Thousands of people returned to the streets across Kazakhstan on Wednesday for a fourth straight day of demonstrations driven by outrage over surging gas prices, in the biggest wave of protests to sweep the oil-rich country for decades.
Anger has been building since Sunday, when Kazakhs began protesting after the government lifted price caps for liquefied petroleum gas — frequently referred to by its initials, L.P.G. — and the cost of the fuel doubled.
Protesters stormed government buildings and captured police vehicles despite a strict state of emergency and government attempts to concede to their demands, including by dismissing the cabinet and announcing the possible dissolution of Parliament, which would result in new elections. Kazakhtelecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, shut off internet access throughout the country on Wednesday afternoon.
Many people in the country of 19 million found the price increase particularly infuriating because Kazakhstan is an exporter of oil and gas. It added to the economic misery in a country where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated severe income inequality.
In the days since, demonstrators have demanded the ouster of the authoritarian political forces that have ruled the country without any substantial opposition since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The developments have plunged Kazakhstan, which had been regarded as politically and economically stable and is at the heart of what President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sees as the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, into chaos and upheaval.
The president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, announced on Wednesday that he was dismissing the prime minister and his entire cabinet, and imposing a strict two-week state of emergency in much of the country.
After these measures failed to appease the protesters, Mr. Tokayev made another televised address, announcing his decision to assume all formal levers of power and promising to “act with maximum toughness.”
Mr. Tokayev said that he now led the country’s Security Council, a role previously occupied by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime leader, who handpicked Mr. Tokayev as his successor.
Mr. Nazarbayev is formally recognized as “leader of the nation,” and the country’s capital was renamed in his honor in 2019 to “Nur Sultan.” He has been regarded by many as the shadow leader of Kazakhstan despite a formal transition of power to Mr. Tokayev.
On Tuesday, Mr. Tokayev dismissed Samat Abish, Mr. Nazarbayev’s nephew, from the position of first deputy head of the country’s national security service.
Speaking about the unrest, Mr. Tokayev said the protests were “highly organized” as part of a “meticulously thought-out plan of conspirators, who were motivated financially.” He said that people had been “killed and wounded” and that “crowds of bandit elements beat and mocked servicemen, took them naked through the streets, abused women, and robbed shops.”
On Tuesday he imposed a state of emergency including an overnight curfew; restrictions on movement, including curbs on entering and leaving Almaty, the country’s biggest city; and a ban on mass gatherings.
The government blocked social networking sites and chat apps including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and, for the first time, the Chinese app WeChat. All public protests without a permit were already illegal.
In spite of the government’s attempts to quell the protests, footage posted online on Wednesday showed thousands of people storming the main government building in Almaty.
News services reported renewed clashes between protesters and the police, who used stun grenades and tear gas to quell the crowd. Protesters also set fire to the prosecutor’s office in Almaty and then headed to the president’s residence.
Smoke billowed from City Hall as the crowd began to disperse. The regional branch of the Nur Otan party, which is without opposition in Parliament, was also set on fire, according to local news media reports, as was the former presidential residence.
According to the Almaty police, more than 500 civilians were beaten and protesters burned 120 cars, including 33 police vehicles, and damaged about 400 businesses. More than 200 have been detained.
The protests began on Sunday in the southwestern oil town of Zhanaozen, where at least 16 oil workers striking for improved working conditions were killed by the police in 2011. The public displays of anger quickly spread across the country.
In Aktau, a city on the Caspian Sea which serves as the country’s main oil and gas processing hub, protesters stormed the Akimat, the local government building. Local activists tried to control the crowd and prevent violence, according to Mukhtar Umbetov, a rights activist who took part in the protest.
The gas price increase was a spark that ignited long-simmering discontent over the past few years over income disparities in the resource-rich country, Mr. Umbetov said.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequality, with rapidly rising prices hitting the poor the hardest, he said. The main problem, however, was more fundamental: The Kazakh government, he said, “has removed all legal ways to participate in politics.”
“People don’t have any political intermediaries who would solve problems that exist in the country,” he said in a phone interview from Aktau. “Kazakhstan is rich, but its natural resources are not working in the interests of all — they work in the interests of a small group of people.”
The income disparity was particularly stinging during the holiday season, he said. Although some Kazakhs went on vacation in Dubai, he said, most had to figure out how to survive on meager salaries.
The average salary in Kazakhstan is the equivalent of $570 a month, according to the local statistics authority. Most people earn only a fraction of that amount, according to Mr. Umbetov, with the average skewed in favor of oil industry workers.
As the protests have unfolded, the demands of the demonstrators have expanded to include a broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders by voters; in the current system, they are directly appointed by the president.
For almost 30 years, Kazakhstan was ruled by Mr. Nazarbayev, a former Communist Party boss, who is now 81.
The ascension of Mr. Tokayev created two centers of power. Mr. Nazarbayev and his family enjoy wide authority, while the new president, even though he is loyal to his predecessor, is trying to carve out a stronger role for himself, disorienting Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and elites. This divide has contributed to the government’s slow reaction to the protesters’ demands, according to Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert in Moscow.
“The government has been slow because it is divided and has no idea what young people in Kazakhstan really want,” Mr. Dubnov said. “On the other hand, the protesters don’t have a leader who would articulate it clearly.”
The countries of the former Soviet Union are watching the protests closely. For Russia, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country.
Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014 after pro-democracy protests erupted there, and the Kremlin offered support to the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko as he violently crushed peaceful protests against his autocratic rule in 2020.
The protests in Kazakhstan represent a warning signal for the Kremlin, Mr. Dubnov said, describing the government in Kazakhstan as “a reduced replica of the Russian one.”
“There is no doubt that the Kremlin would not want to see an example of such a regime beginning to talk to the opposition and conceding to their demands,” he added.
Mr. Putin has been in power for 20 years, and though a 2020 referendum gave him the right to rule until 2036, observers are watching for signs of a managed transition out of power.
Pro-Kremlin media have portrayed the events in Kazakhstan as an organized plot against Russia. Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-government tabloid, referred to the protests as a “dirty trick played on Moscow” ahead of “crucial talks between Russia and the U.S. and NATO” next week. Those discussions will be focused on the crisis in Ukraine, where there are fears of a renewed Russian invasion.