Kazakhstan- Mass protests erupts against hike in fuel prices

 President has declared emergency in some cities including Almaty and night curfew imposed

Mass protests have erupted in Kazakhstan, sparked by a sharp rise in fuel prices in the Central Asian country. Videos posted on social media show thousands of people gathered in cities across the country. In some areas including second largest city Almaty, angry protestors clashed with police and stormed some government buildings.
The government has resigned and president accepted the resignations of government ministers. The president also announced to reverse the fuel price hike. But the resignation of government and withdrawal of the price increase has failed to pacify the angry protests. The Kazakh president has appealed to the Russian president Vladimir Putin to help.   

The spark was a doubling of the price of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), the most common fuel used in the country. All roads leading to the centre of capital Astana (now called Nur-sultan) were immediately closed off with government forces erecting barricades to prevent any demonstrations or occupation in the central areas of the capital.

Kazakhstan is a country the size of Western Europe bordered by both China and Russia. China has big industrial and trade interests in the country. (A plant where workers are said to have taken strike action this week is a Chinese Joint Venture.) There is some speculation about a movement of troops by Putin to intervene in defence of Russia’s economic and political interests on the pretext of defending the more than 4 million ethnic Russians in the country.

Media outlets have reported that in the country’s largest city, “Thousands of protesters were pressing ahead towards Almaty city centre…after security forces failed to disperse them with tear gas and flash bang grenades”. There were attacks on banks, shops, restaurants and government buildings reported in many other cities, including Shymkent and Taraz in the South.

Buildings have burned. Water cannon and stun grenades have been used against demonstrators. Hundreds have suffered preventive detention and others still face brutal arrest on the streets. The usual lies about foreign provocateurs and extremists are peddled in the media.

There are reports that strikes broke out, including in the town of Zhanaozen. It is just ten years since the December 2011 slaughter by state forces of striking oil-workers in that city and memories on both sides are still raw.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, whose strings are clearly pulled by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has summarily dismissed what has been a feeble puppet government. He has announced the reversal of the fuel price rise from 120 Tenge back to 60 per litre, indicating the fear of the present regime that a revolt could broaden into a movement to bring it down.

Wednesday's scenes were extraordinary in the repressive ex-Soviet country, where the opposition and media are tightly controlled. For most of its independent history, Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same authoritarian ruler.

Large protests are very rare in Kazakhstan, where political opposition is barely tolerated and protests must receive permission from the authorities to take place legally.

The western city where the fuel protests were initially focused, the oil hub of Zhanaozen, saw the last major protests in Kazakhstan in 2011. These protests then ended in a massacre when security forces opened fire on it.

The President has declared state of emergency for two weeks in some cities including Almaty and night curfew also been imposed. The internet has reportedly been partially shut down in parts of the country, including the former capital, Almaty, as the President of Kazakhstan called for calm and pledged his “government would not fall”.

Protests began three days ago in the western Mangystau region after the price of liquefied natural gas, used in vehicles, nearly doubled overnight. But on Wednesday, protests multiplied and spread to cities across the country.

Tokayev was handpicked by longtime Kazakhstan ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev to succeed him in 2019, when Nazarbayev resigned after ruling the country since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. Nazarbayev, 81, has resigned from his post as president to become president of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, but it is still believed that he retained significant power.

A major energy exporter, Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries in the world and a key neighbor of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The unrest in the country threatens to alarm the Kremlin, which maintains a strong influence in the region.

                                                                             Khalid Bhatti 

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