Kazakhstan launched a rare exercise in consulting with the general public earlier this year to defuse spreading discontent, but the authorities are now bracing to pull the plug on the experiment and return to its more trusted heavy-handed measures.
This weekend, the government-initiated outreach commission on the land reforms rolled into the western city of Atyrau, which is notable for having mounted the largest protest rally against the proposed reforms in the spring.
While much of the discussion on July 23 was centered on the reforms themselves, there were also multiple impassioned demands for the release of jailed activists Max Bokayev and his friend, Talgat Ayan.
Organization of this session of the commission had not gone smoothly. One prominent member opposed to the reforms, Mukhtar Taizhan, had announced on his Facebook account that it was to be held on July 16, but the event was postponed. Commission chair and Agriculture Minister Askar Myrzakhmetov told Ak Zhaiyk newspaper that it was taking an unexpectedly long time to arrange the equipment to stream the event over the internet.
Once the date came around though, only 25 people in of 75-member body actually turned up, although the event was at least open to the public.
Amendments to the land law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years. The law also set the terms for a series of land auctions that would have been open only to citizens of Kazakhstan. All the provisions have since been reversed amid widespread public opposition.
Initially, the idea was for the land commission to present its findings by the end of the year, but there are signs patience is wearing thin at the top. On July 22, President Nursultan Nazarbayev demanded results from the consultations by the end of the summer.
"I ask that you work out solutions to all the issues that have been identified, so that by the end of August we can hold an extended government meeting on preliminary results and plan further actions,” Nazarbayev told Prime Minister Karim Masimov, according to a statement on the government website.
The entire point of devoting extensive time to the process was to ensure widespread and fully inclusive consultation with the general population, but that seems to have gone out of the window.
There is an increasing sense that the government is struggling to the negotiate its way out of the dense web of feverish conspiracy that it concocted as a way of killing off the protest movement.
As the commission hearing was taking place, the lawyer for jailed activists Bokayev and Ayan, Tolepkali Ayanov, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that the charges against them had been downgraded from “seizure of power” to three different charges: spreading false information, inciting social unrest, and violating the public peace by holding public demonstrations.
This presents an obvious logical inconsistency, however, since prosecutors are now pursuing a case against businessman Tokhtar Tuleshov on charges of plotting a coup by organizing and financing the very same protests involving Bokayev and Ayan. One can only surmise that the authorities wish the public to believe that the activists were somehow supposed to expedite Tuleshov’s seizure of power without being aware of what was going on.
This came up repeatedly in Atyrau. Quizzed on the matter, Myrzakhmetov conceded that the pair were indeed not mounting a plot to overthrow the government, but had just “broken some laws.”
Members of the public at the commission session painstakingly pointed out a glaring inconsistency that the government has tried very hard to avoid noticing — namely, that the protests were born out of genuine social frustrations and had not been spirited out of thin air by a sinister operator.
“You are all here because of the peaceful protests. We have nothing left but our land. Bokayev and Ayan conveyed the desires of the people in front of a peaceful rally of 6,000-7,000. I myself was at the meeting, as were the city prosecutor, the regional governor and the mayor. With their own eyes they saw as we did not damage one tree or a single flower. And now these people [Bokayev and Ayan] are deemed criminals and are sitting in prison,” said Rinat Ravkhat, a resident of Atyrau region.
As the protests were unfolding, one issue highlighted by domestic political observers was that the movement had the potential to broaden and encompass issues beyond land, and it is clear that has not gone away.
“How are rural people supposed to live? The people are crying. We cannot even buy one liter of milk. We cannot eat one spoonful of oil? Where do we live? I won’t say anything more, the people know this all already,” Okiza Makhambetova, an elderly woman who said she also attended the Atyrau rally, told the commission. “And the stealing in the government — all this will eventually come out. You don’t consider the people to be human beings! I came to the rally when I learned about while I was at the bazaar. Don’t you think people have any awareness? If need be, the people will rise up tomorrow.”
After listening to Makhambetova’s speech, Myrzakhmetov primly noted that the commission had assembled to listen to one another and not to criticize.
“The land commission is being broadcast live, and it is being seen not just by Kazakhs, but by everybody else too. They are evaluating our level of culture, so let us think about that too,” he said.
It was to no avail.
“The fact that the organizers of the Atyrau rally are being prosecuted by the government is hugely offensive,” said another local resident, Dospan Zhumabay. “Time will pass and they will be considered heroes of an independent Kazakhstan. And yet you have paraded them before the whole world as though they were the organizers of a state coup.”
A representative from the General Prosecutor’s Office, Khabylsayat Abishev, was present at the commission session, but tried to back out of the proceedings by saying the meeting was not the proper place to discuss ongoing investigations.
A nice try, but nobody was having it.
But Talgat Ayan’s mother came bearing documents concerning her son’s case.
“You just said that this (case) is confidential, but there is no secret. Here are my son’s charge sheets,” she said, speaking to Abishev. “I have memorized it. You all know Tuleshov. Well, according to the charges, when Talgat organized a one-man picket against the rise in prices [in July 2015], it was at Tuleshov’s instigation. And through the assistant of an assistant, he gave him $100,000 and ordered a taxi in Atyrau for 80,000 tenge ($230). Would you believe such a fairytale? My son’s court hearings took place at half past midnight. Have you ever seen this before in Kazakhstan?”
And while the government has made a half-hearted first at showing its conciliatory side, it is clear that it is now preparing to revert ever so surely to the stick.
Regional newspaper Ak Zhaiyk newspaper has reported that despite the Atyrau regional governor promising not to prosecute civic activists involved in the protest movement, hundreds are being questioned.
“Participants in the April meeting are being summoned as witnesses, as are Facebook users. Ak Zhaiyk journalists are also being summoned. At one of the first rounds of questioning, we learned that more than 300 people have already given evidence. And since then the number of witnesses in the Bokayev-Ayan case has only grown,” the newspaper reported.