MOSCOW -- On Wednesday, thousands of people marched through Kazakhstan in protest against rising gas prices. It was the largest wave of protests that has swept the oil-rich nation for many decades.
Protesters stormed government buildings, capturing police vehicles, and this despite the strict state of emergency. The government tried to accommodate their demands by removing the cabinet and announcing that the dissolution of Parliament could be announced. On Wednesday afternoon, internet access was shut down in Kazakhstan by Kazakhtelecom.
Since Sunday's protests by Kazakhs over the government lifting price caps on liquefied petroleum gasoline -- often referred to as L.P.G. -- and the fuel's cost doubled.
The price rise was particularly troubling for 19 million people living in Kazakhstan, which is an oil and gas exporter. This price increase added to economic misery in a country with high income inequality, as the coronavirus pandemic has made it worse.
Demonstrators have called for the removal of authoritarian political groups that have ruled the country since 1991, when it gained independence from the Soviet Union.
These developments have thrown Kazakhstan, which was previously considered politically and economically stable, into chaos, and upheaval.
On Wednesday, Kassym Jomart Tokayev (the president of Kazakhstan) announced that he would dismiss the prime minister and his entire Cabinet and will impose a two-week-long state of emergency in large parts of the country.
These measures did not appease protesters so Mr. Tokayev gave another televised speech, in which he announced his intention to assume all formal power levers and promised to "act with maximum toughness."
According to Mr. Tokayev, he is now the head of the country's Security Council. This was a position previously held by Nursultan Nagabayev, Kazakhstan’s long-serving leader. He then selected Mr. Tokayev for his successor.
Although Mr. Tokayev has officially taken the title of "leader of the nation," Mr. Nazarbayev was still considered the shadow leader of Kazakhstan.
On Tuesday, Samat Abish was dismissed by Mr. Tokayev, his nephew from the post of first deputy chief of the country's security service.
Tokayev spoke out about the unrest and said that the protests were "highly organised" by "meticulously planned conspirators, who were motivated financially." He also said that servicemen were beat and mocked, taken naked to the streets and women abused, and shops were robbed.
He declared a state emergency on Tuesday, imposing a curfew, restrictions on movement including a curfew overnight, a curfew on Tuesday, and bans on large-scale gatherings.
The government has blocked chat apps and social networking sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Telegram, and, for first time, WeChat from being used. All public demonstrations that took place without permits were already illegal.
Despite the government's efforts to calm the protests on Wednesday, video posted online showed thousands of people storming Almaty's main government building.
As the crowd dispersed, smoke billowed from City Hall. According to local media reports, the former presidential residence and the regional branch of Nur Otan, which has no opposition in Parliament, were also set on fire.
News agencies reported that there were renewed clashes between protesters, police and officers. They used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. Protesters also set ablaze the Almaty office of the prosecutor and marched to the presidential residence.
According to the Almaty police more than 500 civilians were attacked and protesters set fire to 120 cars, including 33 police cars. They also damaged 400 businesses. More than 200 people have been taken into custody.
Protests started in Zhanaozen in southwest China, where 16 workers were striking for better working conditions were murdered by police in 2011. The protests quickly spread throughout the country.
Protesters stormed the Akimat local government building in Aktau, a city located on the Caspian Sea. According to Mukhtar Umbetov (a rights activist who participated in the protest), local activists tried to control the crowd to prevent violence.
According to Mr. Umbetov, the gas price rise was the spark that ignited long-simmering discontent over income disparities in resource-rich countries over the past few decades.
He said that the coronavirus pandemic has increased inequality and that rapidly rising prices have hit the poor hardest. He said that the Kazakh government had "removed all legal avenues to take part in politics."
He said that people don't have political intermediaries to solve the problems in the country in a telephone interview with Aktau. "Kazakhstan's natural resources aren't working for the common good. They work only for a select few.
He said that the income gap was especially glaring during holiday season. He said that while some Kazakhs took a vacation to Dubai, many had to make ends meet on the meagre salaries.
According to local statistics, the average salary in Kazakhstan amounts to $570 per month. According to Mr. Umbetov most people only earn a fraction of this amount. The average is biased in favor of workers from the oil industry.
The demands of protesters have grown to include greater political liberalization as the protests progress. They want the direct election by voters of Kazakhstan's regional leaders; currently, they are appointed directly by the president.
Kazakhstan was ruled for almost 30 years by Mr. Nazarbayev (a former boss of the Communist Party), who is now 81.
Two centers of power were created by the ascension Mr. Tokayev. While Mr. Nazarbayev, his family, enjoy a wide authority, the new president, despite being loyal to his predecessor's policies, is seeking to take a more prominent role and disorient Kazakhstan's elites and bureaucracy. Arkady Dubnov a Moscow-based expert on Central Asia, said that this divide contributed to the slow response of the government to protesters' demands.
"The government has been slow, because it is divided, and doesn't know what young people want," Mr. Dubnov stated. "On the contrary, protesters lack a leader who can clearly articulate their demands."
The protests are being closely monitored by the countries of the ex-Soviet Union. Russia sees the protests as another challenge to its autocratic power in neighboring countries.
Russia intervened militarily against Ukraine in 2014, after pro-democracy demonstrations there erupted. The Kremlin offered support for the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko during the violent suppression of peaceful protests against his autocratic rule.
Mr. Dubnov stated that the protests in Kazakhstan are a warning sign for the Kremlin and described the government in Kazakhstan's "a reduced replica" of the Russian one.
He said, "There is no doubt the Kremlin would never want to see an instance of such a regime starting to talk with the opposition and giving in to their demands."
Putin has been at the helm for over 20 years. A 2020 referendum granted him the right of rule until 2036. However, observers are looking for signs of a controlled transition from power.
The pro-Kremlin media has portrayed the events of Kazakhstan as an organized plot against Russia. Komsomolskaya Pravda (a pro-government tabloid) described the protests in Kazakhstan as a "dirty trick played by Moscow" ahead "crucial talks between Russia, the U.S., and NATO" next Wednesday. These discussions will focus on Ukraine's crisis, which is causing fears about a new Russian invasion.