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Qishloq Ovozi

Riot police officers detain demonstrators during a protest against proposed government land reforms in Almaty on May 21.

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.

According to one analyst, the demonstrators in Kazakhstan last week comprises "all kinds of ordinary citizens."
According to one analyst, the demonstrators in Kazakhstan last week comprises "all kinds of ordinary citizens."

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:

Majlis Podcast: What Brought So Many Kazakhs Out Onto The Streets?
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Kazakh Security Forces Crack Down On Land Code Protests
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We have entered unknown territory in Kazakhstan and there's a fork in the road ahead. One way leads to serious and sincere social and domestic political reform and the other way to greater authoritarian rule.

It appears hundreds of people were taken into custody on May 21 as police moved to prevent demonstrations in many of Kazakhstan's major cities. The authorities had already detained dozens of activists and opposition figures in the days leading up to the planned May 21 rallies. It has already been the most visible sign of public discontent in Kazakhstan in some two decades.

How did it come to this? How did we end up seeing images of young and old, across Central Asia's most prosperous country, being led away to vans by police?

Officials in Kazakhstan take the line publicly that this sudden wave of popular dissatisfaction is the result of the land-privatization plan announced a couple of months ago. It proved extremely unpopular and sparked protests at the end of April. Kazakh authorities would prefer to keep tensions focused on this single issue, one that they've already worked to defuse by postponing the land-privatization plan.

But there always was more at stake than just land privatization.

Kazakhstan has done well in the 21st century, mainly because of revenues from oil, the country's biggest export. Those revenues helped raise the standard of living in the country.

That has of course been eroded with the drop in the price of oil on world markets and caused Kazakhstan's national currency, the tenge, to lose almost half its value since July 2015.

Many Reasons For Discontent

Encouraged during the good economic times, many people in Kazakhstan took out dollar-based loans. Many of them were part of an emerging middle class in Kazakhstan. These people, numbering in the tens of thousands at least but by some estimates approaching 1 million, are now facing extremely difficult times making payments on those loans. Factor in the family members of these debt holders and there could be well over 1 million people affected by the current mortgage crisis.

Kazakhstan's population is some 17.67 million, according to February 2016 data from the Ministry of National Economy.

The authorities did move to head off employment problems. Wage arrears were the most common reason for protests in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s. There have not been many reports about wage arrears in Kazakhstan lately. But in an effort to prevent salaries going unpaid and at the same time avoid mass unemployment, many enterprises have moved workers from full-time to part-time employment. This has been especially true in the oil sector but for all those affected the result is smaller paychecks.

There are also the "Oralmans," ethnic Kazakhs who were invited to come back to Kazakhstan in the wake of 1991 independence in order to boost the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the country. As of February 2016, there were 957,772 Oralmans in Kazakhstan.

Part of the deal was that the Oralmans were supposed to receive land. Most have but not all and there have been reports over the years, particularly in Almaty Province, of Oralmans being evicted from land they had settled and built homes on, without any official documentation.

The Oralmans have also been moved around as Kazakhstan's government tries to balance the ethnic composition of the country's regions. Many Oralmans settled in southern Kazakhstan in areas near the border with Uzbekistan, where they boosted the ratio of ethnic Kazakhs to ethnic Uzbeks.

Since the events in eastern Ukraine involving Russia-backed separatists started, Kazakh authorities have been attempting to move Oralmans from the south to the far northern areas of Kazakhstan, along the Russian border, to boost the ethnic ratio of Kazakhs to Russians. The climate along the border with Russian Siberia is a big change from the moderate temperatures of southern Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan's western provinces are where the oil comes from, where most of Kazakhstan's money comes from. But the area is neglected, while most of the money generated from the region's hydrocarbon riches is spent in eastern Kazakhstan, in Almaty or Astana, or places outside Kazakhstan. Western Kazakhstan is sparsely inhabited and so has little representation in the government.

Media in Kazakhstan regularly report on the opposition figures, independent journalists, bloggers, and civil activists who are taken into custody and put on trial. Even if people do not agree with what these perceived government opponents are espousing, they can still see the process and the government's attempts to silence these people. No one knows the injustices of Kazakhstan's system better than the people living there.

Media also report on the members of Nazarbaev's family and the president's close friends regularly making their way onto lists of the world's richest people. When you're getting poorer this becomes a much bigger issue.

It has become easier to question government policies recently as well.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakh officials, particularly President Nursultan Nazarbaev, have said and continue to say the EEU is a guarantee for Kazakhstan's economic future. But trade with other EEU member countries has dropped by about one-third since the organization was created in 2015. Kazakhstan's trade with Russia and Belarus was already falling when those three formed the EEU predecessor organization, the CIS Customs Union.

Media in Kazakhstan report on this falling trade, and government officials repeating the EEU is vital for the country's future.

EXPO-2017 in Astana is supposed to be a showcase for Kazakhstan but multimillion-dollar corruption scandals have plagued the project in recent months. As a consequence, money that was originally saved to ease the sort of hard economic times Kazakhstan is now experiencing has been siphoned off to pay for EXPO.

There is also President Nazarbaev's admission in August 2015 that the National Bank had "burned" through some $28 billion to defend the tenge rate in 2014 and 2015. Nazarbaev's comments preceded the decline in the tenge rate, which, despite the government spending such a huge sum of money, fell precipitously.

No One Else To Blame

Those are just some of the elements likely playing a role in the current situation in Kazakhstan. There is one more thing worth mentioning. Inevitably there are comparisons of Kazakhstan's situation to similar situations in other countries, notably Russia and the neighboring Central Asian states. There is at least one large difference.

Russia blames "the West" for many of its current problems and many people in Russia are willing to accept this. They've heard it before and many continue to readily believe it.

Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan would blame banned Islamic groups for causing trouble and the authorities would find members of some group, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, or individual local Islamic leaders known for eschewing state-sponsored Islam and blame them, which in turn would be cause for harsh crackdowns.

Despite the attempts of some Kazakh media to cast blame on "outside forces," there really are not any outside forces interested in seeing instability in Kazakhstan. That is unless one is willing to believe Russia could stage a scenario like eastern Ukraine in Kazakhstan. That certainly would not be a theory Kazakhstan's state media would report.

So Kazakhstan's problems were created in Kazakhstan and most people there seem to appreciate this.

That said, it is extremely unlikely Kazakhstan is on the edge of a revolution. Giant neighbors Russia and China have a huge interest in ensuring Kazakhstan's government is not ousted.

All the same, is also seems unlikely that the Kazakhstan that has existed with little change for the last approximately 15 years can survive this upheaval. Something has to change for the government to maintain control.

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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