Green shoots of democracy in #Kazakhstan

| June 21, 2019

Behind the headlines about the protests on the streets of Nur-Sultan (Astana) and Almaty last week, there are encouraging signs that Kazakhstan’s young democracy is maturing, writes Colin Stevens.

The presidential elections held on Sunday 9 June returned Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as Kazakhstan’s new President. He was sworn into office on 12 June, and received a congratulatory telegram from the president of the United States.

Whilst the final results of the elections showed an emphatic victory for Tokayev with over 70% of the votes, former journalist Amirzhan Kossanov, the nearest contender, still received a very respectable 16% of the vote. His result confirms that credible opposition exists in the country, which is an encouraging sign for democracy in this young republic.

A second and perhaps more important sign of Kazakhstan’s growing maturity is that public street protests did happen, there was open media coverage of the demonstrations, and the police response to deal with the protestors was measured.

Tokayev had already been predicted to win the poll by a landslide weeks before the election, but there were demonstrations on the streets of Almaty and Nur-Sultan. The protests were encouraged on the sidelinesby the fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov during the elections and the following days, and they led to hundreds of arrests. Mixed up in the arrests were a number of innocent genuine protestors campaigning peacefully for social change.

There was prior intelligence about Ablyazov’s planned illegal rallies, and the authorities were forewarned of his actions. Accordingly the police were well-prepared to handle the situation from the standpoint of the law in a controlled and strategic way. They were briefed in advance to use minimum force, despite being attacked by the protesters from behind with stones and missiles. 

By comparison with the spontaneous demonstrations in Hong Kong, which have seen police firing rubber bullets and using tear gas against protesters, the Kazakh police as a matter of deliberate policy did not use any technical means of suppression (no tear gas, no water cannons, no batons, not even handcuffs). 

The numbers of injuries following the protests bear witness to this; no protestors are reported as having received serious injury, or hospitalisation, but three police officers sustained injuries requiring hospital treatment.

The police’s “softly, softly” strategy was made possible because they had advance intelligence of the premeditated illegal protests, which were organised with a view to provoking disturbances and hostile reactions. But there were also some counter-accusations against the police of violence.

The authorities were aware of the involvement of the fugitive criminal Ablyazov, who continues to use his considerable illicit fortune to work together with the rogue NGO the Open Dialogue Foundation “ODF” to seek revenge against the Kazakh authorities for his court convictions for murder, money laundering and fraud.

This Brussels-based NGO has proven financial links to a number of extremely wealthy fugitives, mostly wanted for money laundering in Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and other countries. The ODF carries outlobbying activities on their behalf in the name of “human rights”, presenting them publicly as persecuted members of the political opposition.

Ablyazov is currently in exile in France and broadcast live-streamed videos on Facebook and YouTube urging citizens to protest. He is deeply frustrated by the banning of the political movement the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), which he funds and which was declared an extremist organisation in March 2017 by the Kazakh courts, for inciting social discord and making public calls for the seizure of power.

Some civilians did resort to violence last week, but these were not genuine protests, they were agents provocateurs planted to cause trouble and foment disturbance. The police repeatedly warned protestors that their actions were illegal and called on them to disperse. These calls were unheeded by protestors, but the police finally took action to apprehend and detain the main trouble makers when they came under attack by groups of well prepared and coordinated young men who threw missiles at the police from behind their lines. 

Whilst things are now quietening down, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan has warned citizens that the law enforcement bodies will continue to suppress illegal protests and take all necessary measures to stop demonstrations. “Law enforcement agencies will continue to prevent such violations and take measures provided for by law to prevent them,” a spokesman for the office  said.

Two Kazakh human rights groups have urged the government to investigate the detentions of protesters. Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and the Human Rights Charter Foundation issued a joint statement protesting against “mass violations of civil rights and freedoms, namely freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

The National Committee for Public Confidence created by President Tokayev specifically to deal with political reforms, will meet in August, and will review the next steps in the reform programme. An important issue will be the promotion of independence of the media and the freedom of speech, and how to respect the need for this whilst dealing simultaneously with hostile anti-social propaganda campaigns organised by disruptive forces of political opposition. Incoming President Tokayev has many important tasks on his agenda to nurture Kazakhstan’s transition to democracy whilst keeping the economy strong, stable and dynamic.

But he can take forward two important lessons from his experience with this election, the first is that having opposition in government can be healthy and help to unite the country going forward with reforms. The second is that whilst managing civic protest and provocative demonstrations is not easy, it is an encouraging sign of growing maturity that the government authorities were able on this occasion to contain difficult public demonstrations in a controlled and sensitive way.


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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan

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