Protesters in the central square of Almaty holding a sign that reads: “We are ordinary people, we are not terrorists.” (Twitter/@geybasy)

‘We are not terrorists’ — Kazakhstanis oppose government corruption with nonviolent action

Journalists Sher Kashimov and Colleen Wood shed light on the repression and manipulation of peaceful protest in Kazakhstan.
Protesters in the central square of Almaty holding a sign that reads: “We are ordinary people, we are not terrorists.” (Twitter/@geybasy)

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Journalists Sher Kashimov and Colleen Wood join Stephanie and Michael this week on Nonviolence Radio to give background about the current situation in Kazakhstan. After the government shut down the internet, very little information was known about the protests or the government’s increasingly violent response with an invitation to the Russian military, “Shoot to kill.”

Sher and Colleen manage to shed light on this worrisome situation due to their long relationships with the country and their steadfast commitment to uncovering the truth about the events now taking place.

…there’s a history of nonviolent movements, nonviolent protests in Kazakhstan. And historically the Kazakh regime, instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the demands and concerns of its citizens, likes to paint any sort of protest as civil unrest, violent unrest, that threatens the sovereignty of Kazakhstan and stability of Kazakhstan as a country. The movements in Kazakhstan make it a very specific point that they’re nonviolent – that they’re peaceful, they’re legitimate. They’re democratic. They’re not funded by any external actors…As to what has been happening since Jan. 2 in Kazakhstan, it is, by far and large, a peaceful protest. And Almaty was the only, essentially, hot point, even though there were people killed in other towns outside of Almaty. Almaty, essentially, was a single flash point. Otherwise, most of Kazakhstan was a scene of peaceful protest.

The concrete breakdown in communication is not the only concerning factor: equally important is the way communication can be distorted and damaged by the language we use to describe events, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. When, for instance, we take any concession and compromise by those in power to be a form of weakness rather than an expression of integrity and strength, we undermine the processes that can lead to justice and lasting peace.

Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook. And I’m here with Michael Nagler.

On today’s show we explore nonviolence in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh president has given permission to the Russian army to shoot and fire on protesters. There’s an internet blackout in the country and we’d like to know a little bit more about what’s going on. So, we were in touch with Colleen Wood and Sher Khashimov, who are two journalists working on the topic of social movements in nonviolence in Central Asia. They’ve been in touch with activists in the country and have more to share.

Sher: Well, thank you so much for having me on.

My name is Sher Khashimov. I was born and raised in Tajikistan, Central Asia. I spent most of my life there.

Most of my career was in international development of Tajikistan before I moved to the United States for a master’s degree in 2017. And most of my research in graduate school was focused on the crossroads of energy and democracy in Central Asia. And it was the first time, for me, studying my region from the outside rather than, you know, from the perspective of someone who is from there and who lives there.

After I graduated with a master’s degree, I got attracted more towards researching Central Asia from the outsider perspective. I worked for the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs for about a year and a half as a researcher. And one of the biggest projects that we started at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs was a so-called protest tracker. It’s a first of its kind – an interactive tracker that we use to sort of keep tabs on the protest movements in wider Central Asia.

And Kazakhstan was assigned to me just by, you know, by chance. And that’s when I started studying Kazakhstan more in depth and started writing about it and started following a little bit more closely.

And Colleen, who studies protests movements and, you know, civic engagement and identities surrounding those things in Central Asia, is particularly interested in Kazakhstan, Kurdistan. That’s how we started working together. And that’s how we ended up here.

Sher: Basically, what happened is that the first weekend of 2022 gas prices doubled in Kazakhstan as the result of a three-year-long gradual phase-out of state subsidies for fuel. And so, those subsidies ended on Jan. 1, 2022. The prices doubled. And several thousand drivers in Zhanaozen, a small town in western Kazakhstan, started protesting the rising prices.

The reason for that is that Kazakhstan is very rich in oil and gas. And logically, the fuel prices should not be as expensive. And those protests in Zhanaozen, they quickly gathered support in other towns across Kazakhstan. They erupted into something bigger. They erupted into protests that demanded democratic reforms, economic reforms in the country, more transparency, less corruption.

And the reason why the protests escalated so quickly is because for the past 30 years, the Kazakhstan government and the political elites, they have been essentially robbing the country of its national resources – wealth. They have been lining their pockets. And they have been laundering all that wealth in the west, while ordinary citizens of Kazakhstan were forced to live with runaway inflation and economic stagnation and with a lot of corruption. And essentially dysfunctional public institutions.

And all of that anger over the 30 years of disillusionment, corruption and with the economic stagnation, erupted because of this little spark in Western Kazakhstan. However, sadly, this very legitimate, very democratic protest, they presented an opportunity, a window for all sorts of malicious actors. From the political elites, who saw it as an opportunity to go, you know, engage in in-fighting as well as for some criminal elements in Kazakhstan.

