On May 9, several mass protests demanding fair elections took place in several towns of Kazakhstan. This is not the first campaign after the change in the country’s leadership and the announcement of early election; however, it is the first one that is characterised by relatively violent preventive and response measures taken by the authorities.
Follow us on LinkedIn
Holidays in May in Kazakhstan have been marked by mass blocks of media and internet resources, as well as detentions of individuals. It has been reported that activists were detained right from their homes. A range of news portals, as well as social media have become inaccessible in the country.
All this happened on a day of arrival of a OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission to Kazakhstan.
The Kazakhstanis have gotten used to blocks in the recent year; however, it has been the first massive block of media and social media. Previously, the country’s authorities had acted more precisely and concertedly.
Human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis thinks such measures emphasise the failure of the former and incumbent presidents’ administrations to coordinate their actions. According to him, previous president’s administration and the Domestic Policy Office had been more efficient in their prompt response to incidents.
“What happens now, the current response of the authorities seems to be really absurd and unadjusted. It shows clearly the weakness and lack of governance in terms of policy.
I think it is due to the fact that the state machine, including power agencies, has gotten used to the sole command, one decision-making centre. The feeling is that the strategic centre is not controlled by the former president, and the operations centre is under control of the incumbent president. I have a feeling that these two centres are not well coordinated,” Zhovtis said.
International organisation NetBlocks in its special report wrote that internet providers were the ones that blocked access to major social networks. However, official authorities didn’t admit that blocks were authorised by them. Operators told about “maintenance works” to users and journalists.
According to Zhovtis, the authorities did not expect so many young people would take to streets to protest:
“All that happened with a banner on a marathon day or a recent case, when a young man was detained for holding an empty banner, has demonstrated that young people are active and object to the violations during protests. All those creative measures when activists were holding banners have demonstrated the lack of the freedom of peaceful assembly, and of expression of opinion. Therefore, the authorities are panicking before the election (to be held within a month).”
On May 6, 24-year-old Aslan Sagutdinov of Uralsk went to the central square holding an empty banner. This way the young man tried to demonstrate the lack of democratic rights in Kazakhstan.
In a few minutes, Sagutdinov was detained, but then released after he had written an explanation. Later on, according to Uralskaya Nedelya, the head of the press service of the police department, Bolatbek Beldibekov, explained that the activist was detained not because of an empty banner, but for the expression of his opinion:
“The objective side of the offence is not a demonstration of an empty banner, but his political statements ‘regarding the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Kazakhstan’, which he expressed in a public space.”
Political analyst Dimash Alzhanov said the panic among authorities destroyed all possible reputational risks:
A blow to the image
Researcher and analyst of CABAR.asia Zhaslan Nurbayev said internet blocks that followed the detentions were single and were due to the fragile position of Tokayev:
“So far, Tokayev is not a president, he is an interim president; this position is temporary. Therefore, the screws are being tightened today because the head of the state is in an unsteady position. I think this is not going to happen again.”
The presidential election in Kazakhstan is appointed on June 9. According to Nurbayev, after Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev had been elected and legitimised as the head of state, the administration course would recover.
“As of today, the politics has come to the fore in the media due to the forthcoming elections. After the election, this topic won’t be relevant. If no incidents like the one during the marathon happen in future, everything will remain as before. However, we should take into account various opposition forces, which stay abroad. This fact caused internet blocks. So, many things will depend on them,” Nurbayev said.
According to political analyst Dimash Alzhanov, the main thing the authorities fear is the strengthened position of fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov and his movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK – an organisation banned in Kazakhstan). However, according to him, Ablyazov is not a catalyst of protests within the country, but is making use of the situation:
“Protest moods are large-scale. Many citizens, especially young people, protest regardless of Ablyazov. Mainstream society wants changes, but due to the neutralised political space Ablyazov’s calls are voiced by the sole opposition entity. However, he is not a figure who is able to consolidate protest moods.”
Therefore, Alzhanov is confident that blocks would continue if protest moods continue to exist.
Yevgeny Zhovtis shares the same opinion. According to him, if the administrations of both heads of state fail to establish internal communication, the situation would get even worse.
Meanwhile, the official pre-election campaign has been launched in Kazakhstan. According to some activists, another protest in Kazakhstan is going to be held on May 31.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.