“Nur-Sultan is not my city, Tokayev is not my president,” chanted protesters across Kazakhstan on May 1. Hundreds gathered at rallies in the capital – recently renamed Nur-Sultan – and in the country’s largest city, Almaty. Expressing their discontent, peaceful demonstrators called for free elections, the reversal of the capital’s name change and the release of political prisoners. Law enforcement responded with beatings and detentions.
The rally in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) began near the city’s Central Concert Hall. Shouting slogans like “The people are tired” and “Down with the Government,” protestors marched towards the local administration building. In response, police made dozens of arrests, beating protestors with truncheons.
In Almaty, demonstrations in Gorky Park went on peacefully for about four hours. Protestors shouted slogans such as “Shame” and “Boycott.” There were also calls of "Wake up Kazakhs" and "Freedom for political prisoners." As demonstrators later attempted to leave the meeting, law enforcement seemingly detained hundreds.
On May 2, officials said only 80 people were arrested overall.
“A Gross Violation of the Law”
Journalist Joanna Lillis estimated that around 300 people were gathered at the height of the protest in Almaty. Numbers later dwindled to around fifty as police carried out arrests. Hundreds were reportedly present at the demonstration in Nur-Sultan, as well.
While these numbers may seem small, the cost of protest in Kazakhstan is high. Law enforcement usually resort to violence as a means of crowd control. And although those detained may be released, if charged they could face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
On April 29, Kazakhstan’s Office of the General Prosecutor had warned against taking part in the “unauthorized rallies” being planned on social media. Participation would be “qualified as a gross violation of the law on the organization and holding of peaceful assemblies and rallies,” said the press release. “Law enforcement will be obliged to react and take measures against violators.”
Nevertheless, hundreds decided to attend and the resulting protest were the biggest the country has seen since demonstrations opposing the land-reform law in 2016.
#Karaganda. Even one man can be a warrior: "#Nazarbayev leave! Nur-Sultan is not my capital! "Furniture" [a.k.a. #Tokayev] is not my president! #Dariga is not my speaker! I'm for fair elections! Hands off @IAkberdy!" #KazakhstanElections #Ihaveachoice pic.twitter.com/fDhPMe3q0X— Bota Jardemalie 🇰🇿🇧🇪 (@jardemalie) May 1, 2019
According to RFE/RL, solidarity actions took place in smaller cities across Kazakhstan, too. Several people were arrested in the central city of Karaganda, while protests in the northern city of Aktobe, the northwestern city of Uralsk and in the southern city of Shymkent proceeded without reports of detentions.
One human rights defender claimed he was preemptively arrested on his way to the pharmacy earlier in the day on May 1.
“I have been detained and taken to police department. I was going to pharmacy when one police office caught me,” wrote the activist, known as Daniyar, on Twitter. “Two cars (one police and one regular) were near my house. One person was following me all the way.” Daniyar was reportedly pressured in police custody for his human rights work.
Today's protests around the country are organized by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement (#DCK). This is my city #Almaty. People chanting: "Can't run from the truth!". People demand fair elections! #KazakhstanElections #Ihaveachoice pic.twitter.com/JOPrITLvsJ— Bota Jardemalie 🇰🇿🇧🇪 (@jardemalie) May 1, 2019
The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement – an anti-Nazarbayev opposition group that the country’s court system deemed an “extremist organization” – reportedly organized the protests.
”Prisoners of Conscience”
Activists Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov sparked calls for free elections after putting up a banner that read “You Cannot Run from the Truth” at the Almaty Marathon on April 21. The two were arrested and sentenced to 15 days' jail time. Three other people were fined for filming the hanging of the banner.
A letter from jailed activist Asya Tulesova announcing her hunger strike on 26 April 2019. Photo: ADAMDAR/CA.
On April 26, Asya Tulesova’s mother announced on Facebook that her daughter had been on hunger strike for three days. “Asya Tulesova is on hunger strike as of 23 April and will continue [it] until her release. They [the authorities] haven’t even given the declaration to her lawyer,” her mother wrote.
The protest banner criticized the snap presidential election scheduled for June 9, after former president Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly announced his resignation on March 19. Stepping down after serving as the only president of independent Kazakhstan for almost 30 years, he named former diplomat and prime minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev his interim replacement.