Stephanie: I know it’s important to protect the identity of nonviolent actors, especially in moments like this. But if you’ve been touch with people, can you talk about any nonviolent actions that you have witnessed, or they have witnessed or participated in that could help show that there is a contrast between actions taking place there right now.

Sher: Well, it was easy to – more or less, easy to stay in touch with some members of the protest movement in the early days of the protest. I would say from Jan. 2 through Jan. 4. However, as the protests grew and escalated, the government of Kazakhstan resorted to the same old methods that they usually use when dealing with legitimate protests. They started shutting down the internet and communication networks across the country. And staging, essentially, an information blackout.

Then, using state media and using, you know, media institutions from other countries who align with the current Kazakh regime in the way they see governance in shaping the narrative around the protests and misrepresenting all of that.

And so, the blackout lasted through Jan. 5 and 6. It was partially lifted here and there on 7th and 8th. Right now, the internet sort of comes in and out, and we are just starting to understand everything that went down from Wednesday to Friday of this past week. So, during that period it was more difficult to stay in touch with protesters.

But what we’re learning is that once protests in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty was seemingly co-opted by criminal elements and by the political elites. Protests in other parts of the country made it a point to communicate that they are peaceful, and they are legitimate by carrying banners that say, you know, “We’re peaceful protesters. Don’t shoot at us.” And by making it a point not to respond to any provocations from the outside and not to engage in any sort of violence.

Stephanie: We saw that the Kazakhstani president, Tokayev, is aligned with Russia to have Russian troops come and be able to shoot and kill anybody participating in the protest movement.

Sher: That’s right. Yes. So, the emerging understanding of what happened is, as I mentioned, a very legitimate democratic protest. They present an opportunity for all sorts of in-fighting. And it seems like [little Kyev] clan, his allies, tried to use this as an opportunity to push out some of the allies of the former president, Nazarbayev, who is a former dictator of Kazakhstan who stepped down in 2019, handpicked Tokayev to be his successor while Nazarbayev himself took on a position of a chairman of the National Security Council, which essentially, you know, allowed him to play a pretty large role in domestic politics as well as sort of control the security apparatus of the country.

So, protests gave an opportunity for Tokayev’s allies to push away Nazarbayev allies. But Tokayev, facing a crisis of legitimacy and seemingly fearing that he does not have enough authority to command his country’s military forces to deal with protests, reached out for help to the CSTO. It is a military alliance that unites several Central Asian countries with Russia, Armenia, and Belarus – if I remember correctly. And that alliance was meant to protect its members from external threats, not from domestic threats.

And so, what Tokayev did in order to justify the CSTO troops, he painted protests as an external threat. He claimed in his public statements without any foundation for those claims, that protests were fueled by well-trained external actors, by terrorist cells. And protests were not legitimate, and they required essentially foreign intervention from Russia-aligned forces in order to quell these protests. And so, Putin, obviously, saw this as an opening to interfere in domestic affairs in Kazakhstan and flex Russia’s muscles in the region.

Stephanie: This has been really very interesting and very helpful, Sher.

And you’ve done some other research on the area and nonviolent action around the issue of internet censorship. Can you speak to that too and how that might tie in to what’s happening, as you mentioned?

Sher: Well, so for the past 30 years, the government of Kazakhstan has been shrinking the field of press freedom and freedom of speech and information freedom in Kazakhstan by pushing out independent media and co-opting multiple media actors in the country. Most of the media market in Kazakhstan is currently state run. Very few independent media that are remaining in Kazakhstan face a whole host of restrictions on their ability to operate. Which, as you can imagine, really hurts the independent media’s capacity to do their job properly.

And so these actions in the past 30 years by the government of Kazakhstan, they created this vacuum of independent media and of proper journalism. And that vacuum has been filled by bloggers, essentially – by what we like to call, “alternative media.” It is essentially people of all sorts of backgrounds who have turned to Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, YouTube, to do reporting on what’s happening in the country to provide socio political commentary and to help people in Kazakhstan to make sense of what’s happening in the country.

And, you know, obviously it has its advantages and disadvantages; an advantage being that if you’ve shut down the internet in the county, you essentially shut down a lot of the independent information sources that you have in Kazakhstan. Which is the reason why it has been so difficult with the events in the past couple of days, with the blackout there.

But the advantage of that, of course, is that you have so many different actors that it’s just difficult to shut them down all at the same time. And it is difficult to craft legislation in a way that would prevent them from operating, even though it does not stop the government of Kazakhstan from trying.

