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Dozens of people were detained during protests in March against plans to rename the capital after former President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

NUR-SULTAN -- Sensing a loosening in the authoritarian choke hold they've lived under for some 30 years, Kazakhs are rallying for rights and reforms in a stream of protests unlike any in this energy-rich Central Asian country since the early 2000s.

"This opportunity will perhaps never come again," activist Aslan Saghutdinov said of the surprise resignation of longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the controlled transfer of power to a trusted protégé, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. "If we don't do [something now], everything will simply be worse. We shouldn't miss this moment when it is possible to change something in our country."

Motivated by Nazarbaev's resignation on March 19 after 30 years in power, hundreds of Kazakhs have taken part in rallies around the country demanding political reform, improved social conditions, and a free and fair presidential election on June 9 -- when Toqaev is expected to easily defeat a field of mostly token challengers.

But the government is fighting back with waves of arrests, fines, and jail terms, while forced military service and even a suspicious pet death are fueling fears of extrajudicial punishments.

Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained or jailed in the past three months, and at least six male activists have been either summoned to army-recruitment offices or already forced into military service.

Those known to have been called in by the military -- Alimzhan Izbasarov, Beibarys Tolymbekov, Daniyar Khasenov, Berikbol Sadybai, Marat Oskenali, and Saghutdinov -- had student, medical, or other legal deferments from serving. They said they believe the army summonses -- some were even grabbed off the street by police and taken to recruitment centers -- are a response to their political activities.

Izbasarov, who despite not receiving an answer from army officials about a medical condition that he says keeps him from serving in the military, was declared fit for duty on June 5 and sent with a small group of recruits from Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, to an army recruitment camp in the southern city of Taraz. He is likely to be there for the year of service that Kazakh men aged 18 to 27 are obliged to perform.

Izbasarov told RFE/RL he received the notification from police ordering him to a recruitment center immediately after he completed a 15-day jail sentence on charges of failing to obey police and taking part in an unsanctioned Labor Day rally in Nur-Sultan on May 1.

Interim Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev attend a congress of the Nur Otan ruling party in the capital, Nur-Sultan, on April 23.
Interim Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev attend a congress of the Nur Otan ruling party in the capital, Nur-Sultan, on April 23.

Izbasarov said he thinks he was drafted because officials want to ensure "that active youth are not around" while Kazakhstan readies itself for the election.

The 23-year-old activist said he had used social media since getting out of jail to promote demonstrations and exhort other Kazakhs to get politically active.

"May 1 is the day when people overcame their fears," he told a group of activists at a rally in Nur-Sultan on May 21. "We, the youth, should unite, then our parents will join us."

Before he was sent to Taraz, the newly shorn Izbasarov spoke out as he stood with his fellow recruits.

"I know that sending me to the army is politically motivated. The regime of Kazakhstan is afraid of me, afraid that I will be in Astana (Nur-Sultan) before the election, and, of course, they want to isolate me during this period. I'm not afraid of the army and have nothing against the army. All is well. I will serve. There, too, are the same citizens as me."

Tolymbekov, 20, served 15 days in jail in April and May after he and activist Asya Tulesova unfurled a large banner along the route of the Almaty Marathon that read, "You can't run from the truth." He was conscripted immediately after his release and sent to boot camp on May 17, despite concerns from rights organizations that he would be subjected to "military service harassment and abuse."

Kazakh activist Asya Tulesova
Kazakh activist Asya Tulesova

Rights activists added that Tolymbekov's mother, Lyazzat Tolymbekova, and other relatives were harassed and threatened with job dismissals if Tolymbekov did not join the army.

Activist Saghutdinov was summoned to an army-recruiting office in Uralsk on May 15, nine days after he was detained for holding up a large white piece of paper in the city's main square in a mock protest, having correctly predicted that he would be arrested, even though he said nothing and held a blank sign.

Meta Protest: Kazakh Man Detained Holding Blank Poster
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The 22-year-old was detained but released shortly afterward when police could not determine what crime to charge him with.

"It turns out that when I go to photograph a rally or do something else, they call me in to the army registration and enlistment office," he said. "I have heart problems.... I provide all the documents that show I have such a diagnosis. But they keep on calling me."

Saghutdinov said he thinks this moment in Kazakh history -- the change in leadership for the first time since 1989 -- is the time for people to demand democratic reforms.

"At some point I realized that now is the moment when it is worth doing something -- to show one's civil position -- because this moment will perhaps never happen again," he said.

