(LONDON) — Mass protests have broken out in Kazakhstan, triggered by a sharp rise in fuel prices in the Central Asian country.
Videos posted on social media show thousands of people gathering in cities across the country on Tuesday, in some places clashing violently with police and trying to storm government buildings, as authorities deployed security forces to try to disperse them and a state of emergency was declared in two parts of the country.
The internet was reportedly partially shut down in parts of the country, including in the former capital, Almaty, as Kazakhstan’s president appealed for calm and pledged his “government will not fall.”
The scenes on Tuesday were extraordinary in the repressive former Soviet country, where opposition is tightly controlled. For most of its independent history, Kazakhstan was ruled by the same authoritarian leader.
The protests began three days ago in the western region of Mangystau after the price of liquified natural gas, used in vehicles, roughly doubled overnight. But on Tuesday, the demonstrations swelled, spreading to cities across the country.
The government on Tuesday promised to reverse the fuel price rise, but the protests continued to grow, appearing to escalate Tuesday night as protesters in some cities sought to storm administrative buildings.
In Almaty, videos showed dozens of riot police using tear gas and stun grenades to clear demonstrators who reportedly tried to seize the mayor’s office.
Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a state of emergency in Almaty and the Mangystau region.
In a video address, Tokayev called for dialogue, saying the government would address the protesters’ legitimate demands but warned it would not fall.
“Calls to attack government and military offices are absolutely illegal,” Tokayev said. “The government will not fall, but we want mutual trust and dialogue rather than conflict.”
He said the government would hold a working meeting Wednesday to discuss the issues raised by the protesters.
Tokayev was hand-picked by Kazakhstan’s long-time ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev to be his successor in 2019, when Nazarbayev stepped aside after ruling the country since it gained independence from the USSR in 1991. Nazarbayev, 81, stood down as president to become chairman of Kazakhstan’s security council but is still believed to have retained significant power.
A major energy exporter, Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest countries and a key neighbor for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Unrest in the country is likely to alarm the Kremlin, which maintains strong influence in the region.
Large protests are very rare in Kazakhstan, where political opposition is barely tolerated and demonstrations must receive permission from authorities to take place legally.
The western city where the fuel protests were initially focused, the oil hub Zhanaozen, saw Kazakhstan’s last major protests in 2011. Those protests ended then in a massacre when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.
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