Does Democracy Stand a Chance in Kazakhstan?
14 August, 2018

What’s it like to be a civic activist in Kazakhstan? Why are social networks blocked every evening? What conditions could make change possible? Hromadske’s Ostap Yarysh traveled to Almaty to find out.

Almaty is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Kazakhstan’s largest city is surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains. There is almost no wind. Automobile exhaust and emissions from the thermal power station saturate the air.

Square in front of the Abay State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 5, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

There is a palpable lack of fresh air, and, after three days, my throat has started to burn. It’s hard to breathe here. This is especially true for democratic activists, although it’s not a matter of polluted air in their case.

The authoritarianism and cult of personality surrounding President Nursultan Nazarbayev are suffocating democracy in Kazakhstan. Real freedom of speech does not exist in the country. Independent activists are persecuted. The government is working to control every aspect of public life – on and offline.


“Two generations have spent their entire conscious life under Nazarbayev’s rule,” analyst Danil Bekturganov tells me over a pint of stout. “People under 30 don’t remember any other president besides him.”

There are almost 9 million such people – half the population of Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev has been the country’s leader for the past 28 years, which is longer than any other post-Soviet leader has held power.

Today Nazarbayev’s name graces the airport of the capital city, numerous central avenues, universities, and cultural centers. One of the mountains towering above Almaty was renamed Nursultan Peak in 2008. And one of the city’s largest parks is named First President’s Park in his honor. As the locals joke – the first and last.

Kazakhstan’s currency even features an image of Nazarbayev’s palm, in the ancient tradition of the region’s khans.

When friends come to visit Bekturganov, they ask him how democracy is faring in the country.

“There is only one party in Kazakhstan that has power – Nur Otan, Nazarbayev’s party,” he says. “There is no opposition in Kazakhstan, only the semblance of a multi-party system.”A billboard depicting Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev with schoolchildren, announcing the “Modernization 3.0” strategy aimed at socio-economic development, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

Authoritarianism in Kazakhstan gets stronger every year. Recently the country’s electoral legislation was amended. Earlier, representatives to regional governing bodies were elected through a plurality system, where the candidate with the most votes won. This allowed for independent candidates to participate in elections. Now representatives get elected through party lists. Mayors – called akims here – can also only be chosen from lists approved by the central government.

This year, Nazarbayev, now 78, was appointed head of the National Security Council for life. The reorganized Security Council now oversees the country’s police, army, and border control. It is responsible for ensuring national security and defense, preserving political stability, and protecting the constitutional order.

“Now all the power in the country is in Nazarbayev’s hands until the end of his life,” says Bekturhanov. “It’s not important who becomes president. People used to say that Kazakhstan is a dictatorship, a cult of personality. Now it’s official. Nursultan Nazarbayev is the Kazakh super-khan.”

One of the mountains that rises above Almaty was renamed Nursultan Peak in 2008. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

All-Seeing State

Almost every evening between 7 and 10 p.m., all over Kazakhstan, it’s almost impossible to access Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and several other social media platforms. Coincidentally (or not,) this is also the time when businessman and Nazarbayev’s main political opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov begins his online broadcast from France, where he currently resides.

Ablyazov, who has been living abroad since 2009, is the leader of opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was banned as an extremist group by the Kazakh government in March. The former chairman of Kazakhstan’s BTA bank has also been accused of embezzling billions of dollars and is facing lawsuits in numerous countries.

Ablyazov produces videos that are transmitted over social media, offering investigative reports on individuals in Nazarbayev’s circle, as well as calls for public resistance to the government.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information, which has the power to block internet access, denies that it has anything to do with the failure of the social media platforms. But one day when Ablyazov unexpectedly began broadcasting earlier than usual, all the social networks in Kazakhstan went down. Coincidence?

Human rights activist Halym Aheleuov says that these things have become commonplace over the years.

“The intelligence agency monitors everything on the internet, especially the pages of civic activists. If you write a critical post or call for a public demonstration, they won’t let you out of your house,” he says.

