Over the weekend, Kazakh authorities allowed a rally in support of Ukraine in the country’s largest city, Almaty, two months after domestic protests devolved into violence in the same city. According to AFP and RFE/RL reports, the rally was attended by more than 2,000 people, who chanted anti-war slogans and insults aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Large protests and rallies are not typically tolerated by Kazakh authorities. Despite efforts in recent years to “reform” the country’s protest laws, many attempts to hold rallies for various reasons are denied permission. The allowing of a rally in support of Ukraine contrasts sharply with the lack of permission granted last month for a rally to commemorate the victims of the January unrest in Kazakhstan. Activists and journalists who participating in February’s rally have faced fines and detention, illustrating a sharp line between Nur-Sultan’s sensitivities when it comes to domestic versus foreign policy issues.
On March 2, Kazakh activist and journalist Aigerim Tleuzhanova was sentenced to 15 days in jail for participating in last month’s unsanctioned rally. Marat Turymbetov, an activist, and Bolat Abilov, a businessman, were fined 150,000 tenge ($312) each for organizing the protest.
In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s government has tried to maintain a neutral position. As Aliya Askar writes today in The Diplomat, “Whether Kazakhstan agrees broadly or not at all with Putin and his policies, the country is in no position to either openly support or condemn Russia.”
Kazakh citizens (as well as people across Central Asia) have a broader swing of opinions, as Joanna Lillis and Ayzirek Imanaliyeva noted in an article for Eurasianet:
There is no reliable polling in Kazakhstan on how public opinion views the war, but there are plenty of supporters of Russia as well as opponents.
The most immediate visual reminder of that these days are the “Z” signs some motorists have affixed to their cars to signal their support for Russia. That is the same letter that invading Russian troops have painted on the side of their armed vehicles.
Both Kazakh and Kyrgyz authorities have reportedly fined drivers with “Z” stickers. The authorities say that such stickers violate existing rules that apply to other stickers, too, but the policing of such stickers is interesting to note.
As the war in Ukraine continues, pressure on Kazakhstan, both political and economic, will intensify. Russia is one of Kazakhstan’s most significant trade partners. The two are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which may open Kazakhstan up to sanctions if Western politicians decide to go after Russia’s partners next. The damage done to the Russian ruble by sanctions has already put pressure on Central Asian currencies. The longer the war goes on, the heavier the costs will be.
On the political end, diplomatic offers to mediate, as evidenced by Tokayev’s back-to-back calls with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week, may or may not have an impact but typify Nur-Sultan’s response to crises elsewhere. As difficult as the foreign policy dance may be for Kazakhstan, the domestic political arena is even more fraught with risk.