Nazarbayev later nominated Tokayev as the presidential candidate of the ruling party, Nur-Otan, and received unanimous support. Although nine other candidates have been put forward to run for president, they have yet to be officially registered – and Tokayev is still expected to win the vote.
So far, Tokayev’s stopgap presidency has seen protests across Kazakhstan – and the authorities have responded with a crackdown on journalists and activists.
“While snap elections have been standard operating procedure in Kazakhstan, currently they are serving as a focal point for organization and contention,” explained Brent Hierman, Associate Professor of International Studies and Political Science at the Virginia Military Institute, on Twitter.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concerns after multiple journalists were arrested while covering protests in March. Reporter Sanya Toiken was held overnight in a police station in Zhanaozen on March 11 for her coverage of repeated protests in the western city. She was fined $134 for “refusing to follow police orders” and released the next day.
Happy Nauryz y’all. Azattyq journalist Svetlana Glushkova in Astana is also detained.. https://t.co/m83oDhPyzp— Aigerim Toleukhan (@aygeryma) March 22, 2019
Then, on March 22, correspondent Svetlana Glushkova was arrested twice in Nur-Sultan while covering protests against the renaming of Kazakhstan’s capital. She is set to go on trial May 6. “One more repression,” she wrote in a tweet announcing her next trial date. “I still don’t see adequate support [for] me.”
”The Only Source of State Power is the People”
The controversial arrests of activists Tulesova and Tolymbekov have inspired solidarity actions in Kazakhstan and abroad, as supporters continue to post about their situation on social media and attend solidarity rallies. Human rights organization Amnesty International declared the activists “prisoners of conscience” – “detained for the peaceful expression of their views.”
To show support for the jailed activists, Kazakhstani students protested outside of Kazakhstan’s embassy in Prague on April 24. Student protestors appeared outside the London embassy the next day. A banner with the words “You Cannot Run from the Truth” in Russian was hung at the London Marathon on April 28.
“At the marathon in London this Sunday Kazakhstanis put up a banner in support of Asya and Bebiarys,” wrote Ayana Agi on Facebook. “Local police helped our guys hang the banner, no permits required. What’s more, there were no arrests.”
Artists around the world responded with works inspired by Tulesvoa and Tolymbekov’s protest. Many wrote them notes and letters, because they are only permitted communication by mail. Their own letters written in detention were also published on social media.
In solidarity, art activist Roman Zakharov hung a banner stating “The only source of state power is the people” across an overpass in Almaty during the evening on April 29. Despite the fact that the quote is taken directly from Kazakhstan’s constitution, he was arrested. After being charged with “petty hooliganism” and sentenced to five days in jail, Zakharov was released ahead of schedule late on April 29. His jail time was replaced with a fine.
“I support Asya and Beibarys. I agree with them,” Zakharov told Vlast reporters. “I think that I’m not guilty of anything. I just don’t understand certain things that are happening here.”
On April 30, another banner stating “You Cannot Run From the Truth” appeared in Semey, a city in eastern Kazakhstan.
According to the Telegram channel Human Rights Kz, the conviction of activists Tulesova and Tolymbekov “sparked public discussion in Kazakhstan about freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to participate in political life.”
“[The] authorities look increasingly nervous in Kazakhstan as elections approach,” wrote Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, in a tweet. “People increasingly want their voices heard and aren’t happy with the status quo. It’s a global problem, and [the] Kazakh government should learn from others and just let the voices be heard.”
“Only Unity May Protect Our Country”
As protestors were detained in Almaty’s Gorky Park, interim President Tokayev took part in celebrations in another part of town. Addressing a crowd at the city’s Abai Square, Tokayev congratulated Kazakhstanis on People’s Unity Day – a holiday to celebrate friendship and unity among the country’s ethnic groups. It is marked countrywide on May 1 by festivities, concerts and folk festivals.
Meanwhile, in Nur-Sultan, former president Nazarbayev commended onlookers at the Unity Day celebrations taking place on the city’s Independence Square.
“We may achieve success only if we unite. Only unity may protect our country,” Nazarbayev said. “Thanks to independence we have achieved all we have today. Kazakhstan has become a widely-known and reputable country.”
Neither official mentioned the protests.
/By Eilish Hart