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Kazakhstan’s police are cracking down on protesters — as political activism keeps rising.

It’s a conflict familiar in post-Soviet nations: Democratic expectations meet unreformed police forces.

- June 20, 2019

After Kazakhstan voted for president on June 9, police arrested thousands of protesters who believed the regime falsified the results. Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan had been ruled by its communist-era leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had handpicked candidate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev — and declared him the winner. As protests continued despite mass arrests, Kazakhstan’s urban areas were blanketed by police forces, at times visibly outnumbering the civilian population.

Both sides of that equation — the mass dissent and the police repression — reached new levels in Kazakhstan. With a new leader, the nation is entering a volatile phase of police-public dynamics, one in other hybrid regimes like Russia or Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych.

Here’s the issue. Hybrid regimes — those that are partly democratic, partly authoritarian — have more protests and more brutal suppression than those that are fully one or the other. These nations have a coercive apparatus that is intact and functional — but also a civil society whose members strive to be active political players. Unlike in fully democratic nations, those individuals and organizations have no real opportunities to collaborate with the government. When elections aren’t truly competitive, protesting is one their few options. But the more anti-government collective action is organized, the more brutal state response is likely to be.

Some leaders, however, succeed at winning mass sentiment to their side. Will Tokayev, like Putin, gain control or will his regime crumble faced with resistance?

Kazakh President Nazabayev has resigned. Here are three things to watch.

Former Soviet governments are particularly caught between liberalizing public discussion — and unreformed police forces devoted to repression

In my research on police reforms in former Soviet governments, I find that political activism, mostly in urban areas, reveals a gap between an increasingly politically engaged public and unreformed police forces still bent on using old Soviet methods of repression. Regime incumbents continue to rely on militarized and loyal police forces even if they encourage political and economic liberalization.

When more citizens join anti-government collective action and civic activism grows in sophistication, the gap between democratization and lack of police reform becomes particularly evident. In Kazakhstan, despite significant changes in many sectors of governance, such as finance and education, the Interior Ministry — which is in charge of policing — has scarcely reformed.

In Kazakhstan, public discontent has been growing

Before this post-election wave of protests, Kazakhstan has had other spontaneous public demonstrations. Last February, after a fire in Nur-Sultan took the lives of five children, hundreds of mothers demonstrated to demand government accountability. In return, Nazarbayev fired the government and promised to improve living standards for the impoverished population. In 2016, protesters turned out to rally against land reform that would allow foreigners to rent agricultural land. The government arrested hundreds of activists, but abstained from use of violence against crowds. And yet it did not give citizens new ways to get involved in contested policy decisions.

When longtime leader Nazarbayev began handing off the government to Tokayev, still more people were motivated to get involved. In March, Tokayev proposed renaming the capital Astana “Nur-Sultan.” Nazarbayev promoted his eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to chairwoman of the Senate. Protests gathered in the capital city against the name change and police arrested dozens of people.

In April, five activists were arrested in Almaty for holding up a sign that read, in Russian, “You can’t run from the truth” with hashtags #AdilSailayUshin (For Fair Elections) and #УМеняЕстьВыбор (I Have A Choice) at a public event. The next day, even more activists carrying the same sign protested against their detention. An online crowdfunding campaign collected enough funds to cover fines that courts levied on the activists. New forms of individual and group protests such as a man holding a blank sheet of paper or two women pretending to hold an invisible poster began to spread across Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and other large cities.

The snowballing response has enabled like-minded individuals to exchange opinions via social media and during protests and gain a sense of collective power against the political regime. A core activist base is emerging in major cities, especially in Almaty. For example, a new leaderless collective of young activists Oyun, Kazakhstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan) is demanding a parliamentary system and competitive elections. Social media quickly spreads images of young activists, elderly protesters, and bystanders being forcefully rounded up and shoved into police vehicles. More people feel directly affected by the state’s repression after government reported a total of 4,000 were arrested after the elections.

Expect more protests and more repression — with uncertain outcomes

Like leaders of Russia and Ukraine, Tokayev justifies police suppression of dissent by citing the state’s commitment to law and order. To neutralize the public protests without attempting deeper political transformations, Tokayev has created a special national council for public dialogue. Meanwhile, the public continues protesting public Tokayev’s fraudulent victory — and questions his authority to create such a task force.

Like Putin and Yanukovych, Tokayev is likely to continue to suppress dissent and limit freedoms of expression and media. The Interior Ministry will be assigned to further preempt collective action by expanding its domestic intelligence collection, as it has been doing now for years — for instance, after police killed 16 to suppress riots in the remote town of Zhanaozen in December 2011.

That approach may not work this time around. Spontaneous anti-government collective action suggests that an expanded activist base may feel it has broad public support. If so, any unpopular political decision or tragic incident can set off new waves of collective action. Future protests are likely to be against specific policy decisions, while showing that there’s a broader struggle against state coercion. And as that expands, the government is likely to suppress protests more brutally, inflicting great bodily harm and even death.

But in other post-Soviet countries where police-public contention resulted in violent clashes, including Ukraine in 2014 and Kyrgyzstan in 2010, popular protests have forced political incumbents out of power.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of former Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych. We regret the error.

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Erica Marat (@EricaMarat) is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.