At first glance, a string of arrests in Kazakhstan over the past week looks like the government using the cover of coronavirus-related lockdowns to resort to trusted old methods for crushing dissent. Closer examination hints at a more complicated picture.
Gennady Krestyansky and Alnur Ilyashev are familiar gadflies. For years these activists have been taking pot-shots at a government they believe is corrupt and repressive.
Extending those criticisms into a period that has since late March seen cities like Nur-Sultan and Almaty, among others, placed under restrictive lockdowns has proven too much for the authorities, though. Law enforcement has not hesitated to use its temporarily enhanced powers.
On April 20, Krestyansky was sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest on charges of “undermining the public order during a state of emergency.” In a Facebook post outlining the details of his case, Krestyansky said that he was being punished for stating during live online broadcasts to his followers that some wealthy and influential individuals were able to get through checkpoints erected around locked-down cities – implying, in other words, that corruption was afoot.
It was unclear what evidence Krestyansky had for making the allegations. Officials have previously dismissed claims that police manning checkpoints were accepting bribes to allow people through.
Ilyashev was detained at his home of April 17. RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, cited Almaty police saying the activist had been detained on suspicion of “disseminating false information during a [state of] emergency.” It is unclear what precise claims Ilyashev had made to draw the attention of police.
These arrests look a little different to others that have taken place.
One episode has served as a remarkable illustration of the extents that security services will go to in order to stamp out any shoots of lèse-majesté toward the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
On April 20, a court in the city of Karaganda ordered that Arman Khasenov be jailed for two months for insulting Nazarbayev’s honor and dignity by recording a video in which he delivered a harsh and often obscenity-laced tirade against the ex-president and his family.
The bulk of the self-recorded video dwells not so much on Nazarbayev, however, as on what Khasenov describes as the dismal living conditions of people in the regions.
“I am just sick and tired of it […] I will not remain quiet anymore. I am not afraid of the consequences. If you want to do something to me, then go ahead. If you want to kill or cripple me, just try it on,” Khasenov says in the video.
Khasenov may have got off lightly. Insulting Nazarbayev, who retains considerable institutional stature under his bespoke status as Leader of the Nation and First President of Kazakhstan, is punishable by up to three years in prison. That the National Security Committee, or KNB, as it is known by its Russian initials, should have been spurred into action by the unfocused invective of a regular member of the public is telling about how sensitive the government is growing about the possibility of discontent mounting on the back of a sinking economy.
Then there is the case of Arman Shurayev, a former media executive at privately owned TV channel KTK.
The 50-year-old has previously served on President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s consensus-building National Council of Public Confidence, on the political council of the ruling Nur Otan party and even for a time in the Nazarbayev administration, so he cuts an odd figure among this group. He has lately displayed signs of intemperance with some parts of the ruling order, however.
In early March, he gave an interview to the website KZ-Media in which he criticized draft legislation to regulate public assemblies that is currently being rushed through parliament. The bill has come under fire from activists.
Later, on April 9, Shurayev told news analysis website Exclusive.kz that he was unimpressed by the government’s coronavirus economic stimulus package. In his long-winded remarks, he disparaged numerous billionaires sitting on top of Kazakhstan’s rich list and suggested that Nazarbayev had not done enough to pressure them into parting with their wealth to help regular Kazakh citizens. Most grievously, and this is what appears to have caused him to fall foul of lèse-majesté laws, he criticized the government for its historic bank bailouts, particularly for one that Shurayev suggested had links to Nazarbayev himself.
For this, Shurayev has earned a criminal investigation that is still ongoing. In contrast with the others, he has been allowed to remain free under his own recognizance pending completion of that probe.
Vladimir Kozlov, an opposition politician who has spent a few years inside prison on dubious criminal charges, wrote in a commentary on Facebook about Shurayev and Ilyashev that they were united “by their active civic opposition stance."
“These people have indisputably suffered as a result not just of publicly expressing things, but of saying in public what everybody already knows, and that is that the king has no clothes,” Kozlov wrote.
Veteran human rights activist Sergei Duvanov, however, sees Shurayev as just another well-appointed participant in an intra-elite bunfight.
“I would presume that Shurayev’s detention was attributable to the fact that in recent months he has sharply criticized the Family and the Library,” Duvanov told Eurasianet.
Those two terms have become common parlance among the Kazakh commentariat.
The former is an allusion to Nazarbayev’s extended family, many of whom hold important government ranks – the most notable among these is the chair of the Senate, Nazarbayeva’s billionaire daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva.
The latter – the Library – refers to the Library of the First President and has become a mildly withering way to refer to Nazarbayev’s entourage of loyalists and hangers-on. Some political analysts have detected mounting, low-level conflict between the Library and Akorda, which is how the presidential administration is known.
Duvanov noted that Shurayev appeared in his remarks to refrain from overly robust criticism of President Tokayev, who is presumed to be pursuing a more dovish and even populist line in contrast with his predecessor. Shurayev’s links to important people may have spared him time in custody, Duvanov said.
“But Alnur Ilyashev, who does not enjoy such support, is more likely to feel the full force of the law,” Duvanov said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.