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Kazakhstan: Opposition Parties Demonstrate

By Merhat Sharipzhan and Bruce Pannier

Prague, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An unauthorized demonstration against the Kazakh government's "arbitrary rule" took place in front of the parliament building in Almaty at the weekend (November 30). It was only the latest of a series of demonstrations and strikes this year in Kazakhstan, and on this occasion between 500 and 1,000 people heard speeches from members of opposition parties and movements. Several of those groups represented had tried to register to hold the demonstration on November 16, but they were denied by the city procurator general's office. So they went ahead and held it anyway, just two weeks later.

Similarly, none of the earlier demonstrations had the approval of the authorities, either local, regional or state. Retaliation by the Kazakh government could be characterized as low key, taking place through the court system, with the charges usually relating to organization of, or participation in, an unauthorized rally. This is actually one of the "arbitrary rules" people were protesting on November 30.

No one ever does receive permission to hold a rally or demonstration in the interests of preserving public order. But events in the aftermath of the weekend demonstration have been more heavy-handed. The courts are at work again but now something else seems to be happening.

Following Sunday's demonstration, police stopped a car with amplifiers which had been used at the protest. These pieces of equipment were confiscated, though it was not clear if they were taken as evidence or merely to hinder future demonstrators.

The next day was more eventful. On December 1, Madel Ismailov and Yuri Venkov, the chairman and co-chairman respectively of Kazakhstan's Workers' Movement, were summoned to police headquarters for questioning. Both have already served time in jail for their part in a demonstration last May. While those two were at the police station, two policemen went to Venkov's apartment. The only person home was Venkov's 15-year-old daughter, who apparently let the policemen inside. Once in, the policemen refused to produce any documents authorizing them to be there and instead asked for the whereabouts of Ismailov, who was then at police headquarters. According to the girl the men used vulgar language and even struck her hands during their questioning.

Also called to talk to the police that day was Murat Auezov, a co-chairman of the Azamat (Citizen) Movement. The police told Auezov he had been charged with "organizing an unsanctioned rally." Auezov's trial was the next day, he lost and was fined 2,480 tenge ($33), not a huge sum but in a country where the average wage is 5,000-6,000 tenge a month, not insignificant either.

Another Azamat co-chairman, Petr Svoik, was involved in a violent incident off Kazakh soil. The same day Ismailov, Venkov and Auezov were answering questions at police stations, Svoik was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, for a conference. After Svoik and his wife had gone to bed four masked men broke into their room and beat them. The incident might easily be written off as the work of bandits or hooligans but those who follow events in Central Asia may remember that in 1994 the brother of local activist leader Abdurahim Pulat was seized by Uzbek security agents as he attended a human rights conference also in Bishkek. Svoik was in Bishkek for a conference on "Democratic Changes in Central Asia."

There are likely to be many more of "unsanctioned" rallies during the next two years, leading up to parliamentary elections (in 1999) and a presidential poll in Kazakhstan (in 2000). Indications are that social conditions are worsening. Prices for basic goods and services are going up, yet living conditions are going down.

At another unsanctioned demonstration this last May there were signs which urged Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to "Remember What Happened to Najibullah!" -- an allusion to the former president of Afghanistan who was dragged from a UN compound in Kabul, beaten and hung by Taliban militiamen in September 1996. It would be unfair to compare conditions in Kazakhstan to those in Afghanistan, but it is unrealistic to ignore these sentiments and to believe that banning demonstrations will bring stability. With political campaigning due to begin soon, the government will have to accustom itself to criticism as there is likely to be a lot of it from competing registered opposition parties.