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Protest Activity in Kazakhstan

“The coronavirus situation offers a double-edged effect on protests in Kazakhstan: at one end protest activity is limited by quarantine restrictions, and at the other, the coronacrisis may have a major delayed effect,” sociologist Kamila Kovyazina analyzes protest activity in Kazakhstan in an exclusive article for CABAR.asia.

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Belarus protests following the country’s presidential elections would naturally be of Kazakh citizens’ interest. The events have attracted widespread international attention, joining other 2020 adversities. Kazakhs, nonetheless, have their reasons. The country held presidential elections last year that was, too, followed by protests, although not that far-reaching and nationwide. This article aims to define what the protests in Kazakhstan are, determine what has and can trigger protests, as well as explain why Kazakhstan, unlike its neighbors, was able to avoid severe unrest and turmoil.

When do Kazakhs take to the streets?

In the absence of official data on rallies and peaceful assemblies, we will rely on data from the media and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR). KIBHR’s monitoring of peaceful assemblies for 2010-2018 revealed that Kazakhstan protests are fueled by socio-economic grievances, including housing issues, currency depreciation, workplace conflict, the launch of Russian Proton (environmental impact), etc.

Among the most evocative are anti-Chinese protests (2010), protests in Zhanaozen (2011), land reform protests (2016), protests of mothers with many children, and protests over the election results (2019). The most significant and highly dynamic of all were the land reform protests in 2016.

Political protests are mainly prompted by support for the arrested opposition members and demands to release political prisoners, rallies in memory of the Zhanaozen events, protests over the miscarriage of justice.

It is important to acknowledge that 40 to 60% of peaceful assemblies are impulsive, that is, they are a response to some events, decisions, reforms. Often – almost every third protest – these are single pickets. In most cases, peaceful assemblies are unauthorized, reflecting either ignorance of the permit requirement (lack of particular organizers) or conscious disregard for this norm, in part because permit from local executive bodies deemed unattainable.

There has been an overall decline in protest activity since 2010, wherein, as KIBHR scholars highlight, political protests declined the most, accounting for the abolition of political parties and public organizations vis-à-vis the current government.

This sounds reasonable as a sharp drop in the number of demonstrations in 2015 correlates with a decrease in the participation of public organizations who conduct them.

In the absence of an organizing force, Kazakhs, therefore, are willing to take to the streets only in extreme cases, such as delayed wages and eviction of housing.

Why are Kazakhs not protesting?

Another question that is central in elucidating the nature of protest activity/apathy in Kazakhstan is why Kazakhs do not protest.

There are three major reasons for this. First, as discussed above, the political landscape has changed, political parties and non-governmental organizations are practically non-functioning. Institutional structures, however, were limited way before their total extinction from the political scene. For instance, in 2010, all 159 applications from “Alga” unregistered party activists have been rejected for various reasons.

Considering the political opportunity theory, until 2019, Kazakhs were basically deprived of the right to protest. The old protest law required those wishing to hold a public gathering to apply to local executive bodies.

At the same time, there is a misperception of protests being a solely negative phenomenon. Expressing discontent in public was inevitably considered oppositional, whether the issue was political or not. Local government agencies favored rejection of peaceful assembly applications to avert complications. For the same reason, those Kazakh citizens affiliated with the state – relatives of state employees, civil servants, employees of companies filling state orders, or somehow cooperating with state agencies – seek to avoid partaking in peaceful assemblies.

Secondly, as a Central Asian journalist Joanna Lillis notes, “Solemn unrest in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Georgia, and even Russia, tickled nerves of the Kazakh government and forced it toward concessions”[1]. This was particularly pronounced in 2019 when state bodies responded to the “rallies of large families” with broad support for not just demonstrators.

The Kazakh government has been fairly successful in learning from the others’ mistakes and has sought to prevent profound discontent to ripen. Kazakhs always say that unemployment, rising prices for essential goods, and housing problems are among the most pressing challenges[2].

Given that Kazakh citizens already have an unpretentious lifestyle, these challenges are widespread and could foster a comprehensive social basis for protests. According to official statistics, Kazakh citizens spend 50% of their income on food[3]. 44% of Kazakh citizens would be unable to cover expenses in case of emergency, including illness. 85% of Kazakhstanis have no savings and no financial cushion, leading to a vulnerability in case they lose their job (going back to the unemployment issue).

Addressing these issues, the government takes various measures: the “Enbek” employment program, a ladder of housing affordability[4]; price monitoring for essential goods, and regulatory pressure on retail facilities to guard against price escalation.

The country’s youth policy follows the same pattern, aiming primarily at the preventive solution of all potentially acute challenges for young people and their parents, accordingly. Young people around the world, as a rule, are the driving force behind protests, and in some countries, it was unemployed youth who gave a rise to the revolution[5]. In Kazakhstan, young people are perceived as a risk group and a potential threat, with pursued “policy of appeasement”.

The system of state orders, for example, works in that field. Besides, there are separate subprograms for young people and young families in both housing and employment programs. Hence, the tradeoff of protest involvement is that Kazakh citizens prefer not to protest.

Third, Kazakhs retain a certain level of trust in the State. In case of violation of their rights, Kazakhs first seek the legal solutions. This involves appeals to government agencies, to the court, to the Nur Otan party, and calling the attention of mass and social media.

The latter is becoming a powerful instrument of influence on government decisions, while not entailing radical measures. This is often the last possible way to fight for visibility and justice. Using social media, Kazakhs appeal to akims, ministers, and the president. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev is present on Twitter and Instagram to track high-profile social issues and voice his decisions.

