May 31 in Kazakhstan is a Memorial Day for Victims of Political Repression and the 1930-33 famine that killed an estimated 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan. On Twitter, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wrote, “The crimes of totalitarianism have left a deep mark on the self-consciousness of our people. It is important to continue the study of these dark pages of history, restoring justice to all the innocent victims.”
He went on to say that it was the “duty” of all to “learn the terrible lessons of the past and do everything possible so that such events do not happen again in the future.”
Meanwhile, in Shymkent relatives of those killed in the city during the events of January 2022 — known as Bloody January or Qandy Qantar in Kazakh — gathered in the square outside the akimat building, where the local government is housed. RFE/RL reported that there were no apparent police in the square as the small group laid flowers and carried pictures of their loved ones.
Murat Abdraimov, father of Nurbolat Alpamys — a young man killed in January 2022 in the city — said, “During the January events, our children died on this square. That’s why we come here and remember.” The group, RFE/RL reported, characterized their loved ones as the “victims of politics” and said that they planned to memorialize them on May 31 until Qandy Qantar had is own day of remembrance.
Twenty people were killed in Shymkent during the January events.
For Tokayev, political repression is a thing of the past — the “dark pages of history” are old parchment now. For others, repression is not so distant a memory.
In Almaty, activists canceled a march planned for May 31 after police detained a few activists preemptively and other barriers cropped up. RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service minced no words in reporting that on May 30 the Almaty prosecutor’s office had warned citizens against participating in “unauthorized rallies.”
“This is a kind of tradition,” RFE/RL wrote, “on the eve of possible opposition rallies, prosecutors remind about the administrative responsibility for taking to the streets without the permission of local authorities.”
Despite heavily advertised “reforms” to Kazakhstan’s protest regulations in 2020, the system remains tightly controlled by government authorities.
Nurlan Amrekulov, chairman of the May 31 Committee who was trying to organize a rally in Almaty, called it off after at least one other member of the committee, journalist Anar Akkozy, was briefly detained by police. He also said that other activists were blocked from leaving their homes by police.
Nevertheless, some still gathered. Inga Imanbay, an activist and the wife of Zhanbolat Mamai — leader of the unregistered Democratic Party who spent most of 2022 in detention — made a connection Tokayev missed with his tweets: “Today is not only a day to remember the past, but also a day when we need to talk about today’s political repressions and demand freedom for the victims of the current victims of this persecution.”
Unlike in Shymkent, reporters noticed heightened police presence in Almaty. Tokayev was coincidentally in Almaty on May 31 to visit a “Center for the Study of Materials of Political Repressions of the 20th Century.” The president’s presence explains some heightened security, but in refusing to recognize contemporary political repression, Kazakh authorities are perhaps missing the most important lessons the past has to teach them.