In a landmark speech in July 2019, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke of his vision of what he called a “listening state.”
To inspire trust in the people, the authorities need to respond promptly to “criticism and constructive suggestions from citizens,” he told a gathering of parliament.
For many in the activist community, this was a promise that was never kept. And there are those that worry that geopolitical turmoil in Kazakhstan’s wider neighborhood has helped Tokayev avoid scrutiny from the international community and eschew the urge to pursue genuine and committed liberalization of the political scene.
The continued inability of activists to get permission to mount pickets is a sore issue.
In November, the nation was gripped by the lurid events that led up to the death of 31-year-old Saltanat Nukenova at the hands of her abusive husband, a former top-ranking government official, Kuandyk Bishimbayev.
The case was viewed as far from isolated.
Women’s rights activists resolved to hold rallies in Kazakhstan’s two largest cities, Almaty and Astana, in a public show of solidarity with victims of gender-based violence.
But their applications – a formal green light is required beforehand even for the smallest of rallies – were rejected out of hand. The justifications offered were familiar to people with experience of trying to put together gatherings of this kind.
“We have no doubt that the local authorities were simply using an excuse,” Zhanar Sekerbayeva, co-founder of human rights group Feminita, told Eurasianet. “This is not the first time that places intended for peaceful assemblies have suddenly undergone renovations or cultural events on the very days when we are planning our actions.”
Activists bitterly note, meanwhile, that when organizations wishing to demonstrate their public support for the government ask to hold an event in downtown areas, they are routinely provided time slots and good locations.
Sekerbayeva believes this selective approach is used because the government is nervous about any independent groups gaining too much sway in society.
“When we held a mass demonstration for women's rights [in 2022], officials saw how many people supported us. And now they don’t want us to further expand our influence,” she said.
Some dissidents face much more serious problems.
One case of note is that of Marat Zhylanbayev, a prominent opposition figure who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in November on charges of allegedly conspiring with Europe-based government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov’s Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK. The movement has since 2018 officially been deemed an extremist organization, meaning that anybody believed to be associating with it can face charges akin to those reserved for suspected terrorists.
Zhylanbayev steadfastly denies participating in and financing of the activities of DVK.
Another figure soon going on trial on extremism-related charges is the journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim, 45, who ran a popular politics-theme YouTube channel called Ne Deydi (What Are They Saying?). He has been in detention since June.
Mukhammedkarim too has been swept up in a relentless campaign mounted by prosecutors against Ablyazov, a figure with ever-diminishing relevance in Kazakh public life. The charge is that the journalist promoted extremist views supportive of DVK in an interview he conducted with Ablyazov.
“The Kazakhstan authorities are trying to muzzle an outspoken, independent journalist who has repeatedly criticized the authorities and sought to exercise his right to peaceful assembly,” Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, or HRW, said in a February 8 statement. “Kazakhstan authorities need to narrow the definition of ‘extremism’ in the country’s criminal law and end the pernicious misuse of these charges against government critics.”
HRW argues that these kinds of prosecutions fly not just in the face of the “listening state” concept, but also claims made by Tokayev as recently as January about freedom of political speech.
“The main indicators of political persecution are censorship, tailor-made laws and punitive authorities. Nothing like this exists in modern Kazakhstan. Our legislation does not contain a single decree, not a single law, no regulatory document that could be used to prosecute citizens for their political views,” Tokayev told a journalist with state media.
There was a widespread expectation that a lot might change as a result of the events of January 2022. What began as protests against fuel price rises rapidly evolved into a generalized show of rage against the broader system. Special ire was directed at the person and legacy of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In the immediate aftermath of Nazarbayev handing over the reins to his long-time ally Tokayev in March 2019, it was sensed that this was a choreographed exercise. While the front-man was different, the corruption-tainted and unaccountable machinery in the background remained intact, went the received wisdom.
Even as early as late 2019, though, analysts spied some tensions between Tokayev’s camp and that of his mentor, which was collectively nicknamed “the Library,” as they worked out of the First President’s Library.
The trauma of January 2022, when at least 238 people were killed over four days of what has come to be known in Kazakh as Qandy Qantar, or Bloody January, looked like a chance for Tokayev to reset. And he appeared intent on going down that route when he coined another mantra that has become synonymous with his tenure: Zhana Kazakstan, or New Kazakhstan.
The political reforms implemented under that rubric included liberalization of the political system. Tokayev pledged to improve conditions for political parties and enable a pluralism of views. To legitimize these would-be ambitious plans, Tokayev held early presidential elections in November 2022 and then parliamentary elections the following March.
“The president’s goal was to correct the mistakes of the past and establish honest, fair rules for the functioning of the state and society,” Urazgali Selteyev, a typically onside political analyst, told Eurasianet. “People were tired of the old system and did not want the return of ‘old Kazakhstan.’”
Sure enough, conditions for registering political parties were relaxed, but this only served in practice to engage parties loyal to the government. The leaders of independent and government-critical movements argued that the requirements for them, meanwhile, were kept artificially onerous.
It was not only parties that could run in the parliamentary elections. Independent candidates were permitted to stand for single-mandate seats. And yet, none of them managed to win – a fact they attributed to electoral meddling in favor of pro-system candidates.
It isn’t all bleak. Some Almaty activists concede that holding rallies is not as impossible as it once was. Where peaceful assemblies were previously at most allowed only in a desolate spot on the outskirts of the city, the mayor’s office is now more generous in its conditions.
Veronika Fonova, co-organizer of a women's march, told Eurasianet that there was virtually no censorship at events she has attended.
“We can freely use posters with political slogans, such as freeing women political prisoners,” Fonova told Eurasianet. “But there is a taboo topic: the January events.”
For Yevgeny Zhovtis, a lawyer and rights campaigner, the broader direction of travel is discouraging. He suspects the persistent paranoia of officials stems from anxieties about legitimate political discontent being piggybacked by people with ill-intent.
“We already saw during the January events what the growth of discontent and rallies can lead to,” Zhovtis told Eurasianet. “The government fears that people from Nazarbayev’s circle may use the potential for protest to take revenge, and it is trying to prevent this.”
What is more, Kazakhstan can act with relative certainty that it will not draw too much opprobrium from Western nations, which purport to deem democratization and political liberties fundamental values, Zhovtis worries.
While Kazakhstan behaves “correctly” by abiding with anti-Russia sanctions and refraining from supporting the invasion of Ukraine, the international community largely turns a blind eye to domestic human rights problems, Zhovtis said.
“But by increasing pressure on dissidents, there can be an opposite effect, leading to the growth of protest sentiments in society,” he said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.