Michael: Sher, this has been very – this has been absolutely fascinating. One simple question I have that may sound a little bit naïve, but Kazakhstan is a huge country. Are there many different ethnicities and does that make it difficult to communicate to act in a concerted fashion?

Sher: Well, first of all, it is a massive, massive country. It is by, you know, by its landmass, it’s 9th biggest country in the world. However, the population is not that big. And so, Kazakhstan is very sparsely populated.

Language definitely plays a big role in Kazakhstan because Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union until December 1991, if I remember correctly. Russian was the lingua franca in Kazakhstan. All of the knowledge production was done in Russian. It continued in post-Soviet years in Kazakhstan.

However, in the regions of the country, outside of the country’s biggest cities, the role of Kazakh language has been slowly growing and Russian has been sort of phased out, slowly, in many of the regions of the country. Which is problematic because a lot of the media work, a lot of civil society work, a lot of the knowledge production, information production, it’s still being done in Russian, and mostly in the biggest cities.

And it makes it difficult for activists. It makes it difficult for journalists to help educate people in the regions about what’s happening in the country to keep them informed, to keep them organized, to peacefully protest against the government actions. Some of the workers that I mentioned, they have been trying to remedy the situation by making it a point to produce their content specifically in the Kazakh language to make up for this, so the dis-balance between knowledge production in bigger cities versus more remote regions.

The north of Kazakhstan has large groups of ethnic Russian minorities. A lot of the attention has been attracted to the fact that perhaps Putin is trying to use the protests in Kazakhstan to claim that it is ethnic-based protest, that it is directed against ethnically Russian minorities, against Russia speakers, and you know, use that as an excuse to interfere in the domestic affairs of Kazakhstan.

However, to our knowledge, there’s no internal strife between Russian minorities and everyone else in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, in that regard, is a very peaceful country. And do not let that attention towards large Russian minorities in the north to make you think that there’s a sort of ethnic-based civil conflict going in Kazakhstan.

Michael: Ancient question of divide and conquer. But if you don’t let yourself get divided, then you have a great deal of strength. Kazakh is a Turkic language if I understand correctly?

Sher: That’s right. Yes.

Michael: And you said that Russian is a lingua franca in the country. Is there a sense of ethnic pride there, that people want to, you know, re-establish the Kazakh language as part of an independence – as I say, a kind of ethnic pride. Is there an element to that?

Sher: Absolutely, yes. It does not apply only to Kazakhstan, but to all Soviet Central Asian countries. As they emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, they faced a daunting task of having to justify their existence to the rest of the world. And language and a monolith ethnic identity and makeup was one of the tools that the governments of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan have been using to essentially justify the existence of those independent republics.

Michael: I have one more question, Sher. It might be our most important one. Well, it’s kind of a double question. To what extent would you classify these protests in Almaty and elsewhere as nonviolent? And does that go beyond the just negative fact that people are not using weapons. And then is there any tradition of nonviolent protest and nonviolent understanding in the region?

Sher: I’ll start with the second one. Absolutely, there’s a history of nonviolent movements, nonviolent protests in Kazakhstan. And because historically the Kazakh regime, instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the demands and concerns of its citizens, it likes to paint any sort of protest as civil unrest, violent unrest, that threatens the sovereignty of Kazakhstan and stability of Kazakhstan as a country. The movements in Kazakhstan make it a very specific point that they’re nonviolent – that they’re peaceful, they’re legitimate. They’re democratic. They’re not funded by any external actors. That they’re purely domestic. And they have a good reason to exist. And the reason for that is corruption, economic stagnation, dysfunction in democratic institutions, and all of that.

As to what has been happening since Jan. 2 in Kazakhstan, it is, by far and large, a peaceful protest. And Almaty was the only, essentially, hot point, even though there were people killed in other towns outside of Almaty. Almaty, essentially, was a single flash point. Otherwise, most of Kazakhstan was a scene of peaceful protest.

What happened in Almaty, again, was a peaceful protest that was co-opted and used by malicious actors for their own benefit. And the government now is reshaping the narrative around those protests to justify the CSTO intervention, to justify potentially and probably even, future restrictions of personal freedoms, and to justify, essentially, the existing order in the country.

Stephanie: Well, Sher Khashimov, thank you so much for joining us today for Nonviolence Radio. How can people follow your work?

Sher: On Twitter, I’m @sher_khashimov. You can follow me there. You can follow my website you can find on my Twitter as well.

Colleen: Hi, I am Colleen Wood. I am a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, finishing a dissertation on social movements in Kazakhstan.

I come to the region from ten years of field experience, having lived for two years in Kyrgyzstan and having been back and forth between New York and Kyrgyzstan and New York and Kazakhstan for research projects since starting my Ph.D.

