In about an hour on Monday, Kazakhs online crowdfunded enough money to cover the fines leveled by a court in Almaty against three activists who filmed an unauthorized demonstration, according to local media. On Sunday, during a marathon in Almaty several activists hung a banner which read “You cannot run from the truth” in Russian, followed by hashtags reading in Kazakh “For Fair Elections” and in Russian, “I have a choice.” Flyers with the same sentiment reportedly appeared on posts in Almaty as well, stamped with a question mark, the date of the upcoming snap presidential election (June 9), and a question — “Do we have a choice?”
On the evening of April 21, two activists — Asiya (Asya) Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov — were found guilty of holding an unauthorized demonstration and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Adamar/CA published an abridged translation of Tulesova’s statement in court and exchange with the judge and prosecutor. It’s a remarkable read:
Prosecutor: All right, but what does the content on the outer portion of the banner mean?
Tulesova: “I have a choice”? “I have a choice” means that I have a choice. I want people to realize that we need to learn how to build democratic institutions which really work. We need a good President who will be held accountable to the population, and who will also take care of the quality of life of their own people.
(Read the rest here.)
After Tulesova and Tolymbekov were sentenced, the courtroom audience chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
On April 23, Nur Otan — Kazakhstan’s largest political party, headed by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev — is expected to name its nominee for president. Given the state of opposition politics in Kazakhstan, the assumption is that whomever Nur Otan nominates will go on to win in the June 9 election.
Tulesova has featured previously in Kazakh civil society as an environmental activist, as has artist Suinbike Suleimenova, one of the three fined for filming the holding of the banner. Environmental activism in Kazakhstan has provided an alternative space for agitation, separate from traditional oppositional politics. So, too, have protests sparked by social issues and public tragedies.
In the last few months it hasn’t been grand politics — or the machinations of exiled politicos — that brought Kazakhs to the streets. Instead, the issues that have sparked the largest outcries were the murder of Denis Ten, a Kazakh figure skater stabbed to death in Almaty last year when he tried to stop two men from steal the mirrors off his car and the deaths of five children in a fire in Astana in February, when their parents were away working night shifts. The changing of the capital’s name last month also sparked protests. When viewed together, the picture that emerges should trouble Nur-Sultan. Kazakhs, especially a well-educated, booming Kazakh youth population, want to find avenues to influence their government and they are brimming with ideas on how to improve the lives of their countrymen. If Nur-Sultan won’t let them in the front door — via elections — then they look likely to continue to knock at the backdoor until someone listens, regardless of the cost.