Aheleuov goes on to explain how several times he awoke to see a police car waiting outside his building. The police didn’t enter his apartment, but as soon as he stepped outside, they grabbed him and took him to the precinct.

“There’s a standard procedure,” the activist says. “They question you for a few hours, then tear up the protocol and let you go. Until the next time, that is, if you don’t do anything more criminal than writing a Facebook post.”

The city streets are constantly patrolled by police officers. Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

In Kazakhstan, official repression of democracy masquerades as fighting terrorism. Any action in opposition to the central authorities is considered criminal. A new article on inciting social, national, tribal, racial or religious hatred has recently been written into the country’s criminal codex. Offenders can face 20 years in prison.

Last year, 219 violations of this article were recorded. Most of these incidents involved public activists. According to Aheleuov, the terms of the article are broad and imprecise, allowing it to be used to convict anybody.

“If you say something against the authorities, you’re inciting social enmity,” he says.

Metropolitan employee in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 5, 2018. Because of exhaust from automobiles and the electric plant, many people wear masks. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

“You can say anything you want, just don’t say it in public. Freedom of speech in Kazakhstan is confined to the kitchen.”

The fight against terrorism is a good reason for heightening control in all public spaces. There are metal detectors and scanners in every metro station in Almaty. Passengers’ bags are inspected by metro employees in blue uniforms resembling those of the police.

Religion is also highly supervised by the security service. Every mosque and church in the country without exception – large or small, in the city or village – must be equipped with video cameras.

Every metro station in Almaty is outfitted with metal detectors and scanners. Passengers’ bags are inspected by Metro employees in blue uniforms resembling those of the police. Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

But it’s not only citizens who are subjected to surveillance in Kazakhstan. Halym and I are joined by Dzhamshet – an activist from Central Asia, who had to emigrate to Europe due to persecution at home. This is the first time he has been back to Central Asia in three years.

“I’ve seen the same man in three completely different places since I’ve arrived in Almaty,” he tells us. “The first time I noticed his face. The second time, I paid attention to him. The third day I noticed him again in a crowd. Our eyes met for an instant, then he abruptly turned away. Coincidence?”

“Of course not,” says Halym, yawning. “Following activists here is normal. Did you notice anything else?”

“I found hidden cameras, the size of a peephole, in the private apartment I’m renting through In the morning, before going out, I covered them with stickers. When I came home in the evening, the stickers were gone,” says Dzhamshet.

Every mosque and church in the country must be equipped with video cameras. The Central Mosque on the corner of Pushkin and Mametova Streets, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

Kazakh women near the central mosque, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

One Big Family

“Almaty is a separate country, surrounded by Kazakhstan,” jokes Bekturhanov.

“Of course we’d rather be surrounded by Great Britain, but this is what we got,” adds Larisa, his wife, laughing.

Kazakhstan’s population is very unevenly distributed across a great territory. The country has three cities with populations over 1 million: Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent. There are smaller cities in the north, near the border with Russia. The central part of the country is covered by a vast, practically uninhabited steppe.

“Where will we get a civic society if Kazakhstan doesn’t have a cohesive society at all?” Bekturhanov asks. “We have no civic activism in the broad sense. Our society is very conformist. Ask anyone on the street about the blocking of social media platforms. Every third person will say Ablyazov himself is to blame.”

Larisa adds, “In Kazakhstan, especially in smaller cities and towns, the idea of family is much stronger than the idea of civic society. Here, a family includes 500–700 people, and those are the ones you’re supposed to know by name.”

Passengers in the Metro, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

She explains that whenever one member of the family attains an influential position, they use it to help their relatives, creating a chain of connections. “All of Kazakhstan is woven through with these magic familial threads, making all the Kazakh people one big family.”

There is another side to this invisible network that tightly binds family members to one another: family ties are one of the most effective ways to apply pressure to an individual.

