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Slow change and growing pains for Kazakhstan

Support for Saturday's opposition protest in the capital city is not widely held, but fear is commonplace when it comes to political dissent.
Last modified: 28 Jan 2012 21:59
A rare non-permitted opposition rally was held in Kazakhstan's capital on Saturday [Robin Forestier-Walker/Al Jazeera]

"We demand change!" cried Kazakhstan's All National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) leader Bolat Abilov at Saturday's unsanctioned opposition rally in Almaty. His party is protesting the results of parliamentary elections on January 15 which OSCE monitors declared flawed. The OSDP failed to win a seat.

I was reminded of Kino's Peremen (Changes), an iconic Soviet hit from 1986 that presaged the end of the USSR. "We demand change," went the song.

Slow progress since then was the view among the several hundred who had gathered in the minus-12 degree temperature snowy Almaty. Some even drew comparisons with 1937 - the start of Stalinist repression - and Kazakhstan in 2012.

Such views are not widely held, but fear is commonplace when it comes to political dissent.

When I asked one woman if she was afraid to be at the rally she looked at me and said, "I'm afraid that if you show me on television, they will investigate my children". I apologised, and lowered the camera.

This week has seen an uptick in arrests of those who champion free speech and democracy. Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the political party Alga, and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, are among them.

It's not the first time Kazakhstan's national security (KNB) has raided offices and private homes and taken away people suspected of "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order" or "inciting social hatred". It won't be the last.

But KNB officers have certainly been busy since December 16th 2011, a day of tragedy for Kazakhstan, in which many civilians died at the hands of their own security forces in the western oil town of Zhanaozen. Dozens of activists and oil workers are accused of involvement in the riot from that day, and face long jail sentences.

On the January 25, the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States, Erlan Idrissov, made this statement on Zhanaozen to the US Helsinki Commission hearing in Washington on human rights in Kazakhstan:

This disturbance, which I am sad to say resulted in at least 16 deaths and many injuries, is an example of the growing pains that our young nation is going through. Oil workers in Zhanaozen have been pressing for higher wages and better conditions and the government has been working to address their concerns. Nevertheless, the rioters, possibly instigated by outsiders, chose destruction rather than negotiation.

A carbon-copy argument was made by Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Kazakhstan's foreign minister, in an article to Foreign Policy

The disturbance - which I am sad to say resulted in at least 16 deaths and many injuries - was unprecedented for Kazakhstan and is an example of the growing pains that our young nation is going through.... The result, including an effort by the police to restore order, was tragic, but it can also be instructive.

The growing pains analogy is curious, as it implies that deaths of innocent people are just a part of Kazakhstan growing up. Something which the government's supporters say will happen in its own time, and not overnight. This week, for example, Kazakhstan's prosecutor general announced that some police officers and local officials from Zhanaozen would also face criminal charges for their role in the violence.

There were only one or two really angry voices at the rally. One was a young artist who appeared to get quite carried away with himself. "We don't want another Stalin!" he screamed, "and Nazarbayev is not my father!" President Nazarbayev's is referred to by many as 'Papa'.

Some of those standing beside him looked slightly embarrassed by his performance, as if he was overdoing it.

The opposition plans to hold another rally at the end of February. But if they were hoping to build momentum, it seems like a long time to wait. Still, it might have been a sensible decision: it will give Abilov and two other OSDP leaders time to be released from jail. Abilov was later slapped with an 18 day jail sentence and his colleagues were given fifteen days for Saturday's illegal gathering.