Kazakh authorities have refused to comment on activists' accusations that they are using conscription to discourage opposition.

In addition to the widespread May 1 protests at which hundreds of people were detained and many fined and/or jailed, there have also been protests by large groups of mothers demanding improved social benefits for their families, most recently in front of the presidential palace in Nur-Sultan on June 3.

Other opposition events have included a large group of protesters -- dissatisfied with the country's judiciary and what they see as the unjust arrests of demonstrators -- bursting into the headquarters of the Nur-Otan party in the capital on June 4 and spending several hours there demanding to speak with Toqaev.

Interim Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev delivers a speech as he attends military exercises in the Almaty region on May 3.
Interim Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev delivers a speech as he attends military exercises in the Almaty region on May 3.

Another burst of political activism was the holding of a Khalyk Ryltayy, or People's Assembly, on June 1 in Nur-Sultan -- despite officials' futile attempts to block entry into the hotel venue. Dozens of activists from around Kazakhstan forced their way into the hotel and spoke out against Nazarbaev and his continued hold on power as delegates urged fellow voters to boycott the presidential election because they say the outcome is predetermined.

And Kazakh actor Anuar Nurpeisov captured social-media attention when he started the "I Woke Up" video meme in which young people film themselves stating a basic freedom that is lacking in Kazakhstan. Its success led a group of pro-government youths to make similar videos -- but praising state officials or some aspect of Kazakh society.

Woke In Kazakhstan: Viral Videos Open Eyes To Political Problems
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Asked by the German TV station ARD on June 2 if he was worried about having problems with the authorities because of the "I Woke Up" campaign, Nurpeisov said: "We've been living for 30 years with problems. It is time to end them."

Nurpeisov's campaign led on June 5 to the establishment of a new movement, Wake Up Kazakhstan, which held a press conference to announce its call for political reforms and for voters to either boycott the presidential election or spoil their ballots.

Meanwhile, prominent Kazakh rights lawyer Aiman Omarova said on June 5 that she believes her dog was poisoned to death in an attempt to scare her.

Omarova had represented Sairagul Sauytbay, the Kazakh-Chinese woman who helped expose the Muslim reeducation camps that exist in China and who fled to Sweden on June 3 after being denied asylum in Kazakhstan.

Sauytbay's case had been a thorn in Kazakhstan's side, as China was demanding her extradition and Western countries were calling on Kazakh officials to grant her asylum or allow her to travel to the West.

Omarova -- who received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2018 -- said her dog was young and healthy and liked by the neighbors.

"My dog was most likely poisoned. And I am confident that it is because of my professional activities," she said, adding that she had filed a police report.

Earlier this year, Omarova said a dead cat had been hung on the entrance gate to her home in an apparent warning against representing people who think they are being prosecuted for political reasons.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondents Saniya Toiken, Sanat Urnaliyev, and Ruslan Medelbek
The press conference in Almaty on June 7 was halted when a group of around 20 women barged in and started shouting slogans.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A news conference organized in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, by a group of mothers who are demanding social benefits and proper housing has been disrupted by other women.

The incident comes two days ahead of snap presidential elections.

The press conference being held at Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights on June 7 was stopped when a group of some 20 women barged in and started shouting slogans against single mothers and mothers with many children who had announced the event to highlight their plight on the eve of the election.

"You are violating our nation's peace," "We do not want to have a second Ukraine here," and "Our government is doing everything for you," were some of the slogans shouted by the group.

One of the organizers of the press conference, Zhansaya Zhanabaeva, told RFE/RL that she and other mothers wanted to tell journalists about the difficulties they are facing and their ongoing demands.

The organizers of the press conference said they suspected that those disrupting the event had been sent by the city authorities.

Almaty city administration representatives were not available for immediate comment.

Protests about improper living conditions have been held across the country for months after five children from one family died when their home in the capital burned down in early February.

The tragedy occurred while both parents were working overnight shifts to make ends meet. The last such rallies were held in Nur-Sultan on June 3.

An early presidential election scheduled for June 9 was called after longtime authoritarian leader Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned in March following almost 30 years in power.

The speaker of the Kazakh parliament's upper chamber, the Senate, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev became interim president and is widely expected to win the upcoming election.

Critics and rights groups say Nazarbaev, who tolerated little dissent, denied many citizens basic rights and prolonged his power in the energy-rich country of 18.7 million by manipulating the democratic process.

No vote held in Kazakhstan since it declared independence from the Soviet Union 1991 has been deemed free and democratic by international observers.

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