Protesters storm public buildings in Kazakhstan: ‘A lot of people have nothing to lose’

Protests have raged in several cities in Kazakhstan since January 2, following a sharp increase in fuel prices in the former Soviet republic. Videos shared widely on social media show thousands of people taking to the streets, a rare outbreak of dissent in Kazakhstan where protests are tightly controlled. Security forces have struggled to quell the crowds, who have begun storming public offices and setting fire to buildings.

Protesters set the municipal administration building in Almaty, Kazakhstan on fire on January 5, amid widespread protests.
Protesters set the municipal administration building in Almaty, Kazakhstan on fire on January 5, amid widespread protests. © Twitter / @liveuamap

People began protesting in the western province of Mangistau, known to be an oil-producing region, on January 2. Now, the epicentre of the protests is in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, where people have been gathering for three straight days. What began as a peaceful protest devolved as protesters faced off with security forces. Police attempted to control crowds with teargas, stun grenades and blockades.

A video posted on Twitter on January 5 shows protesters and security forces facing off in Almaty. Teargas and stun grenades can be heard going off.
Security forces in Aktobe used water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters, causing multiple injuries.

But security forces largely failed to contain the wave of protests. On January 5, hundreds of people in Almaty stormed government buildings, setting the main administrative building on fire. The prosecutor’s office in Almaty was also set on fire. Protesters also stormed government buildings in the cities of Aktobe, Shymkent and Taraz.

A video posted on Twitter on January 5 shows a crowd of people gathered in front of the municipal administration building in Almaty.
Protesters descended on the municipal government building in Aktobe in western Kazakhstan on January 5.

Other videos show protesters seizing police equipment, like vehicles and riot gear. 

Protesters in Almaty seizing a fire engine in a video posted on Twitter on January 5.
Protesters in Almaty seized several riot control vehicles from police on January 5.

‘Citizens are a bit taken aback at how quickly it became violent’

Phone and internet services have been cut off around Kazakhstan. We were unable to speak directly with a witness to the protests, however Abai (not his real name), a Kazakh from Almaty currently studying abroad, spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on condition of anonymity. He has been keeping in touch with relatives back home.

I was able to call one of my distant relatives in Almaty. He lives in the very centre of town. He said he came out to get some money out of the cash machine, but all of the cash machines are empty right now. So no one is able to get money. The state of emergency has been announced, so it’s almost martial law right now. No one can legally leave the house. He said he tried to get to another cash machine but saw military police coming in his direction, blocking the entire street and being extremely aggressive, just beating up everyone they met – just regular people who were maybe going about their business, buying food or going to work. He quickly ran back home.

The government, despite calling for peace, has still blocked every communication network. It makes it hard for everyone to know what’s going on, who’s on whose side. Because everyone is sitting in their houses smelling the teargas that’s spreading across the city, impossible to sleep at night because of the explosions, and you can’t really know what is going on. 

As I was talking to [my relative] I heard explosions going off. There are teargas grenades, but also some police cars that have been overturned and destroyed and burned. All of the citizens are a bit taken aback at how quickly it became violent. We are all extremely shocked, and we’re scared that we’re going to lose our independence, that maybe neighbouring countries like the big powerhouses Russia or China, or whoever else in the West, might spin this situation in their interest.

I’m scared for my family because I can’t contact them right now. I’ve talked to other relatives who are in contact with them and who have said they will take my wife and child and mother and bring them to their place. But it’s a dangerous journey right now, even if it’s just a kilometre.

In early January, the government lifted price controls on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), to deregulate prices and benefit producers. The move caused prices to more than double for Kazakhs, many of whom depend on LPG for its low cost.

On January 5, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered the reinstatement of price caps as well as other price control regulations for other types of fuel and “socially important” goods, Reuters reported

Although petroleum prices sparked the initial protests, they represent more deep-rooted, underlying frustrations among Kazakh people, Abai said. The protests are the largest the country has seen in more than a decade. 

‘I would never believe that we would rebel en masse like this’

Abai explained:

The initial demands were towards gas prices and food prices. But now it’s more political. People are demanding the reform of the whole government. The unhappiness with the current regime has been around for at least the last 20 years. The coronavirus crisis was kind of the last straw. Standards of living are falling drastically. People are barely able to survive. I guess there are a lot of people who have nothing to lose anymore. Our generation is disillusioned with the future. We are worried for our children. 

Our people have always been aware of our own docile attitude towards life. I would never believe that we would rebel en masse like this. Plus, the law in recent years has made [protest] impossible. There is a paragraph saying that every public meeting or protest should be approved and agreed upon with the local government, which they never do. So the only available outlet for public outcry would be to do it unlawfully. If you participate in any kind of protest, you automatically break the law and police can absolutely legally arrest you.

People at protests have been holding signs and chanting slogans saying, “Old man, go away,” in reference to former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led the country from its independence until 2019. Though he resigned and passed power to Tokayev, a close ally, many Kazakhs still believe he holds major influence in the country.

A crowd of people in the western city of Aktobe chant “Shal, ket” or “Old man, go away” in this video posted on Twitter on January 4.

On January 5, President Tokayev accepted the resignation of the government, several hours after declaring a state of emergency in Almaty. This didn’t stop protests from continuing throughout the day. 

At least 190 people in Almaty have needed medical help as a result of the protests, including 137 police officers, Reuters reported