Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: After Harlem Shake Crackdown, a Change of Heart

Decision to reinstate students expelled for posting dance video suggests a new willingness to listen.
By Mahambet Abjan
  • Mahambet Abjan. (Photo courtesy of M. Abjan)
    Mahambet Abjan. (Photo courtesy of M. Abjan)

A decision to reinstate two university students in Kazakstan who were expelled for making a “Harlem Shake” dance spoof is a new and welcome sign of official responsiveness to public pressure.

Eldar Akhmetov and Kayrat Mashtybaev, both students at the Karaganda State Technical University, were expelled in early March after posting a minute-long video on YouTube entitled “Gangnam Style versus Harlem Shake”, in which a group of male students performed versions of the two dance crazes.

Akhmetov and Mashtybaev, who shot, edited and uploaded the video, could hardly have anticipated that it would land them in such trouble.

The problem with the video appears to be the backdrop to the dancers – a large poster bearing the portrait of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

It seems clear that their summary expulsion was ordered by university officials who feared for their jobs because of the implied slight to the president. The personality cult surrounding Nazarbaev requires state institutions to zealously safeguard his image against any hint of disrespect.

Expelling the students would have been a disproportionate punishment for an act of high-spirited fun.

The corrective intervention of education and science minister Bakytjan Jumagulov, which resulted in their reinstatement was thus significant.

Speaking to the media, Jumagulov said the severity of the punishment was unwarranted, and a warning or reprimand would have been enough. The statement marked a significant change from his initial support for the university’s decision.

Speaking to the press the same day, Akhmetov and Mashtybaev spoke of their relief at being reinstated, and promised not to repeat their stunt. Although they struggled to suppress smiles while recalling the performance, they did not seem to relish the publicity. Both are on state scholarships, which are offered to students from poorer backgrounds who could not otherwise afford higher education.

What is important about this whole affair is that it demonstrates how protest campaigns can gather pace in Kazakstan, even though grassroots activism is still limited and change happens only very gradually.

The climate in Kazakstan has traditionally been one of political apathy and fear of the authorities. This was further reinforced by the tragic events of December 2011, when police fired at peaceful demonstrators in Janaozen, killing 16 people. Afterwards, the opposition was accused of instigating the unrest, and came under considerable pressure. The Alga party was banned and many opposition media outlets were shut down.

But times are changing, and the wider public is no longer as scared to stand up to the authorities as before.

That is clear from the success of a largely uncoordinated campaign that also won support from a variety of groups across the political spectrum, and ultimately forced the university to backtrack.

The expulsion came to light in a report by Anastasia Mashnina, a journalist with the online newspaper Novy Vestnik. Blogger and activist Alexander Danilov tweeted about this report, and then contacted the deputy director of the Karaganda university and tried unsuccessfully to get him to reverse the decision. Undeterred, Danilov published an open letter addressed to the education minister.

He also approached Bakyt Syzdykova, a former member of the parliament from the president’s Nur Otan party, for support. Syzdykova came up with the idea of organising a Harlem Shake-style flash mob in a shopping centres in Astana. It was this initiative that I believe was instrumental in mobilising members of Jas Otan, the youth wing of Nur Otan, to join the campaign.

My own organisation, the Union of Patriotic Youth, collected signatures for a petition addressed to the university director. Another NGO, the Youth Information Service, sent a letter to the minister, and the head of the Union of Muslims of Kazakstan also called for the students to be reinstated.

The campaign showed how social media and networking sites can be used effectively to mobilise public opinion in Kazakstan. More than that, it helped erode some of the ingrained fear of the authorities.

The genie is out of the bottle. The establishment is willing and able to listen to protests and to respond in a satisfactory way. Despite his initial endorsement of the expulsion, the education minister had the sense to recognise that the punishment was disproportionate.

I can imagine that giving in to pressure might look like a sign of weakness. But in my view, we are moving – however slowly – into a transformative stage that could lead to real change.

Mahambet Abjan is leader of the Union of Patriotic Youth of Kazakstan.

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