After the arrest and detention of two activists, guilty of having disturbed a sporting event with a banner, youth groups decided to assemble and conduct a discussion about the upcoming presidential elections and their freedoms. The event, organized in Almaty, had to switch locations because SmArt.Point, the tech hub chosen as the original venue, cited unexpected repairs and denied their availability. The Artishok Theater company then took it upon themselves to host the event. Anastasia Tarassova, a representative of Artishok, said she worried that the government could retaliate against the theater for hosting the event. Indeed, representatives of both police and the local administration were alerted and some plain-clothed members of the security service appeared among the crowd.
“We hoped you would introduce yourselves, but you chose not to. We want a dialogue with the administration and law enforcement, but you decided to come ‘unofficially.’ We can still see you,” Tarassova said, asking attendees to participate peacefully in the discussion.
Minutes before the start of the event in Almaty, the ruling Nur Otan party unanimously nominated interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as their candidate for the upcoming June 9 snap elections. The decision made at the party assembly in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, under the leadership of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, saw party members essentially agreeing that Tokayev will be the next president. At previous elections, other parties only won single-digit, marginal percentages of the vote. The fact that Nazarbayev named Tokayev as “the best suited candidate” was the ultimate seal of approval.
Rumors in the diplomatic community alleged that the election watchdog branch of the OSCE could not monitor the vote on June 9, given the chronic disrespect of democratic election standards in the country.
As political analyst Dosym Satpayev explained during the discussion in Almaty, the choice has already been made.
“When we go to vote we will have in front of us a fake choice between pro-power candidates. Elections will not give us a choice,” Satpayev said, playing with the word vybor’ which has the double meaning of ”election” and “choice” in Russian.
A free choice and a fair election was also what Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov called for with the banner they displayed during the Almaty Marathon on April 21. Police arrested them and a couple more activists that were with them. Tulesova and Tolymbekov were tried the following day and sentenced to 15 days in jail. In court, the judge asked Tulesova whether the message “You can’t run away from the truth” that their banner showed was political, to which she responded that they stand for common-sense issues, such as clean air, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, “such basic, simple things — they are all political.” When asked about the meaning of the other message, a hashtag saying “I have a choice,” Tulesova said: “Well, ‘I have a choice’ means exactly what it says. We have a choice.”
The messages in the banner were previously grossly misrepresented by the police in their original report on the arrests. The police chief said that the mischaracterization of the messages as a direct insult to the Leader of the Nation — a crime according to the law — was a “technical glitch” and that the banner indeed did not show any sign of disrespect towards Nazarbayev. The courtroom, filled with supporters of Tulesova and Tolymbekov burst into laughter, with someone shouting “shame!” to the law enforcement officer.
After the sentencing and the denial of an immediate appeal, petitioned by the lawyers, youth groups decided to support the cause of Tulesova and Tolymbekov and called for a meeting with other members of the civil society.
The meeting in Artishok was well coordinated, despite the early difficulties in finding a venue. Around 200 people crowded the stands, while dozens of others could not enter due to safety restrictions. Hundreds followed the event online through several live-streaming channels. Interestingly, attendees were on average much younger than during other political discussions held in Almaty, a sign that both the arrests and the nominal end of the Nazarbayev era could have awakened a drive for participation among Kazakhstan’s population.
Critics of the event, both inside the venue and online, said that this is the typical ensemble of central Almaty elite that routinely comes together, accusing the rest of Kazakhstan of staying idle.
An example of the social media- and Almaty-centric attitude was Satpayev’s proposal of having “alternative elections.”
“I will vote against everyone. We should instead run alternative elections online. Obviously they won’t be legally binding, but they will show us who’s the real leader of the country,” Satpayev said.
The Russian-speaking Almaty elite that usually debates on social media often seems to forget that it only represents a minority of the population.
When asked to paint a portrait of her ideal leader, artist Suinbike Suleimenova, who was fined around $100 for her affiliation with the Marathon Flashmob, shouted: “Asya Tulesova!” a name that was met with a loud applause by the attendees of the meeting. Their case, said lawyer Zhanar Balgabayeva, will be brought to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, because of several violations of due process.
In an effort to show alternative histories for Kazakhstan’s future, political analyst Dimash Alzhanov said that power transition must be accompanied by legal reform for it to be effective. He then listed examples of other neighboring countries that underwent power transition through uprisings, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, adding that he believed a peaceful transition is always possible.
Suleimenova replied that Kazakhstan should learn from these examples and go beyond.
“We can look at other examples around us, but only as historical events. While they remain interesting experiences, we have to create our own future,” the artist said.
A 20-year-old audience member said that he is unwilling to wait another decade before Kazakhstan’s future can be changed.
Yet, the Nur Otan meeting in Nur-Sultan demonstrated that the status quo will be maintained. Tokayev will win a landslide of votes in June and inherit Nazarbayev’s legitimation as the country’s leader. With Nazarbayev in the background, ensuring that elites, foreign companies, and neighboring governments continue their activities undisturbed, Tokayev will only have to run the country in a business-as-usual scenario.
With the arrests after the Marathon Flashmob, the government showed its strong arm, which will continue to deny free speech in the country. The strong support for the activists showed that, while little has changed at the top, the youth has begun to show dissatisfaction and wants change.