• Analysis

Wave of creative protests threaten Kazakhstan’s elite ahead of elections

In its attempt to silence critics, Kazakhstan's government has inspired a series of creative actions that have been amplified by widespread internet access.
Activist Zhanbota Alzhanova was arrested for posting this picture of her holding an invisible sign on Facebook. (Twitter/@jardemalie)

In Kazakhstan, where the government aggressively regulates peaceful assembly and punishes those who dare to break its strict rules, there has been a surprising uptick in creative protests in recent months.

The current wave of actions started in February after five young girls died in a house fire. As a result, dozens of mothers staged rallies across Kazakhstan to draw attention to insufficient welfare provisions for families. Then, in March, small crowds gathered in major cities to protest the government’s sudden move to rename the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, in honor of longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Over the past few weeks, a handful of young activists have been detained and fined for displaying banners with political messages.

Nazarbayev is the only president Kazakhstan has known, taking office in 1990, before the Central Asian country declared independence from the Soviet Union a year later. Kazakhstan’s governing elites have taken it for granted that the population will quietly submit to an illiberal political system in exchange for the trickle-down effects of the country’s exorbitant oil wealth.

Whereas other Soviet-era holdovers in the region held on to power until they died, Nazarbayev opted to resign on March 19 and manage the power transition from a distance. Presidential elections were called for June 9, leaving little time for a competitive field of candidates to emerge. Even with a handful of politicians announcing their intention to run for president, many are not convinced that the first elections without Nazarbayev on the ticket will be credible. (To be fair, presidential elections in Kazakhstan have always only been for show, as Nazarbayev was reelected in 2015 with a whopping 97.7 percent of the vote.)

Foreign Policy correspondent Reid Standish sees the president’s resignation as a way for Nazarbayev to avoid growing domestic frustration, but the political transition now underway has signaled cracks in the appearance of stability that Nazarbayev has worked for decades to achieve.

Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov hung a banner at the Almaty marathon on April 21 that said “You cannot run from the truth,” with two hashtags reading “For Fair Elections” in Kazakh and “I have a choice” in Russian. (Instagram/@tamina_spnv)

On April 21, while delegates from Nazarbayev’s political party unanimously backed interim president and regime loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokaev as their candidate, two young activists sat on trial for demanding fair, independent elections. That morning, Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov hung a banner reading “You cannot run from the truth” while participants in the Almaty marathon ran past. The banner included two hashtags reading “For Fair Elections” in Kazakh and “I have a choice” in Russian.

Building on the momentum following Tulesova and Tolymbekov’s trial, where the audience chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the activists were sentenced to 15 days in jail, artist Roman Zakharov hung a banner over a highway in central Almaty. The banner read “The people shall be the only source of governmental power,” a quote pulled directly from Kazakhstan’s constitution. Police arrested Zakharov and charged him with hooliganism for littering in public.

In an attempt to test authorities, blogger Aslan Sagutdinov went to the main square in his hometown Uralsk on May 6 carrying only a blank placard. “I’m not taking part in a protest,” 24-year-old Sagutdinov told reporters. “I want to show that they’ll still take me down to the station, even though there’s nothing written on my placard, and I’m not shouting any slogans.” After standing with his blank poster for only a few minutes, a group of police officers approached him and escorted him to the police station. Sagutdinov was released later that day because the police could not decide what to charge him with.

Blogger Aslan Sagutdinov went to the main square in his hometown Uralsk carrying only a blank placard and was promptly hauled away by police. (Twitter/@jardemalie)

On May 9, police took activist Zhanbota Alzhanova from her home in Nur-Sultan. Alzhanova thinks the arrest was linked to a photo she posted on Facebook, in which she and a friend parody Sagutdinov’s arrest by pretending to hold up an invisible poster. Officially, Alzhanova was charged with supporting those who had been arrested on May Day protests in several Kazakhstani cities, but the fact that her arrest synced up with the photo did not go unnoticed.

The creative thread linking these actions is obvious and taps into a long history of art as a channel for protest in Kazakhstan. But another factor has been necessary for these demonstrations to proceed as they have: widespread internet access.

In 2007, only 4 percent of Kazakhstan’s population was online. There was a sudden spike to 11 percent in 2008, then to 31 percent in 2010, and today more than 70 percent of Kazakhs are connected to the internet. They are active on a range of social media platforms, including Russian services like vKontakte and Odnoklassniki and global giants like Facebook and Instagram. Young people are using social media in the traditional sense — to post selfies and share memes — but also to engage with politics. The hashtags emblazoned on the banner that got Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov arrested collectively have been used on over 8,000 posts on Instagram, for example.

But how does this internet activity feed into or enable collective action? Mass communications technology decreases the cost of participating in collective action, but digital participation — posts, likes and comments — is not a guarantee of tangible political or social change. This is especially true given the lack of consistent organization among activists, who struggle with state repression — since vocal dissenters have been exiled or arrested — as well as the fracturing of political and social opposition. While artistic actions like flash mobs and banners make for powerful art and are increasingly likely to go viral, the one-off nature of organizing these demonstrations makes it difficult to have a major impact.

Even so, the iterative progression of nonviolent demonstrations in Kazakhstan in recent weeks demonstrates that the boundary between digital and “real” politics is more fluid than commonly understood. Beyond enabling a creative series of nonviolent actions, social media ties the regime’s hands (and therefore potentially feeds into tangible politics) in three specific ways.

First, technology fosters links with international actors. By posting photos of violent reactions to nonviolent action, translating court proceedings into English, and criticizing government control over the internet, Kazakhstani activists have been able to get the attention of outsiders. This includes foreign journalists, officials in neighboring countries, the diaspora living in Western countries and representatives of international organizations. Each of these actors can put pressure on Kazakhstan’s government in different ways by citing and engaging with social media discussions of peaceful demonstrations.

Second, the optics of arresting people who quoted the constitution for littering or simply stood in public with a blank piece of paper look bad for the state. Digital communications technology gives activists the upper hand in defining the narrative to the masses. In this way, the visual and conceptual absurdity of police reactions to peaceful behavior — taking blue balloons away from toddlers suspected of participating in an opposition protest, for example — undermines the government’s authority and presses them to either relax restrictions on expression and public gatherings or to own up to their paranoia.

The government — which is accustomed to traditional tools of repression — is at once compelled to silence dissent, but simultaneously constrained in how it can respond. Digital repression is not a precise tool, and is therefore a costly choice for the state. This constitutes the third and final way in which communications technology facilitates nonviolent action.

Digital activism triggers widespread censorship, which can in turn arouse backlash. It is a fair concern that only a narrow segment of the population — urban, well-to-do, Russian-speaking people — is participating in these demonstrations, and so social media buzz does not reflect broader sentiments. But frequent internet blackouts can encourage and give credibility to an otherwise invisible opposition. Those who were not curious about political content or were not using virtual private networks before the regime blocked access to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube multiple times in May, could be motivated to seek out subversive content.

In the government’s attempt to silence critics, they inspired an iterative progression of creative demonstrations that straddle the digital and tangible spheres. Artists have already started tagging buildings with graffiti, sporting homemade T-shirts and writing songs that draw inspiration from the banners unfurled in Almaty. It appears that Kazakhstan’s ruling elite have started a game of Whack-a-Mole that they can’t win.

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