International Policy Digest

World News /17 May 2019

Protesters Detained, and Opposition Websites Shut down as Kazakhstan’s Elections Draw Nearer

The European Union recently issued a statement claiming to be closely monitoring the changing situation in Kazakhstan. The statement expressed how the EU is looking forward to “a credible and inclusive presidential election which respects the will of the Kazakh people.” The reality of the situation couldn’t be more different. As June 9 draws closer, Kazakh authorities are increasingly clamping down on the stirring protest movement. There is a sense of anger amongst the Kazakh people over what is perceived as a carefully stage-managed transition, the result – spilling out of discontent.

When Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March, he believed the transition would be smooth and so the protests have taken the authorities by surprise. The voice of protesters is marring the period of transition and has provoked both fear and action from the government, and as a result, has seen the Kazakh authorities returning to their longstanding means of control – crushing political protests and imprisoning those who fight for the rights of ordinary citizens. Their response contradicts what the EU sees as an election that respects the will of the people. Protesters are being detained, journalists harassed, and opposition websites shut down.

Large-scale protests were planned for May 9, or Victory Day, but Kazakh police were well-prepared. Protesters were arrested before they were able to leave their homes, journalists were targeted, and multiple social media platforms and independent news sites were unavailable for much of the day in an attempt to prevent the spread of information and further organisation of protests.

The police crackdown followed weeks of rumbling unrest, which has left multiple people detained for peacefully expressing their opinion. Aslan Sagutdinov was detained for holding a blank sign, a move he undertook to test how far the police would go and to see whether he would be detained. He was. “I want to show the idiocy in our country has gotten so strong that the police will detain me now even though there are no inscriptions, no slogans, without my chanting or saying anything,” he said in the YouTube video depicting his arrest. He was taken into police custody, questioned and released. Others haven’t been so lucky.

Roman Zakharov, hoisted a banner over a pedestrian overpass in Almaty on the 29 April reading “The sole source of state power is the people.” He was arrested and sentenced to five days in jail on charges of petty hooliganism. The words on Zakharov’s banner were a direct quotation from the Kazakh Constitution. The stunt was done as a gesture of solidarity with Asya Tulesova and Beibaris Tolymbekov, who are currently serving a 15-day jail sentence for unfurling a banner at the Almaty marathon. The banner brandished the line “you cannot run from the truth,” accompanied by the hashtags #ForFairElections and #IHaveAChoice. The pairs 15-day sentencing was based on the accusation of “disturbing the holding of peaceful assemblies.”

The use of trumped-up criminal charges makes the fate of protesters illegally detained even more concerning, false charges are commonly used to silence critics. Those who have been involved in protests in the past have been struck with a charge of “inciting national discord,” a charge which can result in five years in prison. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s poor reputation for ensuring the right to a fair trial suggests that many of those charged with trumped-up charges will be tried unfairly.

Kazakhstan has an obligation to fulfill its commitments to the international human rights treaties that it voluntarily signed, and it is in its interest to do so. The Kazakh authorities wish to see Kazakhstan fully recognised by international bodies, but its human rights record is holding it back. Human Rights Watch repeatedly describes the situation in Kazakhstan as “poor,” something that is unlikely to change unless there is a louder international outcry.

As interim President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev inherits Kazakhstan’s internal challenges and moves forward towards June’s presidential elections it is becoming increasingly clear he will follow Nazarbayev’s lead when it comes to dealing with protests – as is widely believed, Nazarbayev continues to pull the strings from his roles as Chairman of the Nur Otan Party and of the Security Council, which means that drastic reform is unlikely. The clear obstruction of any debate surrounding the elections and the suppression of the media proves that the EU has either misunderstood what is going on in Kazakhstan or has chosen to ignore it. The Kazakh authorities are not respecting the will of the people and as June 9 draws closer, it appears there will be little change in Kazakhstan and that it will continue to be ruled with an iron fist.