Dozens of Protesters, Police Killed as Kazakhstan Demonstrations Grow More Violent

Protests in Kazakhstan this week over rising fuel prices grew more deadly, with authorities reporting January 6, 2022, that dozens of protesters and police officers were killed in the demonstrations and subsequent police crackdown.

Saltanat Azirbek, a police spokeswoman, told state news channel Khabar-24 Wednesday dozens of protesters were "liquidated," which is their term to describe killing people that police deem to be extremists.

The news channel added that city officials said 353 people were injured and 12 officers were killed.

Though a nearly doubling of fuel prices originally sparked the protests, many have also shown discontent with the country's ruling party, which took power when Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and still holds 80 percent of the country's parliament seats today.

On January 5, the protesters, armed with clubs and shields, broke into the presidential residence and the mayor's office in the city hall building in Almaty, the nation's largest city.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's government has appeared to make some concessions, such as announcing a 180-day cap on fuel prices and a temporary ban on raising utility prices, as well as Tokayev accepting the government's intent to resign and taking leadership of the national security council.

However, Tokayev also said government forces would act with "maximum severity" against anyone they see as a "law-breaker," and the new measures have not appeared to dissuade the protesters from taking to the streets again.

Almaty, Kazakhstan, protesters
Kazakhstan on declared a nationwide state of emergency after protests over a fuel price hike erupted into clashes and saw demonstrators storm government buildings. Above, protesters in Almaty on January 5, 2022. Photo by Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

Police were out in force again Thursday, including in the capital of Nur-Sultan, which was reportedly quiet, and Russian troops were on their way.

Russia's Sputnik news service reported that shots were fired as police surrounded one group of about 200 protesters in the city. So far, 2,000 people have been arrested, the Interior Ministry said.

Worries that a broader crackdown could be on the horizon grew after he called on a Russia-led military alliance for help. Severe interruptions to internet service also raised concern and made it difficult—sometimes impossible—for news of what was happening inside Kazakhstan to get out. In other apparent attempts to seal the country off, the airports in Almaty and one other city have also been shut.

The military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said early Thursday that it would send peacekeeper troops to Kazakhstan at Tokayev's request.

The operation is the first military action by the CSTO—an indication that Kazakhstan's neighbors, particularly Russia, are concerned that the unrest could spread.

Russia and Kazakhstan share close relations and a 7600-kilometer (4700-mile) border, much of it along open steppes. Russia's manned space-launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is in Kazakhstan.

The size and duties of the peacekeeping force have not been specified. Russia has already begun sending forces, according to the CSTO, which also includes Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But Kyrgyzstan's presidential spokesman, Erbol Sutanbaev, said his country's contingent must be approved by parliament and said that the troops would not take actions involving demonstrators.

It was not immediately clear if any of the Russian forces had arrived in Kazakhstan.

The unrest is also likely arouse serious concern in China. Kazakhstan shares a 1,800 kilometer (1,000 mile)-long border with China's Xinjiang region, where Beijing has launched an all-out campaign to quash separatist sentiment among Muslim minority groups who share cultural, religious and linguistic links with the peoples of Central Asia.

However, at a daily briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin appeared to dismiss any possibility of China becoming involved in the current crisis, in line with Beijing strict official non-interventionist policy.

"What is happening in Kazakhstan is the country's internal affair (and) we believe that the Kazakh authorities can solve the issue properly," he said.

Tokayev has imposed a two-week state of emergency for the whole country, including an overnight curfew and a ban on religious services. That is a blow to Kazakhstan's sizable Orthodox Christian population who observe Christmas on Friday.

Of the five Central Asian republics that gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is by far the largest and the wealthiest, spanning a territory the size of Western Europe and sitting atop colossal reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium and precious metals. In addition to its long border with Russia, it also shares one with China, and its oil and mineral wealth make it strategically and economically important.

But despite Kazakhstan's natural riches and a solid middle class, financial hardship is widespread, and 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 percent of the seats in parliament.

The protests appear to have no identifiable leader or demands. Much of the anger displayed in recent days was directed not at Tokayev, but at Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's first president who continued to wield enormous influence after his 2019 resignation. Protesters shouted "Shal ket!" ("Old man go"), an apparent reference to Nazarbayev, who dominated Kazakhstan's politics and whose rule was marked by a moderate cult of personality.

At the start of the year, prices for the fuel called liquefied petroleum gas roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls as part of efforts to move to a market economy.

The price cap for LPG announced by the government Thursday is 75 tenge (17 cents) per liter; at the start of the year, the average price was about 120 tenge (27 cents).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Almaty, Kazakhstan, protest, fire
News outlets in Kazakhstan are reporting that demonstrators protesting rising fuel prices broke into the mayor's office in the country's largest city and flames were seen coming from inside. Above, smoke rises from the city hall building during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 5, 2022. Yan Blagov/AP Photo