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Post-Election Kazakhstan. How Authorities Respond to Protests?

According to experts, the old social contract between the authorities and the people has run out.


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Detention of protesters in Almaty. Photo: Reuters. Courtesy of rus.azattyq.org

The incumbent head of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev was inaugurated on June 12 after winning polls. However, protesters keep protesting in major cities of the country; the authorities arrest activists and block messengers and restrict access to the internet.

The first in the history of independent Kazakhstan shift in power is not going smooth. The final coming to power of a hand-picked successor of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tokayev, after the June 9 election didn’t stop the wave of protests among people. According to the interior ministry, over 500 people participating in peaceful protests were detained that day.

Political analysts said the country has a vacant opposition area and not a single leader. However, there are a few groups discontented with the existing situation and longing for changes. The protesters can be conditionally divided into 3 groups: the youth movement “Oyan Qazaqstan”, which calls on the people to exhibit civil activity, the followers of opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov, and those who long for changes and who don’t belong to any of these groups. There are also the followers of the disgraced businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, whose organisation is recognised as extremist one, and who is in exile abroad. Blocking of social media often coincides in time with his lives, and police enforcements coincide with his calls to protest.

Also, it was for the first time in the history of Kazakhstan that ordinary citizens took part in the election as observers. By results of election, Tokayev won by a wide margin with 70 per cent of votes, and his rival Amirzhan Kosanov won just over 16 per cent of votes.

See also: What Kazakhstan Will Be like After Presidential Election?

What are consolidating and dividing factors for the opposition?

Young activists of the “Oyan Qazaqstan” stand for recognising the elections as being illegitimate. They are not satisfied with the fact that the election had been announced just two months beforehand, the candidates were unknown, and the result was predictable. They said the police arrested around a thousand citizens across the country during the peaceful protest against elections using force. Moreover, the authorities started the practice of night courts, when hearings were held without explanation of rights to the detained and they didn’t have access to qualified legal counsel.

Another group of people who voted for Amirzhan Kosanov was discontented with a low percentage of votes for their candidate. However, Kosanov, without waiting for the official count of votes, congratulated Tokayev on his victory. His followers immediately criticised Kosanov and called him corrupt.

Rinat Zaitov. Shot from a video of 31 channel /Informburo.kz

His follower, a famous poet and activist Rinat Zaitov, took part in the protest near the Tselinny cinema at Almaty. He recognised in public that he was mistaken in Kosanov and declared he would establish his own party on the following day.

“I didn’t agree with the voting results, yet I didn’t want them to list me as a follower of DVK. As soon as I saw Rinat’s call, I decided to go and listen to him. [Police officers] detained Rinat and me. We were there from 6:30 pm to 1:30 am. There were around 40 people in the Alatau local police precinct. Inquiry officers questioned 2-3 people at a time.  First they questioned women, then old men and those who had health problems. Then we waited for a few hours for them to take our photograph and fingerprint us. We did not have access to lawyers. They checked my phone, my Telegram groups and social media.  I heard they either fined people or detained them for 5 days. I was released,” said Aslan Kokylbekov, who took part in the night rally on June 10.

Later on, Zaitov was released and he made a video to the audience asking them to leave because he didn’t want to be held liable for disorders. After the video, people walked away from the police building, but didn’t scatter; they walked along the streets instead and were singing the anthem. A column of protesters was made of cars and pedestrians and blocked one of the busiest streets in Almaty – Tole Bi Street.

A participant of the march of protest on Tole Bi street, 21-year-old Aidyn said he took to the streets because Rinat had been detained, but after he had been released, he protested because, “I stood for Rinat and for my country. How long should we tolerate this? We don’t fear anymore.” Later on, Aidyn was detained with other participants of the spontaneous protest.

According to a prominent journalist and analyst, Denis Krivosheyev, protesting moods demonstrate the immaturity of the society.

The majority of those who are discontented now have done nothing to support the opposition for many years. They even haven’t bought opposition newsletters. They have not created civic movements, as is common in the world, and led to the poverty of the opposition. Now the society suddenly wakes up and thinks the authorities have become weaker. And it suddenly expects that the elections would be as it wants. And when Amirzhan Kosanov recognised the legitimacy of elections and congratulated Tokayev, people threw a tantrum like a child. But such things never happen that fast.

According to him, the interests of various opposition groups have coincided, but they have failed to unite. They have neither a united front, nor a united idea, programme. There are uncompromising players in the opposition who won’t work under one roof. There is also no leader with an understandable goal, who would be willing to go to all lengths.

Provocateurs and police

Three days after the election, interior ministry admitted that over 950 protesters were subject to administrative penalties in June 9-11 for their participation in the protests at Almaty and Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. Out of them 670 people were arrested, 115 were fined, and 172 got a notice and were released. The majority of the detained were finally released, but 218 people were arrested for participation in illegal protests.

The OSCE international election observation mission in its statement noted violations of the fundamental freedoms and pressure on critical voices.

