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Kazakh Officials Force Protesters Into Faraway Places For Opposition Rallies

Protests -- previously infrequent and rare in Kazakhstan -- have recently become almost a feature of life under the new president.

The Mahatma Gandhi Park in Almaty sounds like an appropriate place for peaceful demonstrations, but some argue the venue is more suited to relaxing away from the hustle and bustle of the city -- a secluded place where few would ever see rallies and protests calling for change.

But the opposition appears stuck with Gandhi Park for now.

Kazakh officials in the country's commercial capital chose the far away and obscure park as Almaty's second legal place to hold rallies or meetings in accordance an order from President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for all of Kazakhstan's big cities to assign two such places for public meetings and demonstrations.

But Gandhi Park is actually closer to the center than the first place that parliament designated as an area for rallies. That place is behind the Sary-Arqa cinema complex.

As RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported, although Gandhi Park is closer to downtown, "it is removed from the two central squares [of Almaty] -- Republic Square and Astana Square -- by more than 5 kilometers."

Adding to the frustration of activists was parliament's decision to bar the press from the January 17 session where they discussed the second venue's selection.

Kazakh rights activist Erlan Kaliev called the second venue a "corral for rallies."

Kaliev questioned why the authorities were designating sites at all and pointed out that state-sponsored events regularly take place on Almaty's central squares and other public areas and the protest rallies should be able to as well.

And Kaliev noted that official permission was still required to conduct any meeting or public rally.

Protests -- previously infrequent and rare in Kazakhstan -- have recently become almost a feature of life under Toqaev.

The deaths of five children in Nur-Sultan -- then known as Astana -- in February sparked demonstrations.

The parents of the five young girls were both working the night the fire broke out in their modest home. The tragedy raised questions about working conditions and social benefits for large families in Kazakhstan. For many years the authorities have encouraged large families to help populate the sparsely inhabited country but promises of state assistance have gone unfulfilled.

Anger among citizens boiled over and then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev dismissed the government at the end of February, though key officials were simply reshuffled.

Then, on March 19, Nazarbaev surprisingly resigned and handed over the title of president to longtime ally Toqaev.

In becoming president, Toqaev vacated his position as chairman of the Senate.

According to Kazakhstan's constitution, the chairman of the Senate takes over for the president if the latter is unable to perform the function of the presidency.

The post of Senate chief was filled by Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha. And one of Toqaev's first moves as president was to push through his own motion to rename the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, paying further homage to his patron, Nazarbaev.

Many in Kazakhstan were unhappy with these changes, all made without any chance for people in the country to approve or disapprove them, and seen as further strengthening the former authoritarian leader, Nazarbaev, and his family.

Additionally, oil workers in the generally impoverished western part of the country -- the part that provides the oil and natural-gas revenues to construct the fancy new buildings in Almaty and Nur-Sultan in the east -- have become more vocal in their demands for better pay and conditions since Toqaev became president.

And the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in China's western Xinjiang region has become an issue in Kazakhstan since some of those Kazakhs crossed illegally into Kazakhstan and recounted their horror stories of incarceration and abuse that Kazakhs and other Muslim peoples are suffering in China.

Many in Kazakhstan protesting Beijing's repression in Xinjiang are also angry at the Kazakh authorities, who have been reluctant to criticize China -- a major investor in Kazakhstan -- for these horrific policies.

In fairness, it is worth noting that none of the handful of ethnic Kazakhs who illegally crossed from China into Kazakhstan have thus far been extradited back to China, despite pressure from Beijing.

However, some ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who moved and acquired citizenship in Kazakhstan remain in China's so-called reeducation camps after they were detained during visits to their former homeland.

Though protests and demonstrations in Kazakhstan have been more frequent in the last year than they have been since the 1990s, the numbers of people involved remains in the hundreds and some protests involve only a single person.

Toqaev said in early September that "If peaceful [protest] actions are not pursuing the goal of violating the law, disrupting social order, or the peace of citizens, then we need to go forward, in a manner prescribed by law, and grant permission to conduct [such demonstrations]."

Toqaev added that there should be two places designated as meeting places in every major city.

Almaty now has its two places, though they already appear unacceptable to some activists who feel they are being moved out of sight and out of mind.

What Kazakhstan does not have yet are the promised amendments to the law on public meetings. The amendments have been officially proposed but parliament has not yet reviewed them.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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