Opposition activists may have made a mistake in taking President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s talk of a politically liberal “New Kazakhstan” at face value.
The last few weeks have seen many of them arrested or slapped with heavy fines, usually on arguably spurious grounds. The situation suggests that the country has some way to go before pledges of openness can be deemed anything more than rhetoric.
Inga Imanbai, a long-time feature on the opposition scene, told Eurasianet that the offense that landed her in trouble was that of speaking at a self-styled “people’s parliament” assembly in Almaty on April 1.
The event was intended as a forum for aggrieved, unsuccessful candidates in the parliamentary elections that took place the month before. Attendees took turns airing their discontent at what they deemed a rigged and unfair contest. Imanbai was one of those candidates.
On May 10, well over one month after the people’s parliament convened, police turned up at Imanbai’s home with a notice to say she had been fined 172,000 tenge ($385).
“I was fined by the police, not even for participating in a rally, as is usually the case, but for speaking out on the subject of human rights at a private event,” said Imanbai, who also works at the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
Imanbai believes that she was singled out for this treatment over her criticism of the March 19 election, which the authorities have hailed as a major stride forward for democratization, although it produced a chamber once again overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party.
Others got more than a fine, though.
In April, another group of unsuccessful candidates – including journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov, opposition politician Mukhtar Taizhan, a former MP, Nurzhan Altayev, and other activists – were sentenced to a 15-day stretch in jail for mounting an unauthorized picket against the outcome of the election.
And the 39-day delay with which police acted against Imanbai was relatively paltry stuff too.
Earlier this month, the police detained Vlada Yermolcheva and Darkhan Sharipov, a pair of activists from another youth-focused opposition movement, Oyan, Qazaqstan, over an unauthorized protest they organized on the day of an election in November that saw Tokayev reconfirmed as president. They were similarly ordered to serve a 15-day term in jail. It is unclear why the police waited six months to file the charges.
For Imanbai, this all fits into a recognizable pattern. She told Eurasianet that over the past year she has had a dozen or so run-ins with the police and racked up around 2 million tenge ($4,500) in fines.
In April, her husband, Zhanbolat Mamay, the leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, was handed a six-year suspended sentence on charges ranging from the dissemination of false information to the instigation of public unrest.
As irony would have it, the deadly January 2022 political unrest to which that charge was linked served as the spur for Tokayev’s would-be liberalizing agenda.
Once Tokayev had completed the operation to sideline his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, partly by removing him as head of the powerful National Security Council, he began laying out his vision for a radical political reset.
“New Kazakhstan,” as Tokayev billed it, would be a nation in which genuine democratic processes could take shape. The rhetoric was framed as an intentional rebuke of the way things were done under Nazarbayev, who presided over a rigidly authoritarian order in which independent political activism and lively journalism were robustly discouraged.
“We will ensure that the constitutional rights of every citizen are respected. We will form a new political culture based on mutual respect and trust between the state and society,” Tokayev said in March 2022. “Important decisions will be made openly, with the participation of citizens, because the state needs to listen to everybody’s voice.”
There have been some changes.
On paper, registering a political party has become easier, even though activists insist real opposition groups still stand no chance of overcoming the hurdles. The experience of Mamay’s Democratic Party of Kazakhstan is cited as an illustration of that point.
Two new parties did get their papers. But suspicions arose almost immediately that these were simply catspaws for the government headed by people with historical links to the ruling order.
Another touted achievement was the change to the electoral system that offered voters the option to cast ballots not just for parties but also for candidates in their local district. This development was ostensibly engineered to nurture a more direct channel of communication between the electorate and their representatives. The idea was to make the work of lawmakers more closely reflect the public’s day-to-day needs. It was in single-mandate races like those that Imanbai and other opposition activists unsuccessfully tried their luck.
Government-loyal commentators dismiss the complaints of the opposition as sour grapes.
“No matter what the activists say, we are still moving along our intended path,” Marat Shibutov, a member of the ruling Amanat party’s policy council, told Eurasianet. “We have a Constitutional Court, new parties, a new electoral system. Real steps have been taken.”
On the now-frequent arrest of activists, Shibutov offered a vaguely conspiratorial explanation. He argued that in Nazarbayev’s day opposition movements split into two broad camps: one that was covertly operating at the behest of the authorities, and another that was more hardline.
Oyan, Qazaqstan activists never used to have problems with the police, Shibutov said, hinting that this movement once enjoyed some level of blessing from insiders.
“Today everyone is equal before the law,” he said.
Oyan, Qazaqstan, however, denies any ties with the authorities. Beibarys Tolymbekov, one of the movement’s leaders, said that they had faced pressure even before 2022, although not as intensely as now.
“Political analysts loyal to the authorities spread such assumptions to discredit our movement and civil activism in general in Kazakhstan,” Tolymbekov told Eurasianet.
Shibutov further claimed that opposition activists only make a noise as they are eager to advance their political fortunes.
“They all want to get into power,” he said. “Take Imanbai, for example. If she had won her race, would she be arguing that the elections were unfair? Of course not.”
This rose-tinted view of things is rejected out of hand by skeptical analysts.
Dosym Satpayev, a political scientist and director of the Risk Assessment Group, sees the uptick in repressive measures as a symptom of Tokayev’s anxiety over his lack of standing among many segments of the public and a concomitant fear of losing power as a result.
“These worries have intensified since the January  events, despite the fact that Tokayev enjoys fairly broad popular support,” Satpayev told Eurasianet.
As people around Tokayev see it, populist new figures, politicians and trendsetters, stand to shape public opinion in ways antithetical to his agenda, so the best solution is to keep them out of play and flood the information sphere with the ruling party line, Satpayev said.
That solution cannot endure indefinitely, however. If quality of life in the aggregate does not improve markedly, argues Satpayev, people will begin to press the authorities more insistently on questions about why inflation, corruption and even the tramping of political freedoms are not being properly addressed.
“We have already gone through this. Even those who have never been interested in politics will start venting their discontent. First in the kitchen, and then they will take to the streets,” Satpayev said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.