Protesters pull down statue of ex-leader in Kazakhstan’s largest rallies since fall of Soviet Union

Protesters in Kazakhstan fought street battles with police, stormed government buildings and pulled down a statue of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the self-styled Father of the Nation, in what was essentially an overthrow of the country’s unloved elite.

Unconfirmed reports also said that Russian military planes had landed in Kazakhstan to rescue the 81-year-old Mr Nazarbayev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Russian media said needed to leave the country for "urgent medical treatment".

Analysts added that several private jets had taken off from Nur-Sultan, the capital, flying ministers and oligarchs to safety in Europe.

Statue of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev with ropes attached in Taldykorgan, the capital of the Almaty region,

Credit: Twitter

As the Kazakh government lost control to protesters throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, it shut down the internet but some videos still emerged showing chaotic scenes. 

One showed demonstrators breaking into and setting fire to the Soviet-built mayor’s office in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and several other government buildings. Another showed scared police and army conscripts surrendering to protesters. A third video showed protesters looping rope around a statue of Mr Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, a regional town, as they began to tear it down. "Down with the old man!" the protesters shouted.

Later reports said that police had fired rubber bullets at protesters, who have also taken control of the country’s biggest international airport outside Almaty.

The protests began on January 1 with the sudden doubling of the price of car fuel in West Kazakhstan, the rebellious oil and gas heartland, a price spike linked to a relaxation of government subsidies for gas. 

These protests spread, taking the elite and the authorities by surprise. They had always assumed that the vast distances between cities and towns in Kazakhstan would stop the spread of anti-government protests, a theory that appeared to have been borne out in 2011 when demonstrations failed to spark across the country even after police shot dead 15 protesters in West Kazakhstan. 

A burnt car is seen by the mayors office on fire. Protests are spreading across Kazakhstan over the rising fuel prices

Credit: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

But analysts said that the Kazakh elite, and particularly Mr Nazarbayev, have been blinded by their hubris.

Although Kazakhstan’s economy has grown steadily since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and its cities now boast grandiose opera houses and tall office blocks designed by international architects, real living standards for ordinary people have stagnated. Joblessness and inflation are rising, rules imposed to counter the spread of the coronavirus have been harsh, the healthcare system is near-broken and political plurality is skin-deep.

Riot police prepare to block protesters in the centre of Almaty, Kazakhstan on Wednesday


Protesters now storming the main government building in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty.

— Patrick Reevell (@Reevellp) January 5, 2022

In one video shot from West Kazakhstan, a worker explained why he was demonstrating against the government.

"I have been living with nothing. I don’t want to live like a slave for any longer," he said.

This frustration at the elite has built up in Kazakhstan and has been increasingly easy to find on trips across the country over the past few years. It is also the same complaints that keep on emerging, mainly how the elite have become wealthy by stealing state assets and how they flaunt this wealth. 

In short the elite are accused of being more interested in gold-plating their international reputations, contacts and influence than they have been in raising living standards for ordinary Kazakhs.

And at the top of this political system is Mr Nazarbayev, who hired former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair as an adviser for several years from 2011 and whose son-in-law paid Prince Andrew an inflated price for a mansion in Berkshire in 2007. Sir Tony even featured in a promotional PR video in 2020 for Mr Nazarbayev, praising his leadership and vision and saying that Kazakhstan could look forward to its future with "confidence". 

In a TV address to the nation on Wednesday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, handpicked by Mr Nazarbayev as his successor in 2019, said that the government had resigned but that he would remain in Kazakhstan. He said that he wanted to protect ordinary Kazakhs and called protesters "hooligans".

Demonstrators denouncing the doubling of prices for liquefied gas have clashed with police in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty

Credit: AP

"Together we will overcome this black episode in the history of Kazakhstan. We will emerge from this moment stronger," he said. It later emerged that Mr Tokayev had appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organiszation – a military alliance of former Soviet states – for assistance in overcoming the “terrorist threat”. It is unlikely the group will intervene directly.

Mr Tokayev also said that Mr Nazarbayev had quit as head of the National Security Council. 

The significance of this resignation for Kazakhstan is difficult to overstate.

A view shows a burning police car during a protest against LPG cost rise following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty


Although no longer the President, Mr Nazarbayev was still considered the real power in Kazakhstan. He met with foreign leaders and he had the first and last word over foreign and domestic policies. Essentially he liked to think that he had masterminded modern Kazakhstan’s stability and economic growth and he encouraged a cult of personality to sprout up that saluted him as the "First President" and "Father of the Nation". 

When he quit as president in 2019 Kazakhstan’s capital was renamed Nur-Sultan, statues of Mr Nazarbayev stood across the country and his portrait and slogans dotted government buildings. These are now being torn down.

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