Presidential Palace in Kazakhstan Burns as Protesters Get Violent Over Rising Fuel Prices

Flames surrounded the presidential residence in Almaty, Kazakhstan Wednesday as reportedly armed protesters demonstrated against a nearly doubling of fuel prices and showed disapproval for the country's ruling party.

Kazakh media reported the protesters were armed with clubs and shields as they descended on the city hall building, which includes the mayor's office.

Netblocks reported Kazakhstan was experiencing an internet blackout, but Russia's Tass news agency continued to report on the situation. According to Tass, the city hall building also caught fire during the demonstrations.

Though the protests have no clear leader or demands, the motivation likely stems from the recent increased price in liquefied gas. Some have also shown dissatisfaction with the ruling party, which has been in power since Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In response to the protests, the government announced its resignation, though President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the ministers would keep their positions until a new cabinet forms.

In a Wednesday statement to the country, Tokayev said he would make political reforms and that he would lead the national security council. He also warned that the government would crack down on violent protesters, saying "we intend to act with maximum severity regarding law-breakers."

Following through with this crackdown, police have been hitting protestors with water cannons, tear gas and concussion grenades.

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. Here, smoke rises from the city hall building during a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 5. Yan Blagov/AP Photo

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.

Although the protests began over a near-doubling of prices for 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.

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 liquefied gas roughly doubled as the government moved away from price controls. Although Kazakhstan has extensive gas and oil 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 percent of the seats in parliament.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.