March in Central Asia: refusing to be silenced – a new wave of protest In Kazakhstan4 min read
On February 28, violent clashes broke out between demonstrators and police during protests for democratic reforms in cities across Kazakhstan. The Tokayev administration has tried to give in to the demands of these groups, but their efforts have done little to quiet dissent. As tensions continue to rise, many are beginning to question if Kazakhstan is going to follow Kyrgyzstan or Belarus.
One of the most notable figures among the protestors was Maks Bokayev. Bokayev is a political activist who was released from prison less than a month earlier. Authorities have placed several restrictions on him to prevent him from engaging in political activism, but, as recent events have shown, he has no intention of stopping. He was joined by another group that the government has banned as an extremist party, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which similarly refuses to give in to government pressure.
Large-scale protests, like the one seen at the end of February, are a rather new phenomenon in Kazakhstan and that is not without reason. Kazakhstan is currently ranked at 62 on the WJP Rule of Law Index and has a long history of banning dissenting parties and giving out harsh punishments for small acts of protest. As at most protests of this size in the country, the police detained dozens of people at the rallies. The only protests that were permitted took place in Oral; they drew several hundred people and resulted in no detentions, although there was a visible police presence. Each protest had a slightly different focus, but the general theme of these protests was democratic reform and fair elections.
Bokayev has been one of the most vocal among those calling for democratic reforms; however, this has not always been the central focus of his activism. He has also rallied around several issues including corruption, pollution, and most notably land reform.
In 2016, Bokayev and fellow activist Talgat Ayan led peaceful demonstrations against a government scheme to sell farmland to foreign investors. For his activism, he received a five-year sentence on extremism charges. The arrests caught international attention and researchers at Human Rights Watch called it, “an outrageous miscarriage of justice”. Unfortunately, no appeals were accepted for Bokayev’s release and he was forced to serve the entirety of his sentence, even after he had severe restrictions placed on his activities, including being prohibited from joining public associations, including political parties.
What is interesting about the circumstances surrounding Bokayev recent release is the passage of a new law just a few weeks after. On February 25, Tokayev signed legislation that extended the law banning “the buying and renting of Kazakhstan’s farmlands by or to foreign persons and companies.” While it might just be mere coincidence that these two events happened in the same month, Tokayev’s comments surrounding the issues suggest otherwise. He claims that he passed the bill “to stop rumors” and supported it with several appeals to nationalist sentiment. The rumors he referred to are most likely the demands from figures like Bokayev. This concession made to protestors by Tokayev might suggest more willingness on the part of the government to listen to their demands; however other recent decisions have made it clear that this was an anomaly.
The government’s tightening suppression of dissent has been especially visible in its recent legal action against members of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. The party was first formed in the early 2000s by former Minister of Energy, Industry and Trade, Mukhtar Ablyazov, and was eventually banned in 2018 as an extremist organization. Despite the ban, the organization continues to hold protests, most notably the 2019 protests following the election of the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Recently two members of the party, Kenzhebek Abishev and Almat Zhumaghulov, had their prison sentences lengthened despite good behavior and request for parole. These decisions seem to foreshadow how authorities will most likely respond to the growing civil unrest in the cities, aggressively and with little regard towards human rights conventions.
Despite the police crackdown and detentions of party affiliates, it does not appear that these protestors have any intention of giving up the fight for democratic reform. Bokayev has even stated his intention to hold protests every Sunday in March, and other organizers are currently planning a women’s march for International Women’s Day. The majority of these future protests will undoubtedly be met with the same amount of force seen in February, but as opposition groups continue to ban together in their efforts, it might be increasingly difficult for authorities to squash these demonstrations. It is hard to say what the long-term effect of these protests will be, but it seems safe to say that March in Kazakhstan will be significant.