On May 21, one of the largest protests in Kazakhstan's 25 years of independence took place in cities around the country. Hundreds of people were taken into police custody. The protest happened despite the very public detentions of dozens of activists in the days leading up to the demonstration. The growing discontent was sparked by the land privatization issue and led to nationwide peaceful protests in late April. But land privatization quickly became only one of the issues that brought people out onto streets.
Now the question is: are we done, or are we just taking a deep breath before the next round?
To look at what happened in Kazakhstan on May 21, why it happened, and whether protests might continue or not, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, brought together a Majlis, a panel, to discuss the recent public displays of dissatisfaction.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the Majlis session. Both our guests were in Kazakhstan. Speaking from Almaty, Joanna Lillis, a veteran reporter in Central Asia for EurasiaNet and certainly one of the leading authorities on Kazakhstan, joined the discussion. From Astana, Aigerim Toleukhanova, Kazakhstan correspondent for the Conway Bulletin and also EurasiaNet, participated. Jetlagged though I was after just getting back from a conference on Central Asia in Baku, I wanted to hear what they had to say, so Tahir let me into the studio and I chipped in some comments.
Lillis recalled the origins of these recent protests, noting land privatization was part of land reforms the government passed last autumn. "The reforms aimed to put more land into the hands of private investors because the government argues that the agricultural sector really needed investment, including foreign investment." Protesters, Lillis continued, "were particularly against a provision that allowed foreigners to take part in land auctions as long as they were with a majority Kazakh partner."
The word spread that the foreigners would likely be Chinese and that, despite prohibitions on non-nationals owning land, they would end up staying in Kazakhstan in increasing numbers. For many people in Kazakhstan, the land issue was, Toleukhanova said, "the last drop in their patience."
From All Walks Of Life
That started the protests, but, as Toleukhanova explained, other concerns were voiced during the April street protests. "People were outraged because of the government's corruption, they were not satisfied with the economy and loss of jobs, and other issues. So there was a mixed population who went to protest."
Photographs and videos of the protests in cities around Kazakhstan show the young and the old, men and women, and -- judging by their clothing -- they represented a broad spectrum of society as well. Kazakhstan's recent economic problems, including a nearly 50-percent drop on the value of the national currency, the tenge, since July 2015, have put pressure on workers across the country.
"This is really a grassroots movement that is involving all kinds of ordinary citizens who over many years haven't really shown much interest in politics as far as we've noticed," Lillis said.
Lillis also noted that the April protests started rather spontaneously, but the May protest was different.
"They were actually planned on social media and the people who planned these protests on May 21 were detained, are detained right now," Toleukhanova added.
According to Lillis, "the authorities' justification for arresting hundreds of people…was that these people were breaking Kazakhstan's law on public assembly because they did not have permission to rally."
Some of those who played leading roles in posting information about the May protest on social networks were detained ahead of the event. These people, and others apprehended at the May 21 protest, were ordered to be held in custody for 15 days at trials "in closed [court] rooms during late nights" Toleukhanova said.
There are a handful that might face serious charges.
On May 27, the office of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General announced that it was treating the May 21 protest as an "attempted coup," despite the fact that the demonstrations were peaceful, there were no calls to seize power, and there were no clashes with police.
Upping The Ante
Asked what happens next in Kazakhstan, Toleukhanova replied, "I think the general mood of the people is that they are shocked at their own government and maybe in the future there will be another protest that will be even bigger than this one."
Lillis explained that some people "feel very upset about land reform, they feel very upset that they weren't allowed to express their opinion." And she said, "Many people who did not take part in the protest that I've been talking to in Almaty -- and I'm talking about ordinary people here who really don't normally get involved in politics -- they're saying: 'Why did we see so many people arrested, so many of our fellow citizens who were merely going out to peacefully express their opinion?'"
Toleukhanova suggested that, for many people in Kazakhstan, "the lesson they learned [was] they saw this difference in what the government media tells them on TV or many other outlets, that there were no meetings, there were no protests and no people came out, and they see a completely different picture in social media for example and they finally understand that the government was lying to them."
The government has upped the stakes for those planning protests in the future. As the Prosecutor-General's office said, these recent demonstrations are being treated as attempts to create social unrest and unseat the government.
So the risks are greater for anyone calling for or joining protests in the near future. But Lillis pointed out that people knew they could be arrested when they came out to demonstrate in public on May 21. Furthermore, the last large protest in Kazakhstan was in the oil towns of western Kazakhstan in 2011 and it ended in December that year when police fired on demonstrators in Zhanaozen, killing at least 15 people.
But people still turned out on May 21. Lillis said one lesson Kazakhstan's government should learn from this latest protest is "you cannot always expect the people to put up with decision-making that doesn't involve them."
The panel discussed these matters in greater detail and touched on other subjects concerning Kazakhstan's recent protests. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here: