But analysts said that frustration at the political elite in Kazakhstan has been building for years. People accuse this elite of secretly owning many of the country’s main economic assets and of being more interested in buffing their international image by hiring the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a consultant.
“The roots of the protests are much deeper and systematic,” Dr Diana Kudaibergenova, a sociologist lecturer at Cambridge University wrote on Twitter. “People in their own words are simply tired of the regime that doesn’t hear them and their claims.”
The government has now resigned and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has promised wider reforms but he has also imposed a State of Emergency until January 19 in Almaty and West Kazakhstan which gives the authorities wide-ranging, and some would say draconian, powers.
In a televised statement to the nation on Wednesday, Mr Tokayev said that “we intend to act with maximum severity regarding law-breakers.” Mr Tokayev said police have died in clashes with demonstrators, but there were no immediate casualty figures for police or civilians.
The unrest in the former Soviet republic likely to alarm Russia, which is sensitive against anti-government protests in neighbouring countries that it considers its zone of influence.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that Kazakhstan could solve its own problems and it was important that no one interfered from the outside, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.
He said Kazakhstan had not requested Russian help to deal with the protests.
Russia’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation and counting on “the soonest possible normalisation.”
Some pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia referred to the uprising as a “Maidan”, a reference to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 which the Russian government claims was a western-orchestrated coup.
While Central Asia has a reputation for upheaval, Kazakhstan had been considered relatively stable. Its economy has grown steadily and it has all the trappings of a young and ambitious country, such as a reasonable tally of Olympic gold medals and a new capital city filled with grandiose opera houses and tall office blocks designed by international architects.
But 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.
Reports now say that tense calm has descended on Kazakh cities. Some activists, and thousands of police, are on the streets but most people are staying at home and businesses have cancelled work.