I’m writing specifically on strategies of collaborating with the government to achieve reform, strategies of visibility, and the language that protest movements in civic organizations use in order to achieve their goals. And so, a lot of the actors who are involved in organizing some of the peaceful protests that began in Kazakhstan on Jan. 2, 3 and 4 are people that I’ve talked to for my dissertation, that I follow closely on social media, and relying on them to kind of be my eyes and ears and to make an assessment of what’s happening on the ground in Kazakhstan this past week.

I’ll preface any kind of claim to explain in a neat package what’s happened in the last week with the important caveat that there’s been an unprecedented internet blackout in Kazakhstan since Tuesday. It’s been especially heavy in Almaty, which is the former capital and the biggest city in Kazakhstan. Almaty is a cultural and political hub in the country, but it’s also where a lot of journalists and activists, and NGO organizers live.

So, the shutdown has basically meant that access to a lot of information is cut off. People internally in Kazakhstan don’t know what’s going on. People outside who are kind of desperate for news don’t know what’s going on. So, until those trusted sources have internet access, that it’s more than just a four-hour window, and until they have the resources to kind of do the deep researching and fact-checking, it’s pretty difficult to say with 100% certainty what happened, outside of whatever government actors are saying what happened – which I think we should listen to with, you know, a healthy level of skepticism.

But to my understanding, on Jan. 2, in Zhanaozen, there was a peaceful protest of oil workers. And I think it’s especially relevant that this first protest happened in Zhanaozen because in 2011, the city saw a massacre from state police in which the government reports 14 people died, but local estimates say that it was in the hundreds. And so, the spark of these protests moving from Zhanaozen, an oil city, kind of close to the Caspian Sea, to other major cities across the country was solidarity with that city, in solidarity with that city’s history.

So, by Jan. 4, there were nonviolent demonstrations, rallies, marches happening in cities across Kazakhstan. On Jan. 5, however, this turned violent, and this is really where the big question mark is. What exactly happened to make them turn violent?

The narrative from the government is that 20,000 “terrorists, bandits” descended on Kazakhstan’s major cities and stole weapons, were driving around in cars, trying to basically lead some sort of a coup, trying to force some sort of political transition. The story from the activists, at least in the four-hour window that they had, so not maybe a ton of nuance in describing what happened, but they understand that as they were marching, they noticed groups of men, angry men coming and trying to cause problems.

And so, following this initial burst of violence, the government jumped on this and really responded with heavy force. This was when we first saw the internet shutdowns. On Jan. 6, Kazakhstan’s president invited “peacekeeping troops” in support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is a military alliance made up of six post-Soviet states. And those troops then arrived on Jan. 6, about 3,000 troops – mostly from Russia but also from Belarus, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. And in the days since, we were hearing like tiny, tiny reports from a handful of really dedicated journalists, but the government has really had the upper hand in defining the narrative and is searching for justification for inviting the CSTO troops in.

At first, we heard it was foreign-trained terrorists. Maybe they’re affiliated with Gülen? Maybe they’re affiliated with ISIS? And just today, President Tokayev was meeting with the heads of state of other CSTO countries and claimed that these 20,000 terrorists had, you know, ransacked morgues and were pulling out dead bodies of their comrades.

So, the government is really pulling at straws here to explain why and justify why they responded with such violent violence. But I’ve been heartened by the – really, just like, outpouring of solidarity and care that I’ve seen from average people across Kazakhstan. They’re posting updates on, “Here’s who you call if you need medical attention. Here’s who you call to add your name to the list if you are missing a family member. Here’s how you use a VPN or an internet proxy.” And it’s really affirming that the initial protests before these violent outsiders came in were peaceful, were calling for political reform, and just really asserting that this was a nonviolent movement that was co-opted, that was used and manipulated for some bigger political narrative.

So, there still is a lot of murkiness into what happened, but that’s the kind of broad narrative that I understand to have happened in the last week.

Stephanie: That was what I suspected, just seeing that, reading about it in major news outlets, that didn’t mention anything about nonviolent protest, but just immediately categorized protestors as this kind of violent mob that kind of erupted out of nowhere even. So, I wanted to back up and explore what nonviolent action looked like in Kazakhstan and what kind of history there was there. And that’s when I ran into your writing, again – which I had already seen on Waging Nonviolence.

And I thought, “Well, even if we don’t have information in country, at least we can talk about the tradition which makes it more likely to know that there’s something that’s going wrong with the way that the story is being told because a misconception that people have about nonviolence or even violent action is that, you know, it just happens. It’s just like a flame erupts and there you have it. But tensions build. Can you talk a little bit about those tensions that have been building in the country over the past, you know, 5 years, if not 30?

Colleen: Yeah, you’re right that this extends a lot past the last week. In my dissertation, I trace the arc to contemporary – I mean until this week – was certainly not expecting this level of protest. And indeed, it’s unprecedented in Kazakhstan’s independent history.

