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'No Regrets': Kazakh Activist Continues To Fight Despite Losing His Freedom, Job For Criticizing Government

Kazakh schoolteacher Nurbol Onerkhan became involved in civic activism after seeing big disparities in society.
Kazakh schoolteacher Nurbol Onerkhan became involved in civic activism after seeing big disparities in society.

Criticizing the authoritarian Kazakh government has cost Nurbol Onerkhan his freedom and his job.

The 26-year-old village teacher from North Kazakhstan Province is currently serving 15 days in jail for "administrative arrest," his second such detention since December.

His arrest on February 20 came just days after Onerkhan staged a one-man protest in front of the local government's office in his native village of Birlik to demand that authorities allow people to hold peaceful rallies.

Onerkhan also posted a video of his protest on the YouTube channel he started in October.

Calling the Kazakh government a "dictatorial regime," Onerkhan says in the video that "people's rights and freedoms are suppressed" in Kazakhstan.

"I won't stay silent and accept it," he added.

Onerkhan's family said on February 20 that authorities accused him of violating the rules of peaceful protests. The formal charge for his previous detention was calling on people to attend unsanctioned demonstrations.

Onerkhan spoke to RFE/RL earlier in February when he said he was determined to continue "civil activism" despite the arrests and other pressure being put on him.

In the age of social media, Onerkhan believes his lonely protest in the remote village of Birlik, some 240 kilometers from the provincial capital, Petropavl, will be heard and will have an impact.

"It doesn't matter if you're in a village or a big city," Onerkhan told RFE/RL. "If you want changes in society, you must act."

In Kazakhstan, however, authorities don't like protests and don't tolerate criticism.

Upon returning from his first administrative arrest, the state school where Onerkhan worked fired him for missing several days of work.

On the same day, the regional military call-up center summoned Onerkhan and told him he would be sent to the military's conscript service later this year.

Onerkhan says he always knew there would be a price to pay for publicly speaking out against the government in Kazakhstan, a country where political opponents often end up in prison or in self-imposed exile.

Young Teacher's Observations

Onerkhan says he first began noticing the depth of social disparity in oil-rich Kazakhstan when he took his first job as a history teacher at a school in the neighboring village of Starobelka in 2017.

His monthly salary was the equivalent of just over $100 a month.

He taught some additional classes and his monthly salary rose to about $180 in 2019. But it still was three times lower than the official average salary in the country.

Onerkhan began to question why the revenue of the country's mineral wealth didn't trickle down to ordinary people.

"In Kazakhstan, which has abundant natural resources, ordinary people's income is smaller than many countries that have no such natural riches," Onerkhan told RFE/RL.

The school in the village of Starobelka where Nurbol Onerkhan worked as a history teacher. (file photo)
The school in the village of Starobelka where Nurbol Onerkhan worked as a history teacher. (file photo)

Onerkhan grew increasingly unhappy with the government's "wrong policy" and felt there was a need to "stand up against it."

"I decided to share my viewpoints on social media," Onerkhan said. "I became a civil activist and began calling on people to defend their rights."

Since October, Onerkhan has posted dozens of videos that are highly critical of the government.

In one of them, Onerkhan claims that even police officers who detained him understand and "support" the protests because "they too get miserable salaries."

Onerkhan claims that the presidential system doesn't work for Kazakhstan, where former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev ruled the country for nearly three decades before choosing a loyal successor.

"To change the current situation in Kazakhstan, we need to create a parliamentary republic and establish a democratic model.... Lawmakers and governors should be elected by the people's votes," Onerkhan said in a YouTube video.

On his YouTube profile photo, Onerkhan uses the image of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a controversial opposition leader who lives abroad in self-imposed exile.

Onerkhan says he supports Ablyazov's political views, but insists he has no links to the politician and his party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which is banned in the country.

The Other Side Of The Story

Meanwhile, the director of the school where Onerkhan used to work stands by her decision to fire him during his incarceration.

Anna Sazonova said the primary reason for the dismissal was Onerkhan's absence from work for 10 days when he was jailed.

"But we also weren't comfortable with his teaching methods, especially for the Foundation Of State And Law course," Sazonova told RFE/RL.

The director said Onerkhan would give the students his own views in class instead of teaching "what's written in the textbook."

"The students told us that, for example, he taught 'they are not indebted to the state because the state isn't doing anything for them,'" Sazonova said.

At the regional military call-up center, officials insist the decision to send Onerkhan to the army has nothing to do with his civil activism.

Yevgeny Zhovtis (file photo)
Yevgeny Zhovtis (file photo)

Getting fired from work or being sent to the army are among some of the well-known methods in Kazakhstan used to punish activists, says Yevgeny Zhovtis, a leading Kazakh human rights defender.

"If you've got a job, the authorities put pressure on you through your employer. If you're a student, you'll be expelled from university. If you've got nothing, they harass your relatives," Zhovtis told RFE/RL.

Since losing his job, Onerkhan is living with his parents and depends on their modest pensions, but he says he has no regrets.

"For dictatorial power to come to an end [in Kazakhstan], the number of civic activists must be increased. Anyone who cares about the people and the future of our children should think about that," Onerkhan said in one of his videos.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Ayan Kalmurat and Nurgul Alina, who are both correspondents with RFE/RL's Kazkah Service
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    Ayan Kalmurat

    Ayan Kalmurat is an Almaty-based correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. A graduate of Almaty's Turan University, he has many years of experience as a correspondent in different media outlets. Since joining RFE/RL in 2017, Kalmurat has been working as a reporter, television host, and investigative journalist covering a wide variety of topics.

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    Nurgul Alina

    Nurgul Alina is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. 

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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