Taking a Stand in Kazakstan

sanat_urnaliev_demoJournalist who led demo against referendum allowing president to avoid elections says even small-scale protest has symbolic value.

As soon as plans were announced for a referendum on extending the president's term in office until 2020, I decided I had to stand up and show I was against it.

I discussed my plan of action on local internet forums, where I made it clear what I was going to do but did not ask anyone else to join me as it was a matter of private conscience.

However, a colleague from the local Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, two students and two activists from the still-unregistered Alga party expressed a desire to join me. On January 6, we went to the main square in Uralsk, the administrative centre of West Kazakstan region, and took up position outside the provincial government building.

The six of us stood there, ringed by about a dozen policemen led by the deputy provincial police chief and the head of the public order department.

After just over quarter of an hour, a prosecutor came up to us and handed us a document stating that our actions were illegal, as we did not have permission to hold a meeting from the local authorities. We ignored this, as the constitution of Kazakstan and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which our country has ratified, both give us the right of peaceful assembly to express a view on any issue.

What followed was the standard treatment meted out to demonstrators in Kazakstan. We were bundled off to a police station, where we were charged with the misdemeanours of organising an illegal meeting and resisting police. In court, Ahmedyarov and I were each sentenced to five days in jail and fined 100 US dollars, while the others received fines of between 70 and 200 dollars.

The message is clear – everyone who voices protest against President Nursultan Nazarbaev will be arrested and tried. It has happened many times before.

Our demonstration against the referendum was the first of its kind, though small. Other similar actions included a youth protest in the financial capital Almaty and a one-man protest by an opposition member in the southern city of Taraz.

The lack of wider protests is no surprise. People in Kazakstan are fearful of expressing their views in public. If they did, they would crushed by the authorities.

Fear also breeds apathy. Hence, many of my fellow-citizens are indifferent to political developments.

Some political scientists explain away by arguing that our people are innately patient. I don't agree that it's a question of mindset. People in Kazakstan do not know how to channel their feelings of protest mood, or how to articulate their unhappiness with the political system.

What is certainly rooted in tradition is the habit of complaining in private, drowning one's sorrows in alcohol, and firmly believing that the actions of one person cannot change anything.

Our society has no aspiration to engage in political dialogue, no opportunity to put pressure on the authorities in a civilised and peaceful way, and no social cohesion.

At the same time, one cannot underestimate the potential impact of expressing one's views as a citizen in public. If we do not, public apathy will lead to even more tragic consequences – unchecked behaviour by the authorities, and the sense that they can do anything they want.

Demonstrations and other forms of protest, however small, are thus not merely a way of demanding change; they symbolise the need to awaken public awareness and help people realise what democratic principles really mean.

Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted last April, is proof that change is possible even in a Central Asian ruled by a dictatorship. The new authorities there are forced to take the people's views into account.

This kind of development irritates, even intimidates Kazakstan's political elite, which fears its own opposition and nation could gain inspiration to take action. The popular unrest that brought about the fall of regimes in post-Soviet states like Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine is therefore portrayed as the work of meddling "western imperialists". The authorities also try to scare people by warning that political unrest can lead to ethnic violence and instability.

TV channels in Kazakstan often show scenes of marauding and murder in Kyrgyzstan, as if to ask viewers whether that is the sort of thing they want to happen in their own country.

For the average citizen of Kazakstan, who is not politically aware or active, the choice is clear – peace and order rather than bloodshed and violence. In reality, that choice means a total lack of freedom and a society where human rights are not respected. Maybe that's all we deserve.

Sanat Urnaliev is a journalist in Kazakstan.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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