But I start my story in February 2019. And it’s in the beginning of February 2019 that there’s a fire in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where five young children passed away. They had been left unsupervised because their parents were working, their parents were forced to work an overnight shift in order to make ends meet. And this event sparked protests – demonstrations, I think, is a fairer word. Demonstrations across the country of mothers.

And moms are showing up to demand that the government follow through on its promises for welfare. This is a holdover from Soviet times, but in Kazakhstan today, if you give birth to at least five children – I think, is the number for the silver medal, if you will – and six is the number for the gold medal, there’s a title of being a hero mother that literally comes with being given a medal, but then also a stipend to help you pay to take care of all of your children and give them a comfortable life. There have been tweaks to the amount that you get. There have been long lines and bureaucratic loopholes that make it difficult for people to actually access these promised resources.

And so, I think that this is one of the first big cracks in the narrative of Kazakhstan’s social contracts. So, it’s super common among social scientists and political scientists who study autocratic regimes to think about there being this kind of social contract or a trade-off of like, “Okay, people who live in these countries are willing to accept having their right to free speech taken away, their right to assembly taken away, in exchange for a relatively comfortable life, in exchange for stability.”

This has certainly been true for a long time in Kazakhstan where authorities have used the example of revolution in Kyrgyzstan, civil war in Tajikistan as a warning story to its citizens, you know, the government of Kazakhstan has done a better job in developing economically. They have a lot of natural resource wealth, which they’ve used to kind of build the middle class. But the promises of the state to – like have not followed through and there’s been a handful of austerity measures taken, which has made people really upset.

So, the mother’s protests are happening in February 2019 in a handful of cities. The police are arresting these women, are telling them to go away, telling them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. And I think that it was this moment of – you know, there’s video and photo footage of men in uniforms harassing these mothers who are just asking – they’re not making political demands. They’re making social requests. That, I think, sparked a broader consciousness about the impossibility of actually getting Kazakhstan authorities to follow through on their promises.

And so, it was shortly after these protests are happening that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who at the time was the president of Kazakhstan, had been the president of Kazakhstan even before it was an independent country, that he asks the government to resign, much like we just saw in Kazakhstan this past week. And then three weeks later, Nazarbayev, in March 2019, resigns from his position as president.

It was when snap elections were called in June 2019 that we saw a huge bump in protests. The authorities didn’t do a very careful job of falsifying the election results. There were lots of footage of stuffing ballot boxes, of inappropriate behavior at polling places. There were huge protests all across the country, several thousand people arrested. And I think this discussion that kind of links social issues of welfare, economic inequality, with political ones of, you know: We should have the right to vote and select our leadership. We should have the right to free speech, to assembly. We should have the right to have a say in how our taxes are spent.

It’s been in the last two years that these two categories of demands and these two categories of grievances have melded onto each other in a way that I don’t think that they have before. And this has, I think, driven a lot of the protests. We even see echoes of this economic grievance showing up in the initial demonstration in Zhanaozen on the second of January, that they’re frustrated because a three-year subsidy on the price of fuel ended and was going to make it twice as expensive for people to afford to drive.

And the irony of men and women working in this oil town and producing Kazakhstan’s vast oil wealth and not actually being able to afford to drive their own cars. The image of that was super striking, and I think that that’s why it’s been important to emphasize that it’s not just about the fuel prices that’s driving these protests. But it speaks to bigger frustrations with corruption and government incompetence. And that was what pushed people out onto the streets, initially.

Michael: Yeah. Colleen, this is really enlightening. And I’m just wondering, as you were speaking, it made me think of Ted Gurr, who has this theory published under the title, “Why Men Rebel,” talking about how people will put up with a lot. But when it comes to, you know, life and death issues, they’re going to have to fight back. Does that fit this pattern that you’re seeing?

Colleen: Yeah. I think one of the extensions of Ted Gurr’s theory is sort of the idea of relative deprivation. That authorities and people in power can build narratives within a population of like, “Oh, well, you know, you’re the middle class. And like, yeah, the top 1% has more, but really it’s this other – like these ethnic minorities in the country or these people who live in this region of the country. They’re the ones that you have to worry about.”

And so, this kind of intra-population comparison as a reason for stasis, I haven’t seen that as much to be the case. Kind of looking at the root causes of political violence and contentious politics, Gurr is useful to look at. Maybe this comparative dynamic of it is useful for thinking in the international perspective, like we’re all two-plus years into a pandemic. And I think that the pandemic has really heightened the perception of competence or incompetence among government authorities.

