Crossroads Asia

Arrests in Kazakhstan as Planned Weekend Protests Approach

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Crossroads Asia

Arrests in Kazakhstan as Planned Weekend Protests Approach

Astana has detained a dozen activists and rejected applications to protests on May 21.

Arrests in Kazakhstan as Planned Weekend Protests Approach
Credit: Anna Omelchenko /

As the weekend looms, eyes will be on Kazakhstan where activists have been calling for nationwide protests against land privatization plans. Although the government punted the offending issue into 2017–the implementation of changes to the Land Code that would see some public lands auctioned–tensions remain. Kazakh authorities have detained a dozen activists in an attempt to forestall the planned Saturday protests.

Unsanctioned protests began in late April, pulling public discontent into view. The protests persisted for more than a week, popping up in several cities around the country. While the initial motivation for the protests was the rumor that the Land Code changes would allow foreigners–particularly the Chinese–to purchase Kazakh land outright (which is not true); the movement has been subsequently fueled by discussions regarding transparency, accountability, and the right to assemble.

Initially, President Nursultan Nazarbayev responded dismissively to the protests, vowing to “punish provocateurs” and pledging that “those who spread false information, saying that the land will be sold to foreigners, must be apprehended and punished.” He also evoked the specter of a Ukraine in calling for unity. Reuters reported that while speaking at an event in Almaty on May 1 (Unity Day) he said “Ukraine, the second-biggest ex-Soviet state, today has an economy which is half the size of Kazakhstan’s… Because there is no unity, no sense of purpose, no tasks are being solved, (people) are busy with other things: fighting, killing, brawling.”

Although the government changed its tune–sacking two ministers, suspending the planned land auctions, launching a commission to manage information (with a new website dedicated to land issues)–the damage was already done. As Bruce Pannier for RFE/RL reports, a Kazakh television channel (partly owned by Russia’s First Channel) has featured some questionable reporting:

The host of the channel’s Analitika program, Aymira Shaukentaeva, has [the protests] all figured out: it’s a foreign plot…

… Shaukentaeva and Analitika have been leading the charge since late April, accusing demonstration organizers of paying people $50 to $150 to attend protests. She also accused foreign forces creating a “fifth column,” once mentioning these problems were being created by someone “across the ocean.” Shaukentaeva has not offered much in the way of proof.

Pannier goes on to say that a recent program featured a 25-second video (it’s a series of edited clips at that) alleging to show Kazakhs being paid (in dollars) to protest. The video is nothing but arms, legs, and closeups of $100 bills hanging from a pocket and changing hands. Hardly convincing evidence, but nonetheless the hosts proclaim it “sensational, a bomb.”

A Kazakh lawyer is reportedly suing the channel for “lies discrediting Kazakhs.”

The Kazakh government was applauded for its decision to stall the implementation of the Land Code changes. In the eyes of the Kazakh authorities, the issue has been settled.

The Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, in an op-ed published by The Diplomat, argues “what the controversy has shown is how democracy in Kazakhstan is maturing. Citizens have the right of protest as is guaranteed under our Constitution, provided it is peaceful and organized, as in other countries, in accordance with the law. The authorities listen and respond to public concerns.”

The (on paper) right to assemble and the (in reality) ability to do so are in conflict in Kazakhstan. As Human Rights Watch notes a dozen civil society activists have been preemptively arrested or harassed as the weekend approaches:

Wanting to keep pressure on the government, activists in at least half a dozen cities, including Astana, the capital, applied for permission to hold protests on May 21. Despite their efforts to abide by a highly restrictive public assembly law, activists posted on Facebook that city administrations had denied their requests.

Instead, the authorities rounded up and jailed activists and others who had been outspoken on the land reform issue, including those who had sought permission to protest, activists and news reports said.

Governments around the world have to deal with public discontent, which sometimes falls outside the neat lines of law. In Kazakhstan, public protests have been rare and are seldom approved, regardless of the issue at hand. In the past, public protests have led to violence on the part of the state and some worry that this weekend could turn ugly.