The president of ex-Soviet republic Kazakhstan appealed to a Russian-led security bloc for help on Thursday after failing to quell days of protests that have seen state buildings torched and eight security personnel reported dead.
Initially angered by a fuel price rise, protesters have been storming buildings and chanting against President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev. He retained wide power despite quitting in 2019 after a nearly three-decade rule.
The Central Asian nation’s reputation for stability under Nazarbayev helped attract hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment in its oil and metals industries.
But a younger generation is demanding the liberalisation seen in other former satellite states of the Soviet Union.
Around Kazakhstan- five times the size of France with a population of nearly 19 million – protests killed eight police and national guard troops on Tuesday and Wednesday, Russia’s state-owned Sputnik agency quoted the Kazakh interior ministry as saying.
Apparently seeking to appease public ire, Tokayev sacked Nazarbayev as head of the national Security Council on Wednesday, and took it over himself. He also appointed a new head of the State Security Committee, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and removed Nazarbayev’s nephew from the No. 2 position on the committee.
Tokayev’s Cabinet also resigned.
But protests continued, with demonstrators taking control of the airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. Flights were cancelled.
A witness told Reuters he could see protesters removing benches along Almaty’s main Astana square to build barricades. Earlier, riot police used teargas and flash grenades against the protesters but then appeared to abandon some streets in Almaty.
In a second televised speech within hours, Tokayev said in the early hours of Thursday that he had appealed for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
He said foreign-trained “terrorist” gangs were seizing buildings, infrastructure and weapons, and had taken five aircraft, including foreign ones, at Almaty airport.
“It is an undermining of the integrity of the state and most importantly it is an attack on our citizens who are asking me… to help them urgently,” Tokayev said.
“Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalized, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty… to take all possible actions to protect our state.”
Nazarbayev, the 81-year-old former president, has been 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 economy, the largest in Central Asia.
Nazarbayev has not been seen or heard from since the protests began.
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 area for possible looting, the resident said.
“There is complete anarchy in the street,” 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 said it was filmed in the eastern city of Taldykorgan.
Earlier, a stream 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.
Early on Wednesday, Reuters journalists had seen thousands of protesters pressing towards Almaty city centre, some of them on a large truck.
States of emergency were declared in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and westerly Mangistau province. The internet was shut down.
In the city of Aqtobe, protesters gathered shouting: “Old Man, go away!”. A video online showed police using water cannon and stun grenades near the mayor’s office there.
After accepting the Cabinet’s resignation, Tokayev ordered acting ministers to reverse the fuel price rise, which doubled the cost of liquefied petroleum gas from the start of the year. The gas is widely used to power vehicles in Kazakhstan where official prices had made it much cheaper than gasoline.
The unrest, which saw the price of Kazakhstan’s dollar bonds plunge by nearly 6 cents, was the worst in Kazakhstan since 2011, when at least 14 protesters were killed by police during a strike by oil workers.
“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,” said Tim Ash, emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.
The Kremlin said it expected Kazakhstan, a close ally, to quickly resolve its internal problems, warning other countries against interfering. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russian accusations that the United States had instigated the unrest were false.
Kazakhstan has been grappling with rising price pressures. Inflation was closing in on 9% year-on-year late last year – its highest in more than five years – leading the central bank to raise interest rates to 9.75%.