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Kazakhs Demand Resignations At Rare Crisis Protest

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

ALMATY (Reuters) -- Kazakh opposition groups demanded the government and parliament's resignation over their handling of an economic crisis at a rare public protest on February 21.

Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy, has been hit hard by the global crisis because of its reliance on foreign borrowing and commodity exports. Economic growth has nearly halted, with some industries and regions in recession.

About 300 people gathered for the state-sanctioned protest at a small square in Kazakhstan's commercial centre Almaty. Protests are rare in Kazakhstan because they are tightly regulated by the state which often denies permission.

Some carried banners saying "Down with the government" and one man with shoulder length hair held a red flag with the portrait of revolutionary Che Guevara.

"To hell with this parliament!" said Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, editor of an opposition newspaper to cheers and applause from the crowd.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev's Nur Otan party took all seats in the lower house in an election in 2007, which was criticized by Western monitors as falling short of democratic standards. Nur Otan also dominates the upper house.

"We must show the authorities that the situation is approaching a critical point," said Ainur Kurmanov, the leader of Socialist Resistance movement.

But speakers stopped short of criticising Nazarbaev, who has run the country for nearly 20 years and instead called on him to sack Prime Minister Karim Masimov.

"I still have hope in Nazarbaev," said Yergaliyeva.

For the first time since the beginning of the decade, unemployment has started to rise while incomes shrink. A credit crunch and the collapse of the construction industry have also led to many people losing their homes or savings.

The government has allocated $21 billion to bail out banks, help key industrial projects and small businesses and sort out the property market problems, but the money has yet to trickle into the wider economy.