More Civil Disobedience in Kazak Capital

Protests about all sorts of issues have become much more common since the Kyrgyz “tulip revolution”.

More Civil Disobedience in Kazak Capital

Protests about all sorts of issues have become much more common since the Kyrgyz “tulip revolution”.

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

Demonstrations have become an almost daily occurance in Kazakstan’s capital Astana as protesters influenced by the Kyrgyz revolution take their grievances to the streets.

Until recently, civil disobedience was unusual in Kazakstan where unsanctioned demonstrations are punishable with fines or even imprisonment for repeat offenders. Consequently, only opposition politicians were willing to take the risk of protesting.

Even during the election campaign last autumn, city authorities refused to allow meetings in Astana’s central squares. The last mass demonstration in Kazakstan was in 2002 when people from around the country gathered outside the Supreme Court where opposition politican Mukhtar Ablyazov was on trial, demanding his release.

But much has changed since neighbouring Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution” with ordinary citizens mounting a series of protests on the streets of Astana – which, observers say, have been inspired by the popular uprising of a people that they consider to be brothers.

Though so far small in scale, the protests are becoming numerous with three being held in Astana on May 11 alone.

They targeted the government building, the prosecutor-general's office and the presidential administration, where seven people stood outside Nursultan Nazarbaev’s office for seven days. They wanted a meeting with the president to discuss prison sentences imposed on relatives that they feel are unjust.

The following day, workers in Almaty and Aktau went on strike demanding their salaries be paid.

One of the largest demonstrations involved about 50 people from the Astana district of Slobodka who demanded the government and the president intervene in their housing dispute with the local akim, or governor, who they accuse of violating their rights.

Under orders from the governor, parts of the old city are being demolished to make way for multi-storey, modern buildings. People who live in the condemned properties are entitled to be re-housed or paid compensation equal to the market value of their home.

However, some have refused to move, claiming their houses have been undervalued at 320-400 US dollars per square metre compared with their true worth of 800-1,200 dollars. As a result, they can only afford to buy new homes in a poor district on the outskirts of Astana, galling as Slobodka is in the centre.

They had little success appealing to the courts which have supported the city authorities, but won a partial victory with the help of journalists from national newspapers who alleged corruption in the court-ordered revaluation of certain properties.

The journalists discovered that second valuations of disputed properties were often exactly the same as the first.

Under pressure, the Astana authorities relented after the findings were published, sending an expert from the justice ministry to conduct more evaluations.

As a result, those whose properties had not yet been confiscated were offered the real market price. Others who had already lost their homes, however, were given nothing more, so, with few other options available, took to the streets.

“We are robbed of 100,000-200,000 dollars for each house,” said one protester, Anton Fabry.

The demonstrators converged on the governor’s office where they were blocked by police who targeted journalists covering the rally by taking away their television cameras. Three protesters were arrested – two men and an elderly woman – and now face charges.

The governor eventually met the protesters but his explanation for the controversy – that the displaced Kazaks were being manipulated by shadowy third party forces trying to stir up trouble – was met with derision.

The same day, another housing protest broke out. Around 20 women from Almaty gathered outside the prosecutor general’s building in the capital to decry the closure of the dormitory where they have been living for over 10 years.

They demanded that prosecutor general Rashid Tusupbekov intervene in their eviction, which was ordered by the building’s owners.

After two days, they returned home from Astana victorious with an order from Tusupbekov that their eviction be stopped pending an investigation by his office.

Alim Bekenov is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Astana.

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