Only two years ago, civic rights activist Olesya Khalabuzar was proclaiming ambitiously that her grand ambition for Kazakhstan was to promote a change in the population’s mindset. The country’s citizens, she told EurasiaNet.org, had to change from “slaves into masters” and “demand our rights.”
But in a public statement that has shocked many among the political opposition and in the rights community, it is Khalabuzar who has now performed a stark volte-face.
“Looking back [on my life], I have decided to take a very important step and declare: I AM RENOUNCING PUBLIC ACTIVISM,” Khalabuzar wrote on her Facebook account on May 17.
Khalabuzar, 39, is a veteran on Kazakhstan’s rights scene. Even so, her declared intent to get into politics in 2015 pumped fresh air into a scene that had been deprived of oxygen due to restrictive measures carried out by the government.
In her statement, Khalabuzar performed a groveling mea culpa, describing the work of her Spravedlivost rights movement as “short-sighted” and “counterproductive,” and admitting to unspecified attempts to “blackmail government bodies.”
The self-criticism exercise bore hallmarks of a Soviet- or Maoist Chinese-style exercise in recantation that other activists have argued represents a pernicious trend in Kazakhstan’s ever-shrinking space for independent thought. Her now-erstwhile allies believe Khalabuzar was pressured into making the statement.
At the end of February, Khalabuzar was detained by the police and taken to a police station in Almaty to face questions about her involvement in protests against recent constitutional reforms affecting land ownership rights.
The script then unfolded in a manner familiar to anybody in Kazakhstan who has concertedly contravened the official line. At the start of March, police officers searched Khalabuzar’s office and apartment as part of a criminal investigation into suspected extremism. The searches followed a criminal complaint by a citizen identified only by the initials A.A.
Opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov, who was sentenced to more than 3 years in jail for statutory rape in 2003 following a trial that rights groups said was marred by irregularities, said Khalabuzar’s plight was “familiar and understandable.”
“The threat of being put behind bars for 10 years is serious grounds for recanting and renouncing public activism,” Duvanov wrote on his Facebook account. “It has already become a trend when people opposing the authorities, bumping up against threats of persecution and reprisals, decide either to disappear into the shadows or repent, thereby ensuring themselves freedom and security.”
Kazakhstan’s history is no stranger to such cases.
In August 2011, another activist and trade union lawyer, Natalia Sokolova, was sentenced to six years in jail by a court in the city of Aktau for purportedly inciting social unrest and calling for illegal protests. Her criminal trial stemmed from her involvement in the long-running oil worker strike in the city of Zhanaozen that culminated in December 2011 with police shooting dead more than a dozen unarmed laborers.
The extent of Sokolova’s involvement in that episode was to argue through her legal office for workers in Zhanaozen to be paid higher salaries to compensate for their work and living conditions. After spending a little over 10 months in prison, Sokolova had a change of heart and accepted her guilty verdict, admitting in effect that offering legal advice was tantamount to inciting violence. Following that declaration, her penalty was reduced to a three-year suspended sentence and she was released from prison.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, the country’s best-known rights activist and also a former convict, said he had no doubt that Sokolova was forced to change her mind under duress.
By way of illustrating his point, he recalled an exchange during the 2012 trial of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who was also jailed for his alleged role in the Zhanaozen unrest. Sokolova was called to the trial as a witness, Zhovtis remembered, and was at one stage cross-questioned by her former associate Kozlov.
Was Sokolova convinced, Kozlov asked, that her calculations for salaries due to Zhanaozen workers were correct during the strike or now that the protest was over?
“When I did the calculations, I was 100 percent convinced that they were right. And now I think that the General Prosecutor’s office is right,” Zhovtis recalls Sokolova answering bitterly.
According to Zhovtis, Kazakhstani authorities embrace what he described as a form of “half-soft” authoritarianism. Authorities provide an extremely limited space for nongovernmental groups, rights activists, independent media and some opposition politicians to operate, but deny them any access to national television stations or state-owned publications, he said.
Zhovtis said that the function of this limited civil society is to prove to the international community that the regime is committed to democratic development. At the same time, all political processes are closely monitored to stamp out any signs of threat to the ruling elite, he added. The policy of attempting to extort public recantations is a favored way to demoralize critics of the state.
“The measure is not intended so much to stop the work of a particular activist as to send a signal to society at large, to say: We are a strong state and we can neutralize any opponent,” Zhovtis told EurasiaNet.org.
Zhovtis said he too was offered a way out in 2009, when he was facing prison time for accidentally killing a pedestrian while driving his car on a dark highway in southern Kazakhstan. Even though the victim’s family publicly accepted that the death was an accident, the authorities pursued the case aggressively and Zhovtis was eventually sentenced to four years in jail.
“When I was in the penal colony, they offered me to ask for an amnesty and to ‘behave well’ in exchange for freedom, but I refused,” he said.
These forms of psychological pressure are a legacy of the Soviet era, when the KGB often coerced recantations as a heavy-handed form of propaganda. The practice also bears hallmarks of China’s Maoist-era “struggle sessions” in which ideologically suspect individuals would be compelled by their peers, or Communist Party agitators, on pain of violence, to publicly catalogue their political and moral shortcomings.
Zhovtis cautioned that the government, in smothering proponents of liberal values, may be opening a door for radicals. “This could have negative consequences,” he said. “If you clear the field of secular, moderate, non-violent and reliable democratic opposition forces, a vacuum will form, and that will be filled by the representatives of radical movements. And there is no joking around with them.”
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Almaty, Kazakhstan.