The Platform

Protests in Almaty, Kazakhstan in January 2022. (Vladimir Tretyakov)

According to one civil society activist in Kazakhstan, little has changed.

I recently interviewed Alma Nurusheva (@Alma_Karimgan) of the Kazakh-based civil society group Veritas (@Veritas_kz) in Astana. Through a translator, we discussed the state of civil liberties and politics in the world’s ninth-largest country.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does Veritas do?

Veritas is an organization that is focused on human rights issues in Kazakhstan. The main focus of Veritas is to highlight human rights abuses by the government.

What are the issues that Veritas faces?

We can’t get registered by the government.

The government doesn’t recognize you or your work?

We have applied eight times but every time we have been rejected.

Why do you think that is?

Because we work on pressing issues like human rights abuses and the unjust persecution of Kazakh citizens, and this angers the authorities. This is the main reason.

What are some of the abuses?

No freedom of speech, movement, or assembly within Kazakhstan. The government won’t let citizens hold meetings, protests, or marches. Everything, and everyone, is prosecuted and monitored.

Can you be more specific as to what ‘prosecuted’ means and how you are monitored?

You can’t criticize the authorities including [President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev]. Everyone who criticizes the president gets a visit from the authorities and they become subject to the legal system. The [authorities] find anything to harass us or we get arrested. Apart from that, in Kazakhstan, it’s very hard to get opposition parties registered.

In mid-November, the opposition party Alga Kazakhstan wanted to register, but they were rejected, for a tenth time. My organization, The 405, was also rejected; we declined another attempt. Opposition parties are not allowed to run in elections.

Why do you think that is?

The authorities find it sort of uncomfortable. Everything is under [Tokayev’s] control like enforcement, security, and the intelligence services. Everything is under [Tokayev’s] supervision. Opposition parties advocate for human rights, and they promote the rights of ordinary people.

We have a lot of problems in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, we have problems with housing and unemployment, and in the smaller regions, people are routinely underpaid.

Did that lead to the unrest in 2022?

It all started in the western part of Kazakhstan, with people striking, prompted by soaring energy prices. After that, it went like dominos, and other cities soon joined. There were a lot of protestors and the authorities got worried. [Tokayev] had to ask for help from the Russian-led CSTO.

There were shootings of protestors. There were people who were tortured. They experienced aggressive stuff on the part of law enforcement: their nails were pulled out and they were beaten. As a result, five people died. Wounded people in ambulances were taken by law enforcement and [badly] beaten. I still can’t get my head around it after hearing stories of people who were tortured and still experienced that. It’s hard for me to realize it [actually] happened.

[Tokayev] said that 20,000 terrorists came to Kazakhstan to protest. The authorities [claimed] a Kyrgyz musician was a terrorist. They showed him on TV, an ordinary musician from Kyrgyzstan, they forced him to admit that he was a terrorist. Provocateurs were actually sent in by the intelligence services. After the January protests, 10,000 people were arrested and 100 are still under investigation.

What proof do you have that they were provocateurs?

In my case, in Aktau, I have videos as proof. I saw all of these events unfold in real-time.

Did you see officers wearing civilian clothes?

No, unfortunately. The police just disappeared suddenly. There were 50 people from organized crime groups. They did provocations, like inciting riots. Many wore long beards to make them look menacing, like extremists. There were rumors that many of them were former officers.

Was Tokayev lying when he said that the protests were acts of terrorism?

He said that 20,000 terrorists arrived in Kazakhstan. Even the authorities have doubts about that. The general prosecutor said that there were no terrorists.

Was Tokayev completely unjustified in using deadly force?

He did that to keep himself in power. The November 2022 elections were snap elections. We’ve never had elections that have been held on time. Snap elections haven’t created the conditions for ordinary people to become candidates. One of the conditions is that candidate should have five years of work experience in public service.

Are the constitutional reforms mostly a facade?

Yes, none of the reforms have been realized.

Does the average Kazakh feel a sense of hopelessness about the future?

As long as these authorities are in power, there is no hope. For 30 years, we’ve had a dictatorship. Today, there were meetings, and participants who protested were arrested and detained.

Do you have a closing message for the West?

We need an international investigation of the authorities involved in this mess and personal sanctions for them.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.