Protests in Kazakhstan: “It looks like something out of an apocalyptic movie”

Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, looks like something out of an apocalyptic movie.

As he drove early Friday, the smell of burned vehicles was still in the air. There were few people, some were too scared to go outside.

The army and the police blocked key places in the city, which has been the focus of protests against the government in all the country.

When we approached the soldiers in the main square, they yelled at us and fired into the air as a warning, to keep us at a distance.

I have traveled to Almaty for years. It is usually a bustling city, with lots of greenery and places to eat and drink.

Now the shops and banks have been looted or destroyedozatwo. It will take some time for them to recover.

A store looted in Almaty, following a wave of anti-government protests.
One from a store looted in Almaty.

Most of the damage is around the main square, where protesters first attended when the protests began.

The nearest media offices were attacked and the mayor’s office burned down. It is completely black at the moment, after being covered in smoke.

We saw no signs of protests on Friday, just a small group of people gathered near the destroyed buildings taking photos with their phones.

Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC correspondent in Kazakhstan.
Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC correspondent in Kazakhstan.

But we could still hear shots and explosions, which could have been stun grenades. When I arrived, I thought it was foggy and then realized that it was probably smoke from grenades and gunpowder.

Uneven reactions

Several residents were shocked and angry. These protests are unprecedented in Kazakhstan, and many are surprised that they spread and turned violent so quickly.

Some of the people I spoke to were happy to see forces arrive from Russia and other neighboring countries, hoping that they would restore order.

One woman told me that the government should have been stronger from the beginning.

“If they had used force from the beginning, these riots would not have happened,” he said. “Maybe they were concerned about the criticism, about the fact that they used weapons, but now they see what this approach led to.”

In the middle of the anger for violence, there was also sympathy for the protesters. Many of them come from rural areas, where wages are low and life is hard.

“I understand the demands of the protesters,” said a 22-year-old cook.

“We can see that our wages are not increasing and the majority of the population is struggling. But this is now looting and vandalism, ordinary people are suffering now. It must stop, ”he said.

Map Kazakhstan

Almaty residents now face food shortages, with large supermarkets closed. Stores that are open only accept cash, but it is difficult to find a place to withdraw money. There is no Internet and even taking a taxi seems too risky.

Without the internet and with poorly functioning telephones, it is difficult to know what is going on outside the city. All kinds of rumors are spread that are difficult to verify.

A truck drives towards a gate in Almaty.
The authorities managed to control the city again, after protests over the rise in the price of fuel.

General discontent

Kazakhstan has never seen protests of this magnitude. There have been riots before, but most of them concentrated in one location. None of them resulted in an attack on the main airport.

Plans to increase fuel prices triggered these demonstrations, but there is also a widespread discontent with the government.

After the resignation of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who held office from independence until 2019, people expected the new leader, Kasim-Yomart Tokaev, to bring change.

Kazakhstan oil

These expectations were frustrated. The renaming of the capital Astana to Nur-Sultan, in honor of the former leader, was proof to many that the old elite are still in charge.

For now, things are calming down and the authorities seem to be in control.

But even if these protests are over, the discontent will remain. Perhaps there is a spark that fuels new ones.

Fast facts about Kazakhstan

Location: It shares a border with Russia to the north and with China to the east. It is a country the size of Western Europe.

Importance: It is a former ex-Soviet republic whose population is mostly Muslim, but houses a large Russian minority. It has vast mineral deposits, 3% of the world’s oil reserves, and an important copper and gas sector.

The news: The fuel price riots, which have grown into the most widespread anti-government protests yet, have led to resignations at the top of the government and a bloody crackdown on protesters.

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