What has happened in 2019?

In spite of all of the above, there has been an increase in the number of peaceful assemblies in 2019. According to Cabar.asia, Kazakhstanis partook in nearly 100 rallies and demonstrations last year[6]. Besides, 2019 leads in the number of arrests amidst protests.

The Chatham House report “Kazakhstan: tested by transition” states that the early transition, becoming a window of political opportunities, gave impetus to rising protest moods[7]. The statement is rightful, as it was the second Kazakh president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev that ordered reforming the protest law, although the final version of the law is still criticized.

We need to acknowledge that while the transition fueled protest moods, preconditions were formed for a rather long time before. And social media contributed mightily in this.

A subject to the major public discussion in 2017 was the case of Maksat Usenov that later labeled the “Usenovshina” phenomenon, which means impunity and injustice. In 2018, the case of a boy from Abai and the murder of Denis Ten have caused a growing lack of public confidence in the law enforcement and judicial systems. The Interior Ministry Reform movement has received broad support, but so far only online. There could have been, however, a greater number of demonstrations in 2018. Activist Alnur Ilyashev could hold a peaceful rally only after 36 applications[8]. Thus, the demand for justice increased in 2018, yet still balanced by economic factors. Kazakhstan was recovering from the 2015-2016 recession; social well-being gradually improved.

However, five girls from the Siter family were killed in February 2019, left alone at home with both parents at work. A makeshift shelter, unsuitable for long-term living and in disrepair, was their home. Although mothers with many children have been the most active in civic response, the living conditions of the family caused the outrage of many Kazakhs. Many realized that they themselves live in a similar environment, obliged to survive, and work flat out. “Demonstrations of families with many children” played their part, “breaking down the fear barrier,” especially since the government was willing to compromise.

Meanwhile, the new civic movement “Oyan, Kazakhstan!” has emerged and intensified, which, in turn, steadily shattered the fear of peaceful demonstrations. Summer and autumn of 2019 were marked by “walks”[9] of activists and a series of single pickets[10]. The protestors urged for political reforms, the release of political prisoners, and the review of unfair trials. A flash mob for the release of Mukhtar Dzhakishev has spread to the Internet. Crowds of sympathizers gathered outside the court to support civic activist Serikzhan Bilash, who raised the issue of persecution of ethnic Kazakhs in China.

Demands for broader political changes have yet to receive widespread awareness and support, also because they have not been articulated in a language the majority in Kazakhstan could understand. Political reforms per se do not possess great value for them; they should entail tangible benefits. As discussed above, many citizens live below the poverty line, not having an opportunity or time to reflect on the events; and this hinders the promotion of civic awareness.

But 2020 has enhanced social tensions and anxiety relating to the deteriorating living standards. At the beginning of the year, a requirement to register cars imported from the EAEU countries has unexpectedly met a repulse. Car owners from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia have organized a series of protests: car registration involves several fees that exceed the cost of cars, which are the main source of income.

The coronavirus situation offers a double-edged effect on protests in Kazakhstan: at one end protest activity is limited by quarantine restrictions, and at the other, the coronacrisis may have a major delayed effect. International organizations and Kazakh experts project the deteriorating welfare of Kazakh citizens, increase in the number of unemployed, and rising prices. And while the state is already seeking to address the challenges, this time coping with protest moods and grievances might necessitate major reforms in all state systems and areas of life.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Лиллис, Д. Казахстан: испытание «транзитом власти». Доклад Chatham House. 2019 //URL: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/CHHJ8054-RUSSIAN-Kazakhstan-Report-FINAL.pdf

[2]  Рост цен и безработица: решение каких проблем казахстанцы ждут от акиматов. Sputnik Казахстана. 2018. //URL: https://ru.sputniknews.kz/society/20180106/4206581/rost-cen-i-bezrabotica-reshenie-kakih-problem-kazahstancy-zhdut-ot-akimatov.html

[3]  Потребление в РК: оптимистичная статистика или сигналы SOS? Аналитическая группа “Кипр”. 2019 //URL: http://agkipr.kz/archives/1564

[4] Вааль, Т. «Лестницу доступности жилья» внедрят для казахстанцев. 2019//URL: https://vlast.kz/novosti/36087-lestnicu-dostupnosti-zila-vnedrat-dla-kazahstancev.html

[5] Джумет, К. Почему люди протестуют? Разъяснения участия в египетских восстаниях 2011 и 2013 гг. [Why do people protest? Explaining participation in the 2011 and 2013 Egyptian uprisings]. 2015 //URL:https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/47740/PDF/1/play/

[6] Митинги в Казахстане: от тарифов до транзита власти. CABAR.asia. 2019 //URL: https://cabar.asia/ru/mitingi-v-kazahstane-ot-tarifov-do-tranzita-vlasti/

[7] Казахстан: испытание «транзитом власти». Доклад Chatham House. 2019 //URL: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/CHHJ8054-RUSSIAN-Kazakhstan-Report-FINAL.pdf

[8] Алматинский активист добился разрешения на митинг с 36-й попытки. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL: https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30018892.html

[9] Движение «Oyan, Qazaqstan» провело акцию SERUEN в городах Казахстана. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL: https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30012986.html

[10] Жоямерген, О. В Нур-Султане группа граждан проводит серию одиночных пикетов. Радио Азаттык. 2019 //URL: https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30154046.html

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