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Kazakhstan Still Has a Protest Problem

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Kazakhstan Still Has a Protest Problem

The Kazakh state still has the final say in who is allowed to engage in public demonstrations.

Kazakhstan Still Has a Protest Problem
Credit: Depositphotos

In what’s becoming a regular ritual, Kazakh authorities have reportedly pre-emptively warned and detained a number of activists ahead of protests anticipated this weekend. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev went on the offensive on October 21, warning people against participating in “illegal public gatherings” at a parliamentary session; he also criticized mothers who join protests.

The anticipated protests were called for by exiled former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, whose Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party was outlawed as an “extremist group” in March 2018. Another group, the Koshe (Street) party, was banned in 2020, with Kazakh authorities claiming it was associated with DVK. It’s important to point out — as a recent report from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service did — that the determination of both groups being “extremist” is questionable at best. When the court made its determination, no DVK representatives were present. The authorities deemed it appropriate to proceed anyway because DVK was unregistered and therefore had no legal address. The determination was based on a “comprehensive forensic psychological and philological examination” and a “political science analysis” by an unnamed expert. Only government officials and a single “expert” were present. 

Ablyazov is complex figure, to put it simply, and a controversial one. He regularly calls for protests and for a change in Kazakhstan’s government; Nur-Sultan regularly freaks out about it.

In a bit of absurdist theater, in late March 2018 Ablyazov surged his supporters to carry blue balloons during the Nowruz holiday weekend that year. Blue is not only a popular springtime color but also the main color of the Kazakh flag, but that didn’t stop police in the Kazakh capital — then called Astana — from stopping seemingly random citizens with blue balloons. The following year several waves of protests took place. While most of the protest actions took place after the surprise springtime resignation of First President Nursultan Nazarbayev and ascension of Tokayev to the presidency, the year’s first significant protests — in February 2019 — were centered on social issues, particularly poverty and a lack of government support to families, following the death of five children in a fire. The children’s parents were working night shifts at the time of the fire. 

After a tumultuous 2019 came COVID-19. The pandemic provided a rationale for limiting public gatherings, including protests. Meanwhile, Tokayev’s government — which he dubbed a “listening state” — enacted a new protest law in May 2020 advertised as a reform. The draft, and the final law, were sharply criticized by human rights advocates. While on paper it ostensibly flipped what had been an approval process to a notification process for holding demonstrations, in reality authorities could still refuse to grant permission after being notified. At the same time, only legally registered organizations can hold demonstrations. The state maintains power over specifically who is allowed to notify the state about a protest (which the state can still decline to allow).

Tokayev’s recent comments inadvertently underscore this reality.

Per RFE/RL, Tokayev said, “The law on peaceful public gatherings we adopted is an important step for democratization, no matter what people say about it. Nobody is against peaceful gatherings, demonstrations. There is no need to obtain permission for that. Just informing authorities about that is enough. But some people do not follow even that requirement.”

Because DVK and Koshe are unregistered and banned, their supporters cannot engage in the system of notification even if they wanted to. The state still has the final say in who qualifies to engage in public demonstrations and its choices are politically motivated.

Earlier this week, a court in Almaty — Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city — wrapped up a trial of 13 dissidents accused of belonging to DVK and Koshe. Four activists (Askhat Zheksebayev, Kayrat Kylyshev, Abai Begimbetov, and Noyan Rakhimzhanov) received five-year sentences, two were given two years of “restricted freedom,” and the rest received one year of restricted freedom. 

Beyond the political drama of autocrats and exiled oligarchs snipping over control is the reality that Kazakh citizens have concerns about issues like high inflation, which directly affect their everyday lives, but they have few avenues to draw attention to such matters. Tokayev’s comments regarding mothers illustrates a certain degree of dismissiveness: “We must honor mothers in our society. But mothers also must understand they have obligations. Some mothers with many children are disrupting the social order.”

The February 2019 protests mentioned above were led by mothers. Later in 2019, a quartet of mothers, as Joanna Lillis wrote for Eurasianet, “became the faces of dissent” after participating in the country’s May 1 protests. The protests, sparked by the political theater of Nazarbayev’s resignation and Tokayev’s rise to the presidency sans any input from the Kazakh people, coincided with protests called for by, you guessed it, Ablyazov. The mothers escaped prison terms, but were barred from activism for two years.