Why Political Activists Are Being Intimidated in Kazakhstan
10 May, 2019

On May 9 – memorial day in Kazakhstan – the Immortal Regiment marched commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII while anti-government protests also flared up. Nur-Sultan supported the march and attempted to suppress the activists.

Earlier on May 6, Aslan made a gamble – he rallied journalists, and took a large blank sheet of paper and stood in the city center of Uralsk in Kazakhstan. Minutes later, the police approached him:  “Write something, and you’ll see what happens."

Police officers detain a person in Almaty, Kazakhstan on May 9, 2019. Photo credit: Азаттық радиосы (RFE/RL)

Five days earlier, Kazakhs participated in nationwide mass anti-government protests. More than a hundred people were detained as they called for a boycott of the special elections scheduled for June 9. They will be the first since Nursultan Nazarbayev – the man who led the country for 30 years – voluntarily stepped down. Kazakhs believe that they have no real choice.

READ MORE: Hundreds Detained at Protests Demanding Free Elections Across Kazakhstan

Will he really step down?

While Nazerbayev has stepped down as president, he will hold on to the position of head of the Security Council for life, which will allow him to determine the policies of all security entities. He is also a member of the Constitutional Commission and will have strong control of the judicial system. Also, Acting President Kasym-Zhomar Tokayev is a long-time ally of Nazarbayev.

“Over the years, Nazarbayev promoted his personality cult,” says journalist and activist Assem Zhapisheva. “A lot of things were done without even pretending that they're interested in public opinion.”

Asem says that the renaming of streets, squares, airports, educational institutions – the main university was dubbed "Nazarbayev University" – is another sign of the personality cult that troubles many people. Changing the name of the city to Nursultan could draw further ire.

READ MORE: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev Resigns

“Renaming the capital in his honor demonstrates the fact that he and his family hold power, and will continue to,” she explains.

Nur-Aslan Sagutdinov holds a blank poster at a square in Uralsk, Kazakhstan on May 6, 2019. He was detained shortly after. Photo:  Nur-Aslan Sagutdinov / Facebook

Are there civil liberties in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhs enjoy fewer civil liberties than citizens of Western nations. Freedom House calls Kazakhstan a “non-free” country while Human Rights Watch claims that the human rights situation in 2018 worsened.

"The government continues to harass government critics, including journalists, by politically motivated accusations," they report.

On May 1, dozens of people were detained. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan explained that while “the protesters were given the opportunity to freely and openly express their civil position,” many “behaved aggressively.” From that point, reports about detentions of May 1 protesters or participants of one-person protests were seen in media every day.

Political Activist Aslan Sagutdinov is one of those people. On May 6, he decided to show that protests are hopeless – he was detained in minutes.

“I was 100% sure that they would take me away,” he says “I wanted to show that even if you hold a blank poster, they will still take you away.”

Aslan claims the police didn’t know what to do with him. “They copied my information on various forms ten times, they wanted to manufacture charges something on me. Officers came and went. Finally, they simply asked me why I did it and then let me go,” says Aslan. However, on May 9, Aslan was detained again when he wanted to go on a march dedicated to Victory Day in Kazakhstan.

Aslan says "the person who protests isn’t afraid of much." He adds that this is not the first time that he was threatened with arrest. Aslan is trying to film protests on camera. “But I can't be successful at it, because every time there's a car waiting for me outside in which plain-clothes policemen sit,” he says.

Elections - hope or hopelessness?

When Nazarbayev announced his resignation, long-time ally Kasym-Zhomar Tokayev assumed his powers – while the senate was  headed by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva.

In early April, the government announced the date of early elections - Sunday, June 9.

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev joins Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedec for Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

The election committee has registered seven candidates –including one female and one oppositionist. However, Assem is convinced that this is “theatrical democracy”, and she has no hope for these elections.

Police officers working on the ground detaining people during the protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan on May 9, 2019. Photo: Азаттық радиосы (RFE/RL)

“We know that Tokayev will win. But we have finally begun to make progress in the public consciousness. Over the next five years we want to transform the electoral process and promote reforms, so that we can put forward several candidates in the future. ”

“It is clear that there will be no second Nazarbayev, and there should not be. For us, this is important.”

/By Liudmyla Kornievich

/Translated by L.P. Luo