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Kazak Crackdown on Youth Activists

The government is refusing to register youth groups it fears are plotting a revolution.
By Andrei Grishin

Inspired by revolutions in neighbouring countries, youth activists in Kazakstan have banded together to demand a voice in the political process.


Two youth organisations - the Society of Young Professionals of Kazakstan, OMPK, and Kahar (Protest) - formed recently, much to the alarm of Kazak authorities who fear a repeat of the events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.


Georgia’s Kmara and the Ukrainian Pora youth movements were a driving force in their “rose” and “orange” revolutions, though their Kyrgyz counterparts Birge and Kel-Kel made a more modest contribution to events in that country.


As a result, both OMPK and Kahar have been refused permission to register with Kazak authorities – making them illegal organisations forbidden from holding demonstrations or nominating candidates for elections.


In the case of OMPK, the Almaty justice department said their plan to involve young people in social and political developments in Kazakstan contradicts an article in the constitution that prohibits “organisations directed towards the violent overthrow of the constitutional system, inflaming hatred and creating illegal militarised formations”.


OMPK insist they have no sinister intentions and simply want to train young people as election observers. Some from the group have already observed the parliamentary poll in Kyrgyzstan, with others planning to attend the upcoming Kyrgyz presidential vote and assembly elections in Azerbaijan.


OMPK leader Pavel Morozov said his group has now rewritten its charter in an attempt to get registered. “Without registration, it’s impossible to apply for a grant or to go to businessmen [for funding],” he said. “But if we do not receive it, we have a few ideas up our sleeves. We can only hope.”


Amangeldy Shormanbaev, a lawyer at the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights, believes neither OMPK nor Kahar have a chance of getting registered if it is clear their views will not always coincide with government policy.


“Involving the youth community in the political life of the country does not go against our constitution in any way,” said Shormanbaev. “Citizens have the right to take part in elections, to campaign for any candidates. This all counts as involvement in politics.


“There is an idea that revolutions start through [youth] organisations, so now the authorities are inspecting each one of them under the microscope.”


Little is known of the Kahar group. For several months, residential buildings and fences on an Almaty main road have been spray-painted with the address of its website, www.kahar.org, but perhaps to foil the authorities, little has been revealed about the group’s leaders or its financing.


Disgraced businessman and politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, who was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of corruption though released after appealing to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for an amnesty, is rumoured to have founded Kahar.


But Ablyazov, who lives in Moscow, has denied any involvement, saying in a Kazak newspaper interview that suggestions he finances the group have been spread by people who want to make more problems for him.


“I tried to find out through my friends and acquaintances what this Kahar was,” he said. “No one could tell me. A month and a half later, I saw another statement giving the goals of Kahar and an internet address. Recently I read that there was an attempt to organise an action involving balloons. That’s all I know about Kahar.”


On April 12, more than 50 police and security personnel shut down a Kahar-organised celebration of Cosmonauts’ Day during which they had planned to release balloons with fake US dollars attached.


Though apparently light-hearted in nature, such events have resulted in the pro-government media branding the students as a destabilising force. Last week, Kahar members were summoned to the prosecutor’s office, where they were “familiarised” with the law on public associations in Kazakstan.


For its part, Kahar says it strives for a Kazakstan free from corruption where citizens have the right to vote for whom they want. “We want to live in a country without fear, lying and stealing,” said the group’s website, which makes no direct mention or criticism of the authorities.


One Kahar member told IWPR the group is a gathering of like-minded people who realise the risks of political activism in Kazakstan.


“It is a brand name under which young people gather, a sort of civic campaign,” said the activist. “Of course, there may be problems at educational institutions and with the law-enforcement bodies, but if you are afraid then you shouldn’t get involved in this.


“Our government won’t achieve anything with prohibitive methods. The country cannot be turned back, and free thought cannot be stopped.”


The heavy-handed response to Kahar’s balloon demonstration was typical of government’s reaction to the country’s burgeoning youth movement.


Ainur Kurmanov, leader of the neo-communist Young Guard of Kazakstan, another unregistered youth group, said more than 50 police and military personnel in full combat gear turned up at their recent flower-laying ceremony to mark Lenin’s birthday - vastly outnumbering the eight young people and 30 pensioners who attended.


Several days later on May 1, an Astana concert featuring Russian and Kazak pop stars organised by the newspaper Zakon i Pravosudie (Law and Order) turned violent with about 80 young people beaten and arrested.


Organisers gave the audience various advertising products including flags, scarves and bandanas – many of which were orange. Those who took the orange items were rounded up by police after the concert ended, and some were beaten up.


The organisers, meanwhile, were charged with holding an unsanctioned meeting, although it was clearly apolitical.


“The entire world recognised the events in Ukraine, and their new president Yushchenko is planning a visit to our country. So why did the law-enforcement bodies find orange so terrifying?” asked Mirkhat Alimbetov and Asel Ergalieva, who were among those arrested.


Shormanbaev added, “Now the colour orange is dangerous here, and it is not safe to wear orange items and go to mass events. They can lock you up, and then try to prove that you’re not a revolutionary.”


Despite the conflicts, Nazarbaev insists he is committed to the young people of Kazakstan. In an address to the nation in February, he promised the number of educational grants would be increased by 50 per cent, that a modern system of student loans would be created and the number of students sent abroad to study.


Andrei Grishin works for the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Observance of the Law.


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