Kazakstan: Small Show of Defiance Against Protest Ban

Keeping the lid on public anger over economic crisis not the answer, say government critics.

Kazakstan: Small Show of Defiance Against Protest Ban

Keeping the lid on public anger over economic crisis not the answer, say government critics.

A small group of protesters in the west Kazakstan city of Uralsk have made waves by becoming the first to defy a government instructions to avoid public gatherings until the current economic crisis is over.

The March 5 gathering, called to bring attention to the social impact of the economic crisis, only involved 20 or so members of the opposition Communist Party of Kazakstan, the Alga party and a pensioners’ movement called Pokolenie.

Police soon arrived at the scene on the central square of Uralsk, administrative centre of the Western Kazakstan region, and detained seven people, four of them passers-by who had simply picked up leaflets. All seven were released half an hour later.

Speaking the following day, Uralsk mayor Samigolla Urazov played down the significance of the protest.,

“Several people did indeed gather on the square yesterday, but I don’t think that people were queuing up to join them,” he told IWPR. “We’re interested in what they were doing. I don’t think they wish people any harm, just as we don’t. Maybe they had orders from above [from party headquarters]. But I don’t think that it’s right to rock the boat at a difficult time for the country, when we need to be united.”

Acting on a request from the central Kazak authorities, the city government in Uralsk last month called on political parties and NGOs to sign up to an agreement not to stage protest actions so as to “maintain social and political stability” while the economic crisis was continuing.

The regional branches of three opposition parties, the Communists, Azat and Ak Jol, refused to do so, saying the move was unconstitutional, but seven others including the governing Nur Otan did sign.

Local political analyst Nikolai Osipov says attempting to muffle protests could be counterproductive as it could make people more prone to come out against the government.

He says it is important to allow people to express their views to their rulers, adding that “if this link is lost, people will lose confidence in the authorities, whose influence with the electorate will then wane”.

Pavel Kochetkov, the head of the regional branch of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law agreed, noting that the Kazak constitution contains provisions for citizens to make their views known to government.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said of the effective ban on protests. “There’s a need for normal dialogue.”

In other large cities – the exception being Almaty, the country’s commercial capital – the authorities have refused to grant permission for protests. The Azat party has launched court actions to contest these local bans in a number of regions.

Kazakstan has suffered multiple effects from the global financial crisis. Its banks borrowed heavily on international markets in recent years, and have had to drastically curtail their lending, with serious consequences for local businesses and the construction industry.

Meanwhile, falling prices for oil and metals have placed a strain on the country’s main export industries.

Officials say thousands of people have been put out of work by the closure of businesses across the country. The revaluation of the Kazak currency last month, intended to restore the economy’s competitiveness vis-à-vis its trading partners, has led to a jump in the prices of imported foodstuffs and consumer goods.

Western Kazakstan region, which depends on agriculture, light industry and above all the giant Karachaganak oil and gas field, has also been affected, though not more than other parts of the country.

However, in a petition for which the groups involved in the Uralsk petition collected 1,400 signatures, they said residents of the region had been “placed in a desperate situation by the sharp decline in living standards, and are forced to go into the streets and squares to hold protest meetings”.

Oxana Ternovskaya, local branch secretary of the Communist Party, said one of the main demands put to the authorities in the petition is for public-sector wages, pensions and welfare benefits to be increased in real terms.

A pensioner who signed the petition said he agreed with demands for higher pensions and a reduction in the retirement age.

“There aren’t many people who would say they’re happy with the current pension,” said this man, who asked to remain anonymous. “The money you get is just enough to cover food, medicine and utility bills – we can’t afford anything else. I deplore the state’s attitude to the elderly.”

Uralsk mayor Urazov insisted things had not deteriorated badly in his city. “Food prices and utility bills haven’t risen substantially, and the city is implementing measures to counter the crisis,” he said.

Sanat Urnaliev is a freelance journalist in Uralsk

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