Kazakhstan protestors topple statue of former leader as unrest sweeps the country

A sharp fuel price hike triggered widespread demonstrations in the former Soviet republic with artists calling for a stop to the violence

The monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakhstan first president was brought down by protestors Image: Liveumap/Twitter

The monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakhstan first president was brought down by protestors Image: Liveumap/Twitter

Protests fuelled by anger over a sharp fuel price hike and acute corruption have spread in recent days across Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that is larger than Western Europe. Crowds on Wednesday raided government buildings and toppled and smashed a monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocrat who ruled the oil-rich country since 1990.

Artists, some of whom are participating in the demonstrations, voiced fears on social media before the internet went down under a government-imposed blackout as a two-week state of emergency took effect.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has been regarded as his handpicked successor, with Nazarbayev holding the post of “national leader,” on Wednesday requested peacekeeping troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s version of Nato. Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who cracked down on protesters against his rule in 2020 and has imprisoned numerous artists and cultural figures, expressed particular enthusiasm at the request. The alliance said it would send troops “for a limited time period.”

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Suinbike Suleimenova, a feminist activist video artist, wrote:

“Now it is important to stop violence, all kinds of manipulations, time to think about what to do next? What reforms do we really need? The worst thing that can happen now is the transfer / seizure of power from one thieving regime to another. It is important for us to preserve our independence, our statehood!”

Timur Aktaev, the former curator of the Astana Art Fest, wrote that “the main thing is not to allow Islamization.”

Zoya Falkova, a feminist artist who is currently visiting India and was therefore able to respond via Facebook Messenger on Thursday to a query from The Art Newspaper said: “We do not need [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and his political system in Kazakhstan. I would not like to be one of those he can use as an excuse to attack my country,” since some might identify her as ethnically Russian although she does not identify as such.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it regarded the events in Kazakhstan as “an externally inspired attempt to undermine the security and integrity of the state by force, using trained and organised armed formations.”

Kazakhstan is strategically situated between Russia and China. Kazakhs, a Turkic ethnic group, are Muslim, but the country also has a large ethnic Russian minority, especially in the north, near the Russian border. For years there have been concerns that Russia could potentially lay claim to that territory as a part of Siberia.

One of the showcase projects of Nazarbayev’s rule was the construction of a glitzy new capital, Astana, close to the Russian border. The former capital, Almaty, was closer to China. Both cities have been engulfed by protests.

Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019 in honor of Nazarbayev after he resigned as president. Under his rule it was transformed from a dusty steppe rail juncture into an eerie collection of buildings by international star architects, including Norman Foster, who designed the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center and a 62-meter high pyramid known as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

There were also attempts at grand contemporary art projects, including Expo 2017 in Astana, and aborted attempts to launch an inaugural Kazakhstan pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and tour contemporary Kazakh art internationally that resulted in financial scandal.

In 2018, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art helped launch Tselinny, a contemporary art center in Almaty funded by an oil and property magnate connected to Nazarbayev’s family.