Kazak Authorities Reluctant to Allow Public Protests

Concerns that rights to free assembly are under threat as Almaty protesters are told they can gather, but only if they do so well away from the city centre.

Kazak Authorities Reluctant to Allow Public Protests

Concerns that rights to free assembly are under threat as Almaty protesters are told they can gather, but only if they do so well away from the city centre.

Political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine appears to be making the Kazak authorities more than usually jumpy about protests in their own country, even when these have little to do with politics.

The authorities in Kazakstan’s former capital Almaty recently ordered a planned protest over urban development to take place on the outskirts of the city rather in the centre as the organisers wanted.

The protest was scheduled for April 15 – a time when in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, thousands of protesters were gathered in the centre of the capital Bishkek calling on the president to resign.

Unlike the Kyrgyz protests, the Almaty rally was not overtly political. Plans to redesign a central district of Almaty known as the “golden square”, which will involve the demolition of many homes, have created a groundswell of opposition among residents in recent months.

The organisers of the April protest, a group called Protect Our City, said they would postpone the event rather than agree to relocate it far from the city centre, where it was likely to pass unnoticed.

A city resident whose own home is scheduled for demolition voiced the anger felt by many. “Construction firms have already bought up the entire city and hiked up the prices of housing and land,” he said. “We want the authorities to listen to us and take our opinion into account, but instead they tell us to let off steam on the city outskirts.”

The city authorities may have been made more nervous by the fact that the rally was to be attended by other pressure groups with different grievances, so that it might have begun to look like a grassroots, broad-based movement.

Apart from residents, environmentalists and architectural experts concerned about urban redevelopment, another particularly vocal group consists of owners of right-hand-drive cars, which the authorities have ordered off the road by 2009. The government says the cars, , cause a disproportionately high number of accidents in a country where most cars are left-hand-drive. But the owners are an important social group, the emerging middle class, who can just about afford a cheap import from the Far East and feel they are being punished by the rich and powerful who control car sales.

A disgruntled car owner, Takejan Akhmetov, explained why people like him planned to join a rally against urban development. “Social and economic problems have built up in our society. We don’t want them to turn into a conflict…. [but] people don’t want these problems to be hidden away on distant squares.”

A representative of the Almaty city government who asked not to be named said holding the rally in the city centre would have caused serious traffic problems, and in any case there was a new rule that all protests had to be held in a particular square ten kilometres from the centre of town.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IWPR that such restrictions on the right to assembly stemmed from the government’s fear of popular unrest, which have led to regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in recent years.

“I think that by banning peaceful meetings, the authorities are hoping to protect themselves against public dissatisfaction,” he said.

Zhovtis said excessive curbs on public protests could prove counter-productive. “People hold a peaceful meeting and the police start to pressure them merely because certain formalities have not been observed,” he said. “There are beatings and arrests, and this only leads to radicalisation and an increase in the level of conflict.”

Human rights groups are growing increasingly concerned about restrictions on freedom of assembly, which is a constitutional right in Kazakstan although demonstrations have to be approved by the authorities in advance.

“Unfortunately, the right of assembly, like many other rights and freedoms of citizens in Kazakstan, is illusory,” he said. “They may exist in the constitution, but they don’t operate in everyday life.”

On April 12, Zhovtis’s group along with other human rights groups presented a draft law on freedom of assembly which they say is intended to provide clearer guidance on how advance notice is given of public meetings, and the reasons which the authorities can use to ban them

The authorities have yet to react to the proposal.

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.

Kyrgyzstan, Georgia
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