(AP) — Protesters in Kazakhstan’s largest city stormed the presidential residence and the mayor’s office on Wednesday and set both buildings on fire, according to new reports, as demonstrations sparked by a rise in fuel prices in the Central Asian nation escalated sharply.
Police fired on some protesters at the presidential palace before fleeing. They have clashed repeatedly with demonstrators in recent days, deploying water cannons in the freezing weather, tear gas and concussion grenades.
The government resigned in response to the unrest and the president vowed to take harsh measures to quell it. In possibly the first of those efforts, Kazakh news sites became inaccessible late in the day, and the global watchdog organization Netblocks said the country was experiencing a pervasive internet blackout.
Although the protests began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of liquefied gas that is widely used as vehicle fuel, the size and rapid spread of the unrest suggest they reflect wider discontent in the country that has been under the rule of the same party since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, borders Russia to the north and China to the east and has extensive oil reserves that make it strategically and economically important. Despite those reserves and mineral wealth, discontent over poor living conditions is strong in some parts of the country. Many Kazakhs also chafe at the dominance of the ruling party, which holds more than 80% of the seats in parliament.
Hours after thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the presidential residence in Almaty, Russia’s Tass news agency reported that it was on fire and that demonstrators, some wielding firearms, were trying to break into it. Police fled from the residence after shooting at demonstrators, according to the report, which was filed from Kazakhstan.
Many of the demonstrators who converged on the mayoral office carried clubs and shields, according to earlier reports in Kazakh media. Tass later said the building was engulfed in flames.
Protesters also broke into the Almaty office of the Russia-based Mir television and radio company and destroyed some equipment, the broadcaster said. It later reported that a crowd broke into the Almaty building of the Kazakh national broadcaster.
The protests began Sunday in Zhanaozen, a city in the west where resentment of the government was strong in the wake of a 2011 oil-worker strike in which police fatally shot at least 15 people. They spread across the country in the following days and on Tuesday large demonstrations broke out in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and in Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital.
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 maximum severity regarding law-breakers.”
Tokayev said police have died in clashes with demonstrators, but there were no immediate casualty figures for police or civilians.
In the statement, he also promised to make political reforms and announced that he was assuming the leadership of the national security council. The latter is potentially significant because the council had been headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was president from 1991 until he resigned in 2019.
Nazarbayev dominated Kazakhstan’s politics and his rule was marked by a moderate cult of personality. Critics say he effectively instituted a clan system in government.
After the demonstrations spread to Almaty and the capital, the government announced its resignation, but Tokayev said the ministers would remain in their roles until a new Cabinet is formed, making it uncertain whether the resignation will have significant effect.
Tokayev has declared a two-week state of emergency for both the capital and Almaty, imposing an overnight curfew and restricting movement into and around the cities.
At the start of the year, prices for the gas called LPG roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls — part of efforts to transition to a market economy.