And so, for a country like Kazakhstan that does have a lot of oil wealth, you know, seeing government officials continue to fly around in private jets and build fancy buildings in the capital while people have suffered a lot in the last two years, economically, socially, epidemiologically because of the pandemic and seeing other international examples of people actually being able to rise up and push back might have been an inspiration.

And I’ve heard that in my interviews with people on the ground, that they’re aware of social movements in the U.S., in Latin America, in Europe, and are kind of keenly watching the ways that those are constructed.

Michael: Colleen, the word nonviolence is being thrown around. And you know, for us, it’s really there’s a sharp – almost qualitative distinction between ‘non-violence’, where you just decide you’re not going to shoot somebody, and really deep ingrained ‘nonviolence’ where on the one hand, you don’t disrespect your opponent as a person and the other hand, you also tend to look around for, and build up, constructive alternatives to the regime. Which you made me think of right at the beginning when you talked about all these social networks that are being built up. They can often be parlayed into, you know, almost a parallel government.

Colleen: Yeah, it’s a good point. I think the difference between nonviolence with a dash, nonviolence without is just kind of the description or explanation of ‘there was not violence there’, as opposed to this is deeply embedded in the principle and strategic decision-making of activists and human rights defenders.

This is where it gets difficult to say whether the initial protests were nonviolent with or without the dash. And so far, we just don’t have data yet – I think because of the internet shutdown – on what the demographics of these protests were, who was showing up to protest in different cities, how many people are showing up in different cities.

I can speak at least to the civic movement, Oyan Qazaqstan, which stands – in Kazakh, translates as, “Wake up, Kazakhs” Or “Wake up, Kazakhstan.” And this initiative was founded in June 2019. So, in these early months of the story that I’m telling in my dissertation, it’s a handful of activists who really do have – that their approach to organizing and their approach to putting together demonstrations and rallies is deeply nonviolent with – so yeah, in a sense, like this is part of their principled approach to creating change in Kazakhstan is trying to enlighten their neighbors, enlighten fellow Kazakhstanis on the wrongs that the authorities have committed. But also, trying to educate people on what a parliamentary system that actually functions can look like. So, there’s a lot of political education happening among the NGO circle and the human rights circle in Almaty.

It’s definitely a challenge to build those ties outside of urban centers. So, outside of Almaty and Astana, now called Nur-Sultan, after the first president. But a lot of people just continue to refer to it as Astana, as they really didn’t like the decision to rename the capital. But I digress.

So, as I was saying, it’s difficult to claim exactly what was going on. And how much of it was spontaneous as opposed to planned. Just because all these – these people who have the insight to that have been locked out of their social media accounts and from being able to have a platform to share.

I will say though that there was video footage taken by a Radio Free Europe journalist in Aktau. That’s the capital of the region where – in far western Kazakhstan. And the video showed – like this part of the country had peaceful protests all throughout. Aktau is a city where local police joined the protests. This was one where there was a crowd of a thousand people passing a microphone around, reading political poetry, giving happy speeches of like, “Let’s go forward, onward, upward! Kazakhstan, we can do this!”

So, the tone there was super optimistic, forward-looking. There’s definitely a lot of frustration with corruption and with the regime and the first family. But people definitely, I think, are looking to create something new. The challenge though is that the government that has existed until now is like so effective at managing dissent and in squeezing the air out of political life that as someone who’s followed Kazakhstani politics for a long time, I have a hard time seeing like who exactly it is that manages an interim government as people try to figure out how do we want to design our electoral system and our governing institutions.

The alternative political leaders, the alternatives to the regime, have just been pushed out. That, I think, would be a huge challenge in the immediate future, to actually offer up not – I think that there’s like the offered up alternative institutionally in an abstract sense. But like who exactly it is that does this is a bit more hard to pin down.

Stephanie: It also seems that if the protests were about – it initially began about the oil in this situation, lower gas prices. The government has helped escalate this to such an extent with, you know, ordering Russian troops to kill their own people, in order to make people threatened and be afraid to come outside. That now they’re going to have to deal with that, after all of this – all of the violence the government has done, they’re going to have to deal with that on top of the social structure. If they had just given lower gas prices from the very beginning, you know, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

Colleen: For sure. No, it’s devastating. It’s really hard to watch this. I’m someone who’s super optimistic about the activist community and what they are poised to accomplish in Kazakhstan. But yeah, I won’t sugar coat it, the way that Kazakhstani leaders have chosen to respond to this. They just made the stakes so high. And I don’t know how Tokayev comes back from claiming that 20,000 terrorists are wandering the streets of Kazakhstan and we can justifiably shoot without cause. I don’t know how you come back from that without more consistent repression, which makes me really worried for friends and people I’ve interviewed who are on the ground.

