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Kazakh protesters storm buildings over fuel prices

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Thousands of protesters have been out in the streets and storming government buildings in cities all across Kazakhstan. And we've just gotten word that protesters have seized the airport in the country's largest city.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling).

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MARTINEZ: The spark for the unrest was soaring gas prices. The crowds are also angry over the lack of political change in the decades since Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union. The president has responded by accepting the resignation of his entire cabinet.

NPR's Charles Maynes is following developments from Moscow and joins us now.

Charles, give us some context for what's going on here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. So Kazakhstan is this vast, oil-rich country that neighbors Russia. And over the weekend, the government doubled prices of liquefied natural gas. This is what Kazakhs used as a cheap gasoline substitute for their cars and for their trucks. You know, and this was happening in the oil-producing areas of Kazakhstan. And this kind of added insult to injury - certainly played to a sense of the sharp income inequality in the country. And on Tuesday, demonstrations that were localized in western Kazakhstan really spread across the country, in particular, to Almaty. This is the country's largest city, where thousands took to the streets. You know, and it's clear as they've stormed public buildings, government buildings, like the presidential administrative building, the mayor's office, the prosecutor's office - they've seized the airport. It's all become clear that this is political anger.

MARTINEZ: So what's been the government's response?

MAYNES: Well, it's made attempts to defuse the situation. They just haven't worked. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted the resignation, as you noted in your intro, of his entire cabinet. And he blamed them for the price hike, which he's since reversed, under his acting cabinet. He declared a state of emergency in cities where there is mass unrest and pleaded with people to go home. That hasn't worked. And now he's taking a more hard-line approach, saying the security forces will regain control.

They've shut down the internet across the country. People I was in touch with this morning are now out of reach. There are certainly reports of at least several hundred people injured, including police, and apparently one fatality among the security forces. But Tokayev also had another interesting move aimed at defusing tensions here. He announced the removal of Kazakhstan's longtime strongman, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the head of the security council. Now, Nazarbayev is seen as the real power in the country and the object of protesters' ire, with protesters chanting, leave, old man, leave, as they storm the streets.

MARTINEZ: So that sounds like it could be a big development.

MAYNES: Well, it is. I mean, Nazarbayev - until he passed power to Tokayev in 2019, he was the sole leader of Kazakhstan throughout its whole post-Soviet history. In fact, he was in charge before in the final years of the Soviet Union. So he's 81 years old now. In passing power off, he tried to maintain a level of control, both through the security council and as an image of the father of the nation. And he's really projected this image of Kazakhstan as this stable and developed country. And certainly in these past few days, that's taking a hit as we've seen a lot of people take to the streets.

MARTINEZ: Charles, you're in Moscow. How's this being processed there?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin is calling for calm. It says it hopes its neighbor can resolve its own internal problems. There seems to be no indication that this shared security pact, which is regionwide, will be - kick into gear. So for now they're staying out of it. But you can believe that events are being closely watched here in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin, who's been in power for 20 years - you know, there's certainly interest in his eventual transit away from power, whenever or however that happens. There's a lot of speculation about that. And Russia has maintained an image of stability that, much like Kazakhstan - it's really Putin's selling point. And so behind it, you know, is a question of, will, you know, Putin's successor...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MAYNES: ...Like Tokayev, fail to maintain control? And we'll watch Kazakhstan. It's not hard for Russians to imagine a similar scenario playing out here.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes.

Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.