MOSCOW (AP) – The presidential residence in Kazakhstan’s largest city went up in flames on Wednesday and armed demonstrators stormed another government building, according to media reports, when the demonstrations, which were triggered by rising fuel prices, escalated sharply.
In response to the protests, the government resigned and the president promised to take tough measures to quell the unrest. Kazakh news sites went inaccessible late in the day and global watchdog organization Netblocks said the country was experiencing a ubiquitous internet blackout.
But the Russian news agency Tass reported from Kazakhstan that the presidential residence in Almaty, where thousands of demonstrators had gathered outside, was on fire and that the city’s main administrative building with the mayor’s office burned from top to bottom hours after the demonstrators broke in.
Many of the demonstrators approaching the mayor’s office were wearing clubs and shields, according to previous reports by Kazakh media.
Protests began on Sunday in Zhanaozen, a western city where resentment was strong against the government following an oil workers’ strike in 2011 in which police killed at least 15 people. In the days that followed, they spread across the country and large demonstrations broke out on Tuesday in the capital Nur-Sultan and Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital.
Although the protests began over a nearly doubling in the price of liquefied petroleum gas, which is widely used as vehicle fuel, the magnitude and rapidity of the unrest suggest that it reflects greater discontent in the country that has ruled since independence from the same party becomes from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The protests appear to have no identifiable leader or demands.
In a televised statement to the nation on Wednesday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that “we intend to act with the greatest severity” in relation to lawbreakers. Police tried to push back protesters in freezing weather with water cannons, tear gas and concussion grenades.
Tokayev said police were killed in clashes with protesters, but there were no immediate casualties for police officers or civilians.
In the declaration he also promised political reforms and announced that he would take over the leadership of the National Security Council. The latter may be significant given that the council was chaired by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was president from 1991 until his resignation in 2019.
Nazarbayev dominated the politics of Kazakhstan and his rule was marked by a moderate personality cult. Critics say he effectively established a clan system in government.
After the demonstrations spread to Almaty and the capital, the government announced its resignation, but Tokayev said ministers would remain in their posts until a new cabinet is formed, which is uncertain whether the resignation will have any significant impact.
Tokayev has declared a two-week state of emergency for both the capital and Almaty, imposed an overnight curfew and restricted freedom of movement in and around the cities.
At the beginning of the year, liquefied gas prices roughly doubled when the government gave up price controls. Although Kazakhstan has extensive gas and oil reserves and mineral resources, there is great dissatisfaction with the poor living conditions in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs are also annoyed by the dominance of the ruling party, which holds over 80% of the seats in parliament.