Authorities in Kazakhstan reacted with startling severity to attempts to hold rallies against land reforms on May 21 by detaining possibly hundreds of journalists, activists and demonstrators.
Police had been laying the ground for their hardline approach in the days ahead of the demonstrations by arbitrarily detaining and jailing people suspected of organizing the protests.
Security was notably high in the capital, Astana, where scores of police and national guardsmen occupied the city center in anticipation of the rallies. Around 50 police officers lined the boulevard leading to the presidential palace from the landmark Baiterek monument.
The protest had been scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. although police were left with little to do at the appointed time. As the morning wore on, police around Baiterek began detaining people they suspected of being potential protesters. Onlookers refrained from filming anything for fear of also being carted away. One man observing everything from a bench said a few buses full of people had already left the scene.
“They detain anybody who says something negative about the government,” the man said.
The burst of detentions was similarly chaotic and widespread in Almaty, where journalists appear to have been the primary focus of police attention. Dozens of journalists — including ones for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Reuters news agency, Vlast.kz, Esquire, Novaya Gazeta, Ak Zhaiyk — were among those held. The Interior Ministry later described the detentions as a “misunderstanding,” even as reports were flooding in from other cities like Atyrau, Zhezkazgan, Karaganda, Shymkent and Oral, where journalists were also being held.
The authorities have twinned the clampdown on reporters and activists with a partial media blackout. The websites for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Azattyk, and local Oral-based newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya were blocked for many users, while access to Google, Facebook and YouTube was also limited.
Among the activists detained there was human rights advocate Amangeldy Shormanbayev, who appears to have drawn suspicion by posting information on social media linking to information about reported rights violations during the protests. Zauresh Battalova, who briefly took part in a government-initiated commission to discuss the future of possible land reforms, was hauled off by police after joining a rally.
The protest movement, which has been ebbing and flowing since late April, was sparked by amendments to the law extending the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years. The reforms also set the terms for land auctions, open only to Kazakhstani citizens, that were to be held from July onward. Objections to the changes ranged from suspicions that long-term land leases to foreigners might in practice end up with renters becoming de facto owners to concerns that corrupt officials could pocket the proceeds of land rentals and sales.
In a rare admission of defeat, President Nursultan Nazarbayev on May 6 declared he was imposing a moratorium on the land sales and called for more public discussions on the issue.
The gesture was evidently intended to take the sting of out a contentious and emotionally charged topic, although it appears to have come too late to fully quell the burgeoning mood of dissent. By reverting to this iron-fist approach, the government may hope to cow many into submission, but the policy of trying to instill fear does seem to be offering increasingly diminishing returns.
Remarkable footage filmed by RFE/RL in Almaty captures the grimly farcical events in the city. One young woman was roughly dragged away with her arms in a lock as she belted out Kazakhstan’s national anthem. People in a crowd fleeing police, many of them masked, played cat and mouse with the police as they tried to join those in the swelling numbers of people in detention. If the government continues to bungle its way through one of its most serious political crises since independence in the same fashion, the fear factor is likely to dissipate altogether.
Kazakhstan’s already problematic international image has been badly dented by a frenzied day of arrests, which by some estimates ranged into the many hundreds.
Expressions of condemnation were quick in coming from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.
“I call on the authorities to release all members of the media who have been detained ahead of protests planned during the weekend,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said in a statement.
Even as the protests were being broken up by police, the government-initiated land commission was holding its second meeting in Astana to decide on splitting the forum into four working groups. Mukhtar Taizhan, a nationalist activist who had taken part in earlier rallies by agreed to participate in talks with the government, seized on the opportunity to demand a halt to the unfolding arrests.
Government officials appear gripped by various levels of delusion about the evolving situation. One senior Interior Ministry official, Igor Lepekha, perversely denied any protests were happening at all, even as police were having to commandeer public busses to transport the sheer mass of people they were detaining.