Authorities in Kazakhstan have snuffed out a wave of land protests – using warnings, restrictions and arrests of activists – preventing them growing into a wider, Ukrainian Euromaidan-style movement with far-fetching political demands.
However, the ongoing economic crisis and growing social discontent suggest that another contentious issue could spark similar protests, threatening the much-touted political stability in the county.
Galym Ageuelov, an Almaty-based civil society activist who was forced to stay at home by police on May 21 to prevent him joining nationwide protests, suggests that the government has managed to curtail the wave of protests this time but has failed to address the social discontent with its policies.
“The protest mood will continue to haunt the government and protests will eventually return with a new impetus,” Ageuelov tells bne IntelliNews. “There could be any issue that will trigger large-scale protests.”
The activist says that by heavy-handed tactics in defusing the protests authorities emboldened those detained by police this time round to fight for their rights. “Authorities should change tactics and start allowing people to lawfully voice grievances,” he says.
Ahead of the planned rallies, some members of a 75-people-strong commission on the land reforms – set up in response to public protests and headed by Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev and made up of government officials, MPs and public figures – also called on the government to allow people to hold rallies.
“There have been rallies in several regions and no-one has suffered. People just expressed their views. On May 21 peaceful rallies should be allowed and law-enforcement agencies should ensure that no-one suffers in them,” human rights activist and member of the commission Maksat Nurypbayev told the commission on May 14.
The country’s Prosecutor-General’s Office said on May 21 that police had arrested 40 people on administrative charges of calling for and organising rallies to protest against the land reforms, which envisage selling farmland at auctions and extending the lease of farmland to foreigners from 10 to 25 years.
On May 5 President Nursultan Nazarbayev imposed a moratorium on controversial amendments to the Land Code, adopted in November 2015 and expected to come into force on July 1, after they sparked unprecedented large-scale street protests in the oil capital of Atyrau on April 24 which spread to the other oil cities of Aktobe, Aktau and Oral (also spelt as Uralsk), and further to Semey, Astana and Almaty. Zhanaozen, which was the scene of violent unrest in December 2011 when clashes between striking oil workers and security forces resulted in at least 15 deaths, also held a rally against the sale of farmland.
However, activists went ahead and called for a nationwide day of protests on May 21, despite authorities warning people to stay away from rallies that they didn’t authorise. As a result, authorities resorted to tested-and-tried methods of harassment, keeping activists at home and arrests.
On May 21, Deputy Prosecutor-General Andrey Kravchenko said that 40 people had committed administrative offences by calling and organising protests on May 21. “These people are initiators and organisers of illegal protests which were planned today and they are not those who simply wanted to come and take part in them or in other ways express their views on the land issues that are widely discussed now,” he said.
Activists estimate that more than 300 people – both those who intended to take part in the rallies and accidental passers-by – were rounded up by police and bussed away to police stations. Among them there were journalists too, which the Interior Ministry described as a “misunderstanding”.
“This [arrests of journalists] was not deliberate. It was a simple misunderstanding. In future we will analyse the actions of our personnel and take measures to prevent such incidents,” Igor Lepekha, chairman of the Interior Ministry’s Administrative Police Committee, said on May 21.
In a separate development, on May 20 police in Almaty sealed off the city’s main square after it discovered Molotov cocktails, iron bars and petrol tanks hidden in a manhole near the square. Police also discovered firearms, live cartridges and grenades in two flats in central Almaty and arrested five people.
Lepekha said that the discovery had proven authorities’ conviction that “there will be provocations against police or conflict situations” during the rallies. “It is clear that what we have found could hardly be used for peaceful aims. Most likely, this was also [part of] preparations for rallies,” he suggested.
Some residents in Almaty suggest that the “caches” had been deliberately planted near the venue of the protests in order to discredit the protest movement as a threat to stability in the country. “Many people believe that the discovered ‘caches’ are an invention by the authorities,” an Almaty resident, who gave only her first name as Julia, told bne IntelliNews.
Earlier, the state-run First Channel Eurasia, a joint venture by Russia’s First Channel (20%) and Kazakhstan’s national broadcasting corporation (80%), suggested that the protest movement, sparked by the land reforms, had been “paid for by contractors” and “in the interests of the homeland” ran a dodgy clip showing money changing hands.
The plans to hold unauthorised rallies, the arrests and the discovery of the “caches” have also stirred debate in traditionally apolitical, rural and poor regions in the country’s south and north. “Something strange is happening in our region. Police are checking cars on roads. A helicopter hovered in the sky,” a resident of northern Kostanay Region told bne IntelliNews. I don’t know that was planned there but there have been detentions.”
“People are keeping silent because they have been frightened and fooled. Protesters are being presented as drug addicts and outcasts,” Yerzhan, a 53-year-old shopkeeper in the southern city of Taraz, told bne IntelliNews, pointing out that Kazakhstan was using discrediting tactics modelled on Soviet tricks. “In 1986 [Zheltoksan] protesters were also presented as drug addicts and outcasts, but they are now being described as heroes,” he added, referring to the Zheltoksan protests against Soviet policies in Almaty in December 1986.
Julia, a 21-year-old student from Taraz, suggested that “people have been motivated, not paid for protesting, but they were somehow fooled”. “On the other hand, the government doesn’t care about people’s concerns and [the position of] protesters is understandable. I think they will still sell the land despite the protests.”