Authorities in Kazakhstan are betraying a note of panic ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations by rounding up activists and sticking them behind bars.
Activists reported on social media accounts that police on May 17 barged into several homes of hopeful meeting participants and took them into detention.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported that at least five people were detained in Almaty. One of the people held by police was Yermek Narymbayev, who was recently convicted, but later given a suspended sentence, on charges of incitement to ethnic strife.
Narymbayev wrote on his Facebook account that another two Almaty activists, Suyundyk Aldabergenov and Bakytzhan Toregozhina, had been ordered to serve 15 days in jail. In an indication of the authorities' determination to keep as many potential rally organizers off the streets, the court passed its verdict against Aldabergenov and Toregozhina after 10 p.m.
The rallies planned for May 21 were scheduled ahead of a government decision to shelve proposed land auctions that had sparked widespread discontent. Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced subsequently that a state commission was to be set up to discuss privatization of land and that talks would include prominent opposition figures. Critics of the authorities have insisted, however, that it is necessary to keep up the tempo of public demonstrations to ensure that the government keeps to its word.
While agreeing to a compromise on the land sales, the authorities have shown they are prepared to take a firm line in denying all outlets for continued expressions of dissent.
Authorities in Astana, Almaty, Shymkent, Atyrau and other cities have formally denied approval to hold rallies on May 21. There have been several reported instances of people applying for permission to hold the meetings subsequently being detained.
In the northern city of Oral, Zhanat Yesentayev, who wrote to local authorities requesting a permit to hold a land protest was sentenced to 3 days in jail, Azattyq reported. The editor of local newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, Lukpan Akhmediyarov, said he was summoned to the prosecutor’s office.
In Astana, police searched the apartment of former member of parliament Ualikhan Kaisarov, apparently after they received reports the activist was in possession of an unregistered weapon.
In Atyrau, Max Bokayev and his friend, Talgat Ayan, were also sentenced to 15 days detention in a late-evening hearing on May 17. Others in the city, which saw a major land protests that drew thousands on April 24, have been summoned to the local prosecutor’s office. Such semi-informal approaches are typically thinly coded warnings against indulging in politically engaged behavior.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org some days ago, Bokayev had spoken of an intensification of pressure against local activists.
“It is not intimidation but rather subtle forms of pressure on participants in the rallies. Strange conversations, people made to sign notes pledging not take part in protests and so on. I think this will just irritate people even more and backfire,” he said.
Some people involved in the land protests have even found their social media accounts hacked by unknown persons.
State media — the partly Russian-owned First Channel Eurasia to be exact — have continued in their faintly ridiculous demonization campaign of rally organizers.
A segment presented by First Channel Eurasia anchorman Ruslan Smykov on May 16 opened with amateur footage of an out-of-control motorist driving the wrong way down a road and colliding into incoming traffic. What started as a rant on road safety then became a phenomenally contrived analogy about the dangers of refusing to accept the state-dictated consensus.
“One nutcase drives into the oncoming lane. Apparently, just because he thinks he can. Because he has an expensive car. And he probably thinks he is expressing a particular position of a supposedly privileged group of people,” Smykov said, gurning theatrically into the camera. “[There are people] willing to go against the grain, on the road and against society, against its laws. These people are like the ones that are threatening to hold unsanctioned meetings in various cities of Kazakhstan and that are going against the rules of society and demanding the legalization of prostitution. I think that the appropriate authorities should be checking them out.”
Although Smykov’s scripted outbursts of anger are bizarre and light on facts — the reference to legalizing prostitution appears to be pure fantasy of his own invention — the rhetoric may in fact jibe quite closely with the thinking of some of the leadership around President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Having been forced into a humiliating climbdown, Nazarbayev’s government has adopted a twin approach that it hopes will pay dividends. On one hand they believe they have taken the sting out of public anger and diminished the broad appeal of mass rallies by showing contrition over land reforms. And now they are smashing those activists unwise enough to continue popping their heads over the parapet. With popular misery provoked by economic hardship at an all-time high, however, it could prove be a high-stakes gamble.