Stephanie: It also makes me think actually to the Indian farmers’ movement, that the headline in the New York Times, when the Indian farmers got their demands met, was that Modi bows – “Modi, in a rare sign of weakness, bows to the demands of the people.” And I thought, that’s an interesting story there, telling just what that headline says, that we’re conceptualizing listening to popular movements as a form of weakness.

Colleen: Definitely. And you can even see that play out in Tokayev’s speeches in the last few days. So, like a lot of these activists who are associated with Oyan, have just been asserting over and over. We just want some sort of a committee, like open a dialog. Talk to people from civil society. Talk to your citizens.

And in a speech that Tokayev made – oh, the days blend together. I believe that it was the 8th of January – in the Russian language version of his speech he says, “How am I supposed – how can we possibly come to the table to talk with ‘activists, rights defenders’ when these are the people who are being bandits and destroying our country. Like, we have to stop the anti-terror mission first.” And I was just really struck by like – he has taken the nuclear option that so many people would have been willing to – even with the first few days of really heavy-handed violence from the state, people, I think, were still willing. Like, “Okay, please, just talk to us.”

And Tokayev has raised the rhetoric and invoked this anti-terror mission that I just think makes it really difficult for all sides to back down from that. And it’s media driven. It’s international. Like an awareness of international reputation driven. That there’s definitely a lot of factors playing into that outcome.

Stephanie: This has been very thorough, Colleen. Would you like to just tell what you want our listeners to know to do or to look up or to learn?

Colleen: Yeah. So, I think it – maybe this is a consequence of just cyber life, but there’s a really fast pace with news stories and I think people are quick to lose interest. You know, Kazakhstan is trending for six hours or two days, and then we don’t hear about it anymore. But the kind of unprecedented nature of this internet blackout – one, is a reason to wait to make conclusions about Russian interference, the geopolitical implications, whether there are terrorist groups that are roaming the country – like there are not. To my understanding, this is a narrative from the state. But, you know, waiting for a week and giving these really talented journalists on the ground who are from Kazakhstan, giving them some time to just fact-check everything and piece together the story, then we’ll have a much better idea of what happened and why it happened in a week – hopefully, if the internet is back up and running.

I think that this episode, because of the internet blackout, really puts into relief the difference between local and international expertise and kind of the silos of analysis and where we get our information from. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who have lived in Central Asia and who are experts on politics in this corner of the world are kind of deferring to, like, “Oh, I don’t want to speak on this because there’s locals who would do a better job.”

Meanwhile, people who have never been to Kazakhstan or know a lot about it are kind of shoving their way into trying to explain something that can’t yet be explained. So, the tiny piece of advice is, if this is something that you’re invested in – which you should be as I think that the unprecedented nature of internet shutdown should be super-worrying to people and needs to be followed up with. So, give it a week and keep following the story coming out of Kazakhstan. But I guess the more abstract one is to think about how you curate your news and what expertise looks like and how we filter out our information there.

Stephanie: Wonderful.

Michael: Yeah. You know, Colleen, historically, when there is a real atrocity like the number of protesters who were shot, there is a backlash from that, internationally and locally. Are you seeing much of that dynamic?

Colleen: I haven’t seen it yet. I mean, there is like a four-hour window last night in the U.S. So, I guess it was this morning in Kazakhstan’s time zones – a four-hour window where people had internet. And I think this was the first internet people have had since Tuesday. And so, really the emphasis was like rushing to let people know that they’re okay. Like any Instagram stories I was watching, or Facebook posts was, you know, in Russian in Kazakh, “I’m okay. My family is okay. We have food.” Then in the next few days, though, I really would expect to see people taking the president’s words at face value and just say like, “This is nonsensical. This is unhinged. Like this is the person who has led us, and he’s made up this awful, awful story to justify shooting at least 164 people.”

But the window of opportunity, whether people are going to be able to mobilize against that, I think given that the stakes are higher, it’s going to be a lot more difficult. But yeah, I think there’s going to be a lot of conversation around what exactly happened and who can people trust happening among Kazakhstanis.

Stephanie: And how can people follow your work, Colleen, and keep in touch?

Colleen: Yeah. I’m on Twitter at @ColleenWood_. And my website that has links to my more academic writing is

Stephanie: We’ll turn now on this next segment of Nonviolence Radio to the Nonviolence Report with Michael Nagler.

Michael: Greetings everyone. This week’s report is, in a way, not very different from the last time I had the pleasure of reporting to you because it’s still true that nonviolence is growing in frequency, sophistication, and intensity. And that seems to be happening all over the world.

And this is true, especially, in the all important area of learning. That is, continuity. For example, going far beyond protests, there are now over 300 methods of nonviolent struggle that have been documented. And I’m beginning to suspect that there’s really no limit to people’s inventiveness.

