Crossroads Asia

New Civic Movement Urges Kazakhstan to ‘Wake Up’

Days before presidential elections, a new movement in Kazakhstan calls on citizens to wake up and demand more say in government.

Colleen Wood
New Civic Movement Urges Kazakhstan to ‘Wake Up’
Credit: Freestock.ca

“We are Qazaqstanis, people of freedom who define their future for themselves.” So begins the manifesto “Wake Up, Kazakhstan” (“Oyan, Qazaqstan” in Kazakh) for the similarly named civic movement that was officially launched in Almaty on June 5, just days before the country’s presidential elections.

“Oyan, Qazaqstan” derives its name from a recent viral video posted by actor Anuar Nurpeisov on May 27. The video begins with a blank screen displaying only “#IWokeUp” (#MenOyandym in Kazakh) and features Nurpeisov and other young artist-activists.

Nurpeisov is the first to speak; he says, “I woke up in a country that changed the name of its capital in just a day without consulting its citizens.” Others — including singer Ainur Niyazova, Asya Tulesova, and artist Suinbike Suleimenova — address the lack of political freedoms, frequent internet shutdowns, biased courts, and ecological catastrophe.

It did not take long for a mirror video to emerge, reflecting a very different tone. Those featured in the second video borrow the language of the Nurpeisov’s clip but focus on more positive — if not completely banal — elements of social and political life in Kazakhstan.

“I wake up in a country to the sound of bird songs, not to the sound of explosions,” says the first woman to appear in the video. “I wake up in a country where every one of us can get an education for free,” says another. After mentioning the Balashak program and Kazakhstan’s very strong security forces, those in this alternate universe video also call on viewers to emerge from their slumber.

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The condescending undertones are impossible to miss: “Just wake up and don’t forget to say thank you,” one young woman says. Another sneers, “Just wake up and grow up!”

Popular YouTube blogger Murat Daniyar, who appeared in Nurpeisov’s video, took offense at the  second clip’s content more than its tone. In a May 30 video, he discredited the copycat video’s creators as “Nurbots,” referencing the regime’s strategy of co-opting popular memes and platforms to promote the official line. Daniyar derided the strawman argumentation: “This is an absolute disgrace, why don’t you respect the people of Kazakhstan and their intelligence, my friends?”

Daniyar is careful to explain that those who appear in the #MenOyandym video are not after revolution: “We don’t want any blood on the ground, of course. We aren’t stupid.”

This rhetorical distancing from revolution and political change carried over to the press conference for Oyan, Qazaqstan. Each of those on the round table was careful to hedge their position, speaking in terms of civic duty rather than politics.

“We aren’t fighting for power,” said economist Kasymkhan Kapparov. “We are not cooperating with a single political party of movement, either in Kazakhstan or abroad.”

The manifesto announced on June 5 in Almaty makes nine specific demands, including an end to political repression, reforming the distribution of power between the branches of government, free elections in line with international standards, and a system of self-governance at the local level.

None of the points in the manifesto are particularly surprising, though prospects for successful reform in any of the nine spheres seems unlikely given the challenge presented by the fusion of political, economic, and coercive power in the executive branch.

Interestingly, the organizers said they are not planning to officially register “Oyan, Qazaqstan.” Journalist Asem Japisheva said this is because they “believe that civil society is not registered.” While this belief may be valid, it does open up “Oyan, Qazaqstan” to additional scrutiny and possible repression. In the past, authorities have targeted critics who have not jumped through hoops to meet bureaucratic standards, often specifically citing that activists and politicians were not properly registered as a rationale for closing them down.

On June 9, Kazakhstan will elect a new president. Most experts anticipate that these elections will be neither free nor fair. Regardless of whether interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev receives 72 percent of the vote or 90 percent on Sunday, it seems unlikely that these activists — and the hundreds of thousands of people who have watched their videos on Instagram and YouTube — will go back to sleep any time soon.

“We have not forgotten what it means to be a citizen,” activist Leila Makhmudova and member of the “Oyan, Qazaqstan” movement said on June 5. “This is despite trying for 30 years to make us forget what it means to be a citizen of our own country.”