NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says an "unacceptable gap" between rich and poor led to deadly anti-government protests that shook the Central Asian country earlier in January.
Talking to representatives of the oil-rich nation's leading businesses on January 21, Toqaev said "real reforms" and "deep transformation of the social structures" are needed to address problems brought up by some of the protesters.
"The gap between the declared social economic agenda and the real situation reached a critical mass and what we need now is a full reset of our economic politics," Toqaev stated.
"With corruption that is well-known, the differences in incomes played the role of an ignited match near a gunpowder barrel, and the situation was used by terrorists, armed individuals, and the masterminds behind them," Toqaev said, adding that he has "already made difficult decisions and will make such decisions in the future."
Protests in the remote town of Zhanaozen in early January over a sudden fuel price hike quickly spread across Kazakhstan and led to violent clashes in the country's largest city, Almaty, and elsewhere.
Much of the protesters' anger appeared directed at Toqaev's predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 before handing over power. However, he was widely believed to remain in control behind the scenes.
In the wake of the protests, Toqaev claimed that Almaty was attacked by "20,000 terrorists," issued a shoot-to-kill-without-warning order, and invited troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to enter the country. No officials have given direct evidence of any "terrorists" being involved in the unrest, nor have they commented on what exactly their demands were.
In his first-ever public criticism of Nazarbaev, Toqaev said last week that, under his predecessor's leadership, many lucrative businesses and extremely rich people had appeared in Kazakhstan and that it was now time for ordinary people to receive what they deserved.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Nazarbaev's close relatives have lost their official posts, suggesting that the government was moving to purge or squeeze members of the ex-president's extended family. One of Nazarbaev's closest associates, the chief of the country's Committee for National Security, Karim Masimov, and his two deputies were arrested on charges of high treason.
Kazakh authorities say that 227 people were killed during the unrest, including 19 law enforcement officers, and that 12,000 were detained.
Human rights groups say the number may be much higher and that scores of people remain missing, adding that people who had nothing to do with the protests were shot dead or arrested.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement on January 20 demanding that the Kazakh authorities "stop jailing and summoning for questioning journalists who covered the recent nationwide protests, and allow the press to work freely."