There is a new book out that looks quite interesting on Tagore and Gandhi. It’s published in India at the Mumbai Sarvodaya Mandal, which means, “the popular revolution circle” of what used to be Bombay. And it seems that Gandhi actually sought Tagore’s blessings at every critical juncture in his career, once he got back to India. And on the other hand, Tagore, openly acknowledged Gandhi as the greatest Indian of his time. And as we know, of course, Einstein even went a bit further than that and said, you know, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man walked the earth in flesh and blood.”

Another resource that looks very interesting is a book called, “The Art of Activism: Your all-purpose guide to making the impossible possible.” It’s by two fellows, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, and what they’ve done is put together knowledge they’ve gleaned from trainings of hundreds of activists around the world over the last 12 years. So, here’s their main message. I’m quoting from them. “Because today’s political terrain is one of signs, symbols, stories, and spectacles, activists must learn to operate in that cultural space if they hope to change the world.”

I think that’s very true. I can’t enlarge on it here, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. And as we learn more and more how best to communicate, I think our efforts will be much more productive.

Well, on this note, the book, The Third Harmony, is on sale right now at Berrett-Koehler. And the film will be screened tomorrow, Saturday, by Pace e Bene. And every week in February, starting on the 9th, there will be a book study group with it. And there are lots of really lovely new resources available on our newly revised website. So, give that a visit too.

So, TruthOut is a good source of information for nonviolent actions around the world. There’s one article called, Channeling the Spirit of Revolution. Chileans are drafting a democratic constitution. So, this is an extremely interesting laboratory. If you are my age, you’ll remember that President Nixon set out to “smash Salvador Allende” back in the 70s. And then there was a popular uprising that turned the resultant dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1988.

So, this lab will be an important thing to watch. And of course, you won’t be able to watch it in the mass media.

So, speaking of TruthOut, there’s another story now called Civil Rights Activists Prepare for sit-Ins If Manchin – that is, Representative Manchin – Won’t Budge on the Filibuster. They’re sitting in at his office. They are doing phone calls. But I seem to remember democrats using the filibuster for very good purposes, and I’ve really – I felt always a little bit ambiguous about this.

There’s a very ambitious project being mounted by a good friend and close colleague of ours, Professor Clayborne Carson at Stanford. It’s called, “The World House Project.” So, it’s featuring film screenings, including our film, The Third Harmony. There’s going to be an open house to launch it. And what they hope to do is to “realize Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the world as a large house in which we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

This winter, also, they’re having a course at Stanford on the life and legacy of – the title is, “American Prophet, Martin Luther King Jr.”

Boy, the resources keep coming out. There’s a book now that’s listed by David Bollier who publishes a blog in Popular Resistance.

His book is called, “The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking. Tools for the transitions ahead.” He says it’s been more than a year and a half in the making, which I thought was funny because it usually takes me about 10 years to write a book.

But this book, “The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking” is inspired by the format and the style of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” if you remember that, from the early 1970s.

So, this catalog has a similar goal to help people to build a new world on their own terms against the grain of a dominant culture that cannot yet see or understand the rising world of “commoning”. And that strikes me as an interesting concept, so we want to watch that developing.

So, I want to move around a little bit now. There’s a very interesting and intense campaign that’s been going on now for a year in India. There is an Indian farm worker’s strike. They have been facing some brutal repression. They’re saying that this has claimed some 700 lives, which is more than Kazakhstan. And finally, however, they’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a victorious struggle in the sense that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will repeal his highly unpopular farm laws. An interesting side note here that Stephanie has pointed out, that when the media did report on this, they referred to this as a weakness of Modi’s, that he recognized the truths.

So, one of the farmers and farmer activists had this to say, “The farmers are in the same position as they were before these laws, but now the entire world has taken cognizance of their protests. This is a big victory.” They even were joined by many non-farmers in India, and there was a general strike of 250 million people a couple of years ago.

However, they are not seeing this as the end of the struggle, “We’ve shown the world that nonviolent protests keep democracy alive, and we won’t stop fighting until we get a fair price for the produce.” This seems to be the difficulty, the injustice, that has provoked an awful lot of the popular resistance that’s going on in the world.

So, that is my report for this week. And I’m sure that we’ll have a lot more because this stuff is not stopping anywhere in the world. So, join us again for news and analysis from the nonviolence side.

Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. We want to thank our mother station, KWMR, to Matt Watrous, Annie Hewitt, and Bryan Farrell to help prepare and syndicate the show, to the Pacifica Network, to all of our listeners out there. Thanks for rating the show if you’re on your favorite podcast platform, or if you’re listening to this on the radio and have ideas for sharing it, please do. You can find us at And you can find the archive also at It’s Metta with two Ts. And until the next time, everybody take care of one another.

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