The 2019 Almaty Marathon became the unlikely setting for a political protest on Sunday, when activists unfurled a banner during the race. “You Cannot Run from the Truth,” it proclaimed in all-capital, Russian letters. Underneath were the hashtags #AdilSailayUshin (For Fair Elections) and #УМеняЕстьВыбор (I Have A Choice).
Police quickly arrested activists Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov, who were accused of “disturbing the holding of peaceful assemblies.” “When the banner was unfolded, people began to stop, take videos and photos, and in doing so prevented the marathon,” said Minister of Internal Affairs, Erlan Turghymbayev, about the arrests.
The banner and its two hashtags – written in Kazakh and Russian, respectively– were referencing the upcoming presidential election. A snap vote was announced for 9 June 2019, after Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly stepped down on March 19. His resignation came as a shock 一 Nazarbayev is the only president independent Kazakhstan has ever known.
“Elections Are Neither Free Nor Fair”
Following his surprise resignation, Nazarbayev declared former diplomat and prime minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev interim president. His daughter – Dariga Nazarbayeva – was named the chairwoman of the Senate of Kazakhstan, to fill Tokayev’s most recent position.
According to international monitoring organizations, Kazakhstan has never had truly competitive or democratic elections.“Parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair,” wrote international watchdog Freedom House in the Freedom in the World 2019 report on Kazakhstan. “All major parties exhibit political loyalty to the president. The authorities have consistently marginalized or imprisoned genuine opposition figures.”
After being elected president of the Kazakh SSR in April 1990, Nazarbayev became the first president of newly independent Kazakhstan in December 1991. In the country’s first election as a sovereign state, he ran uncontested and won 98.7% of the vote. He remained the country’s only president for the next 30 years. Most recently, he won the 2015 presidential election with almost 98% of the vote.
By leaving the presidency without dying or being overthrown, the 78-year-old set a new precedent for a political transition in the region. That being said, it would seem as though little else has changed. The former president had already arranged to hold on to significant political power prior to giving up the country’s leadership.
Despite stepping down as president, Nazarbayev remains the chairman of the ruling political party – Nur-Otan – and is still seen as the proverbial Elbasy (Leader of the Nation). He also has a lifetime appointment to the country’s Security Council, which was recently made the most powerful political body in Kazakhstan.
READ MORE: Does Democracy Stand a Chance in Kazakhstan?
Meanwhile, Tokayev stepped into the role of president and immediately cracked down on civic opposition. Demonstrators protesting just days after his inauguration were rounded up and detained, despite their calls for civic freedoms. Participants were protesting a range of issues, from economic conditions to the decision to rename the country’s capital from Astana to Nursultan. Overall, this led police to arrest around two dozen people, Eurasianet reported.
In addition to the jailing of Tulesova and Tolymbekov, three other people were fined for filming the hanging of the banner at the Almaty Marathon. Those charged were videographer and illustrator Aigul Nurbulatov, camera operator Aidos Nurbulatov, and 26-year-old artist Suinbike Suleimenova, who is currently four months pregnant.
Suinbike Suleimenova, 26, a 4-month pregnant woman is now being tried for filming the banner “You can not run from the truth” at the Almaty Marathon #almatymarathon #kazakhstan pic.twitter.com/py4yiIqIZD— Kassymkhan Kapparov (@Kapparov) April 22, 2019
At her April 22 trial, Tulesova made a public statement to the court about the action that took place during the marathon.
“I think this is an important moment in the life of every Kazakhstani citizen. We might finally hold honest, fair elections. But, unfortunately, our system is designed in such a way that it does not allow real candidates, ordinary citizens, to have the opportunity to announce their candidacy in the presidential race, which I think is very important. Our demonstration was dedicated precisely to this problem,” Tulesova explained.
The crowd continued shouting “Shame!” until Asya Tulesova, whose appeal of her 15-day sentence for advocating fair elections in Kazakhstan was just denied, was escorted out of the courtroom. Then they began chanting her name in unison. pic.twitter.com/zGUP13ArO9— Kate Herrington-Kobekpaeva (@khkobekpaeva) April 22, 2019
After the activist’s appeal of the 15-day prison sentence was denied, the crowd in the courtroom chanted “shame” and called Tulesova’s first name – Asya – as she was escorted out of the hall.
The decision was met with outrage on social media. Within an hour, donations had been raised to pay off the fines. “I think the authorities underestimated the level of disgust over this in Kazakhstan,” wrote journalist Joanna Lillis on Twitter.
“Detaining activists and, what’s more, subjecting them to administrative procedures for stringing up [a banner] during the marathon is absolute stupidity,” wrote Vyacheslav Abramov – founder of Kazakh online publication Vlast.kz – in a tweet. “It was written on the poster that the authors demand free elections. President Tokayev demanded the same.”
Over 200 young people gathered in Almaty to discuss current situation with young activists who are detained for displaying the banner “You can not run from the truth”. The location was changed last minute, as another location has decided not to host the event.#kazakhstan #almaty pic.twitter.com/UQXcjIsdJ8— Kassymkhan Kapparov (@Kapparov) April 23, 2019
In response, on April 23, hundreds of young people attempted to gather in Almaty to discuss the detentions and the upcoming presidential election. After reportedly being kicked out of one venue and having the power shut off at another, organizers were able to hold a panel on the sentencing.
“So many people showed up that organizers were forced to turn people away and advise them to watch a live stream on Instagram,” wrote one attendee, Kate Herrington-Kobekpaeva, on social media.
Herrington-Kobekpaeva also reported that of the 600 people who showed up to the meeting, only 200 were able to attend. The remainder stood in the lobby or outside, watching the live stream of the discussion, which featured lawyers, political scientists, and activists. Among them was the artist Suleimenova – one of the three fined for filming the banner at the marathon.
After the event, members of a local NGO, the New Generation of Human Rights Defenders Coalition, issued a statement condemning the detention of Tulesova and Tolymbekov.
“The young people were held at the police department for about six hours and, despite their demands, had no access to a lawyer, no explanation for the reasons of [their] detention, and were questioned in the absence of a lawyer,” the statement read. The Coalition demanded that the court’s decision be canceled and “take into account all standards of a fair trial.”
“Stop the prosecution of civil activists for the peaceful expression of their opinions,” the statement said.
That same day, at the XIX Extraordinary Congress of the Nur-Otan Party, Nazarbayev nominated Tokayev as the party’s presidential candidate in the June election. The Congress participants unanimously supported the nomination.
/ Written by Eilish Hart