“You won’t be kidnapped, killed, or disappeared. But they’ll pressure your relatives – especially those who live in the villages,” says Bekturhanov. “If the [village head] receives orders from above to ruin somebody’s life, he’ll do all that’s in his power to do it.”

Street vendor selling fruits and vegetables, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

“And then the entire family – all one thousand people – in one voice will begin reprimanding you: You’re behaving improperly, why are you calling attention to yourself, don’t you see that we are suffering because of you?” he continues.

“Of course, you can go against your family and ignore them. But that’s uyat – great shame. So incredibly shameful that…” Bekturhanov is at a loss for words. “It’s like exile. In Kazakhstan you can’t survive without family. Without them, you’re nothing.”

Bekturhanov, who has been smiling and joking all evening, is suddenly serious. His wife, Larisa, nods silently.


When Nazarbayev Dies

Family means a lot to Sayazhan, a student and activist in Kazakhstan’s only independent youth organization. She grew up in a conservative family with traditional values. When she became an activist, her family immediately immediately came under pressure.

As an experiment Sayazhan submitted an application for holding a peaceful demonstration to the city council. “I didn’t actually plan on organizing anything, I wanted to see how the authorities would react,” she says.

The young activist said not long after, some strangers showed up at her mother’s home, far outside the city. According to Sayazhan they told her “your daughter has gone down the wrong path, she’s making a big mistake. You understand what kind of consequences there can be for the family. Why is a young girl involved in activism? Talk to her, you’re her mother.”

Central market, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE

Afterward Sayazhan was called to the city council for a long conversation with an official. They asked her a lot of questions. Why are you doing this? Who instructed you? Are you aware of the seriousness of your intentions? At the end, they put a written declaration before her, which stated her refusal to organize any demonstrations. All Sayazhan had to do was sign it.

Then the pressure at university began. “Even though I was a good student, my teachers started to withhold my grades, threatening that I won’t receive my diploma. This means my experiment was successful,” Sayazhan said. “If you’re an independent activist, or even worse – if you speak out against the authorities, then you risk not being able to graduate from university. I was lucky, this year I received my diploma.”

Sayazhan says she now plans emigrate to Thailand and get citizenship there.

When asked about her activism and desire for change, Sayazhan’s answer is bleak.  

“Unfortunately, I don’t see any prospects in Kazakhstan – not for myself personally, nor in general,” she says.

Central market, Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 7, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh / HROMADSKE


Human rights activist Aheleuov believes that nothing can improve in Kazakhstan as long as Nazarbayev is alive.

“After he dies, it will get worse for a little while,” he predicts. “There will be a battle for the throne, and it is important for the liberal part of society to take advantage of this moment to enact change. If we act vigorously and correctly, we can achieve everything.”

But few people in Kazakhstan think that way.

“The only people protesting are those who are unsatisfied with their personal lives,” says 24-year-old Valkhan, waving his hand dismissively. He is a digital marketer. We meet in a bar in Almaty that gives the impression of a relatively liberal atmosphere.

“In Kazakhstan, life is good, stable. I’m completely satisfied,” Valkhan continues.

“As long as you don’t get involved in politics, nobody bothers you. Why should you get involved or even think about it? It’s much better to not care. Then you can live peacefully.”

Valkhan asks me what life has been like in Ukraine since the 2013–14 Euromaidan revolution. He says that Kazakh and Russian media report that things have gotten much worse. Are Ukrainians happy with the new authorities? How is the war affecting people? What are the average salaries? He listens to me describe the difficult reform process and the struggle against corruption, about civic activism and how hard it is to effect change, shaking his head.

“No matter what anyone says, a dictator – not a dictator, but Nazarbayev – is a good leader. And most of the people in Kazakhstan agree. He keeps everything here in order. I am 24, I’ve lived my whole life under Nazarbayev. And I’m living well!”

“You’re not scared?”

Valkhan gives me a skeptical look and smiles, as if I couldn’t possibly understand.

“It will be scary when Nazarbayev dies. Then, my friend, it will really be scary.”

/By Ostap Yarysh

/Translated by Larissa Babij