“Following  the  announcement  of  the  election,  several  peaceful  protests  occurred  in  major  cities,  calling for the release of political prisoners and a boycott of the election. Authorities declared these assemblies illegal,  as  permissions  to  organise  these  gatherings  had   not  been  sought, resulting  in  dozens  of  people being  arrested,” according to the preliminary conclusions of the OSCE mission.

Foreign and local media covered the protests, as well as the response of police officers who pushed innocent women into police vans. International organisations called on Kazakhstan to fulfil human rights obligations.

The UN Human Rights Office expressed their concern about mass arrests and detentions.

“Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are the bricks of the successful and dynamic society. Any attempt to restrict them without the need and without a proper reason creates a risk for stability and social cohesion,” Richard Comenda, Commissioner for Human Rights in Central Asia, said.

According to the national laws, parties should seek permission to organise gatherings. However, in fact, almost all requests are denied, which makes all gatherings unauthorised, i.e. illegal.

Amnesty International thinks it is necessary to eliminate the requirement of preliminary approval of public gatherings. Administrative and penal codes provides for imprisonment for organisation and participation in illegal gatherings. Those people who call to participate in illegal gatherings, including via social media, are subject to criminal liability, as the organisation said.

The organisation has called to pass a new law on public gatherings without the need for preliminary permission of the authorities.

“The protests are not as massive as western media show. Protests are forbidden in our country by law. My question is when all of them were when these laws were passed. I think people should be given an opportunity to protest, so the law should be changed. In general, police officers treat the detained very carefully,” Krivosheyev said.

Talgat Kaliev. Photo: elorda.info

According to political analyst, director of think tank “Youth”, Talgat Kaliev, protests in the society should not be forbidden. 

“The protests have been caused by the need to revise the so-called social contract, which has been entered between the people and authorities of Kazakhstan. The people stay away from the politics, and authorities promise to ensure a proper living standard. However, devaluations, economic recession, spending slash influence the welfare of people, and the community gets involved into the policy, respectively. Once the state stops fulfilling its part of the contract, the people stop fulfilling their part,” political analyst said.

According to Kaliev, the demands laid down by the protesters have nothing to do with politics; they concern mainly social and economic issues. Everyone demands their rights: mothers with many children demand housing and allowances, mortgage borrowers demand cancellation of debts, people with heavy debts demand abatement of debts. None of them have serious political platforms. 

A crisis has arisen on sufferance of the society: when media and opposition were under pressure. Now everything has changed, and the civil society has passed through evolution. And now it has to get maturity in political discourse. The process of development is inevitable or even undesirable for some. However, it is useful for the authorities in a way that it improves their efficiency, and keeps them up. Protests should be peaceful, not harmful. Tokayev in his speech said the dialogue would be established and public trust would be restored, and he said encouraging things, in general. And we must understand that social contract does not provide for any bargain, but means a compromise. In our case, the authorities give up their absolute right of decision-making, whereas the opposition restrains itself.

First reaction of the president-elect

Tokaev. Photo: akorda.kz

In his inauguration speech, Tokayev said he would continue the course set by his predecessor yet with new approaches and solution. He promised to revise the social policy and ensure the unity within the society.

“People, especially young people, change their worldviews. Kazakhstan is facing new challenges and threats. […] Constructive changes for the benefit of people mean progress, in my opinion. The authorities must hear people’s demands, solve their issues locally and report to the community on a regular basis,” he said.

In his Twitter account, Tokayev instructed prosecutor-general to ensure legitimate rights of citizens, count the exact number of the detained and determine a degree of their guilt. He wrote not guilty citizens who happened to be at the places of protest should be released. At the press conference with journalists, he said it was his personal Twitter account and he was not aware of blocked social media.

The president paid attention to the protesting moods and emerging leaders who openly voiced their opinion. He announced the establishment of a national council of public confidence, which would be a platform for the dialogue between the authorities and the society.

“Our citizens are strongly concerned about the development of a dialogue between authorities and the society. The dialogue should be based on the pluralism of opinions. We have different opinions, yet we are a single nation.  This is our baseline,” said Tokayev at the inauguration ceremony.

The head of the state said representatives of all the society would become members of the council, including young people, and the first session would be held as early as this August. 

“We are aware of the urgent issues of the society, citizens long for justice in everything, honest services, honest government agencies. People worry about decline in earnings, devaluation. Over 1 million of people have to take out loans. A gap between high-level and low-level income people is a problem. The entire world faces such phenomena, but we cannot just wait, we should take mid-term integrated measures,” the head of state emphasised.

According to experts, economic tension in the society will not contribute to the improvement of the situation. However, the democratisation process is already in progress and cannot be stopped. According to political analyst Dosym Satpaev, the new less controllable society would be a problem for new authorities.

“The country will never be the same despite the attempts made by the authorities and the succession of political habits won’t be perpetual. A shift in public conscience has already started,” political analyst said.


Данный материал подготовлен в рамках проекта «Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project», реализуемого при финансовой поддержке Министерства иностранных дел Норвегии. Мнения, озвученные в статье, не отражают позицию редакции или донора.

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