CNN  — 

For drivers in western Kazakhstan, it was not a happy new year when January 1 brought a doubling in the price of liquid petroleum gas.

Only a few dozen people took to the streets in the city of Zhanaozen to protest, but within three days their anger was echoed by people across the vast resource-rich central Asian state, fed up with everything from unemployment and inflation to corruption.

The security forces had the upper hand to begin with, vastly outnumbering those who braved arrest and sub-zero temperatures to protest. But by January 4, spontaneous unrest had engulfed Almaty, the largest city in this authoritarian former Soviet state. The government’s promises to roll back the price increase and offer other economic support were too little and too late.

Now President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who took office in 2019, faces the choice of offering real political dialogue or opting for repression.

Tokayev appears to have been caught off-guard by the rapid spread of the protests. On January 2 he tweeted that “citizens have the right to make public demands to local and central authorities, but this must be done in accordance with the law.” Later he said that “demonstrators must be responsible and ready for dialogue,” and promised that a commission would “find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem that has arisen in the interests of stability.”

But the