Crossroads Asia

Protests in Kazakhstan Demonstrate Democratic Dismay

The protest mood looks likely to grow as Kazakhstan approaches snap presidential elections.

Catherine Putz
Protests in Kazakhstan Demonstrate Democratic Dismay
Credit: PIxabay

On May 1, authorities in Kazakhstan arrested 80 people from among the few hundred protesting in Nur-Sultan and Almaty. The protests were ostensibly called for by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive ex-banker and all-around nemesis of the Kazakh political establishment centered on Nursultan Nazarbayev, but tapped into wider grievances.

As the country hurtles toward a snap presidential election set for June 9, small protest actions have fed the gathering of larger crowds, despite arrests.

On April 21, during a marathon in Almaty a pair of activists hung a banner that 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.” The two activists — Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov — were given 15-day jail sentences and three others, who filmed the action, were leveled fines.

If anything, the government’s response only provoked further acts of protest.

On April 29, Roman Zakharov hung a banner from an overpass in Almaty which said “The only source of the state power is the people.” The line is a direct quote from the Kazakh Constitution. Zakharov was arrested and found guilty of “minor hooliganism,” specifically littering.

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These same sentiments were echoed by the crowds on Wednesday in Almaty’s Gorky Park, according to Eurasianet’s Joanna Lillis. Among the slogans shouted in Almaty according to, Lillis’ and RFE/RL’s reports, were cries of “boycott,” “We have a choice!” “Wake up Kazakhs” and “old man out.”

At the heart of this recent wave of protests is the ongoing political transition triggered by Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation on March 19. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became interim president and then soon after called for early elections, in which he’s running as the candidate from Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party.

It’s being called a “political transition” but very little is set to change. Nazarbayev retains significant access to the levers of power, his eldest daughter is now Chair of the Senate (Tokayev’s previous job and constitutionally second-in-line for the presidency) and Tokayev, a long-time Nazarbayev crony, is exceedingly likely to “win” the upcoming election. The other candidates are little-known and it seems unlikely that any will present a genuine challenge, especially given that they’ve only got about a month to go before election day.

Kazakh authorities may be photoshopping away 65-year-old Tokayev’s turkey neck in official photos, but those protesting this week are unlikely to be fooled into thinking he’s a young man. In the same vein: Holding an election in June won’t convince anyone that Kazakhs have a choice in the matter of who runs their country.