral wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party, which holds more than 80 per cent of the seats in parliament.
The 81-year-old former president Nazarbayev was widely seen as the main political force in Nur-Sultan, the purpose-built capital which bears his name. His family is believed to control much of the Kazakh economy, the largest in Central Asia.
In his TV address, Tokayev did not mention his predecessor by name. Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.
Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev’s nephew as number two at the State Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
A resident of Almaty who mingled with the protesters on Wednesday said most of those he met appeared to come from the city’s impoverished outskirts or nearby villages and towns.
At the main square, vodka was being distributed and some people were discussing whether to head towards the city bazaar or a wealthy residential area for possible looting, the resident said.
“There is complete anarchy in the street. Police are nowhere to be seen,” he said.
Footage posted on the internet showed protesters chanting below a giant bronze statue of Nazarbayev, strung with ropes in an apparent attempt to pull it down. A woman who posted it to Twitter said it was filmed in the eastern city of Taldykorgan.
Earlier, an Instagram livestream by a Kazakh blogger had shown a fire blazing in the office of the Almaty mayor, with apparent gunshots audible. Videos posted online also showed the nearby prosecutor’s office burning.
The President has vowed to take harsh measures to quell the unrest. In possibly the first of those efforts, Kazakh news sites became inaccessible late in the day, and the global watchdog organisation Netblocks said the country was experiencing a pervasive internet blackout.
The protests began on Sunday in Zhanaozen, a city in the west where resentment of the government is strong since a 2011 oil-worker strike in which police fatally shot at least 15 people. They spread across the country in the following days and on Tuesday large demonstrations broke out in Nur-Sultan and in Almaty.
The protests appear to have no identifiable leader or demands.
Though the unrest was triggered by a fuel price rise, crowds expressed clear anger at Nazarbayev’s continued influence.
Old man, go away
In the city of Aqtobe, what appeared to be several hundred protesters gathered on a square shouting: “Old Man, go away!” A video posted online showed police using water cannon and stun grenades against protesters near the mayor’s office there.
After accepting the cabinet’s resignation, Tokayev ordered acting ministers to reverse the fuel price rise.
Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability under Nazarbayev helped attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries. But political analysts said a younger generation was demanding the liberalisation seen in other former Soviet states.
“I think there is an underlying undercurrent of frustrations in Kazakhstan over the lack of democracy,” said Tim Ash, emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.
“Young, internet-savvy Kazakhs, especially in Almaty, likely want similar freedoms as Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Kyrgyz and Armenians, who have also vented their frustrations over the years with authoritarian regimes.”
The Kremlin said it expected Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia, to quickly resolve its internal problems, warning other countries against interfering.
Expressing concern over the situation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russian accusations that the United States had instigated the unrest were “absolutely false”.
Kazakhstan has been grappling with rising price pressures. Inflation was closing in on 9 per cent year-on-year late last year – its highest in more than five years – forcing the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75 per cent.
Bloomberg, Reuters, AP