Revolt and Repression in Kazahstan

Revolt and repression in Kazakhstan • People and Nature • January 9, 2022

The Kazakh government has unleashed ferocious repression against the uprising that exploded last week.

Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Dozens” died, according to media reports, but on 7 January president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev let slip that “hundreds” had been killed. Tokayev also said he gave the order to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests.

There are no accurate figures, because the government has cut off internet access for almost the whole country and imposed an information blockade.

The internal affairs ministry has said that more than 4400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them.

From social media via The Insider. The security services facing demonstrators in Almaty

It’s difficult, in the midst of this nightmare, to try to analyse the wave of protest and its consequences. Anyway, here are four points, based on what I can see from a distance.

Continue reading “Revolt and Repression in Kazahstan”

Remembering Aron Atabek

Aron Atabek: poet, rebel, Kazakh samurai (People & Nature, 6 December 2021)

The dissident poet Aron Atabek has died in Kazakhstan, weeks after being released from 15 years as a political prisoner.

Atabek, 68, died in hospital on 24 November, where he was being treated for Covid-19. Years in prison, beatings by guards, and long stretches of solitary confinement had taken their toll on his health.

Aron Atabek after his release from prison. Photo from bureau-kz

In the weeks prior to his death, Atabek’s family had released photos of the poet, weighing 50 kilos and emaciated – down from a healthy 85 kilos when he was jailed in 2006.

Atabek had been arrested for his part in defending the Shanyrak shanty town, set up by homeless people outside Almaty – a key chapter in the history of resistance to the authoritarian regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Friends of Aron Atabek, members of his family and participants in opposition movements gathered on 28 November at the statue of the poet Abai Kunanbaev in Almaty. They read poems, and demanded that the Shanyrak case be reviewed.

The human rights campaign group Oyan, Qazaqstan issued a statement, saying:

We believe that the responsibility for the death of the poet Aron Atabek lies entirely with the [Kazakh] authorities. They passed an illegal sentence on Aron when they imprisoned him. The deterioration of Abatek’s health, and his death, is on their conscience. Aron Atabek stayed true to his principles to the end of his life. He did not agree to an amnesty, he did not once beg for forgiveness from Nazarbayev, and he never became disillusioned with what he himself did. For us he remains the same, unbending, a Kazakh samurai.

Atabek had been politically active in democratic and nationalist circles since late Soviet times (the 1980s). In the 2000s, the price of oil, Kazakhstan’s main export, rose, the elite accumulated vast wealth, the gap between rich and poor yawned still wider – and Atabek paid the price for defending the dispossessed.

The Shanyrak shanty-town was a sanctuary for those who suffered most in the oil boom, and the construction frenzy that it financed, when developers grabbed land with scant regard for the law. It is estimated that, when it was destroyed by a violent, illegal police operation, it comprised more than 2000 dwellings with up to 10,000 residents.

The notorious police clearance of Shanyrak took place shortly after the promulgation on 5 July 2006 of the law “On Amnesty and Legalisation of Property”.

The city authorities, citing shanty-town dwellers’ failure to register their properties correctly, ordered them to leave. Atabek and other oppositionists argued that the real reason was that the authorities wanted to make more land available to developers.

Atabek lobbied parliamentarians, wrote articles, organised petitions and reminded the shanty-town dwellers of constitutional rights that protected them. But pleas by Atabek and other activists went unheeded.

Remembering Aron Atabek in Almaty, 28 November. Photo from the-village-kz

The police tried to clear the shanty-town forcibly, and a violent clash ensued in which a police officer died. A round-up of activists followed.

Atabek was tried and convicted in October 2007 of “orchestrating mass disorder” – despite there being no evidence that he was nearby when the clashes occurred. Atabek was offered a pardon in exchange for admitting guilt, but he vehemently refused.

Atabek continued to write in prison, detailing illegal and inhumane prison conditions on his website. An international campaign in his defence was supported by PEN Internationalthe International Times, and others.

In 2011, a six-month strike by Kazakh oil workers was brought to an end by a police massacre at Zhanaozen that left at least 16 dead and 64 wounded. Campaigners linked Atabek’s case to the wider clampdown on labour and opposition groups that followed.

In an obituary of Atabek in The Diplomat, Paolo Sorbello wrote:

At his core, Atabek was a nationalist. He was on the square in December 1986 when students and activists in Almaty protested the appointment of Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian, to head the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The police repression of the riots turned the events into a dark page in the country’s history. During “Jeltoqsan” (December in Kazakh), the authorities ordered a violent repression of the demonstrations, which resulted in several dead. The Soviet establishment never allowed for a transparent investigation and trial over the violence.

Aron Atabek at his trial in 2007

On the eve of independence in 1991, Atabek was instrumental in the creation of the Alash National Independence Party. In the 1990s, fearing repercussions for his political positions, he continued his activism from Russia and Azerbaijan. He returned to Kazakhstan in the early 2000s and founded the public association “Kazakh Ulty” (Kazakh Nation), through which he criticised Nazarbayev, at a period of heightened political struggle.

In the mid-2000s Kazakhstan’s most important oil contracts were finally drawing financial windfalls, while Nazarbayev was consolidating his power in the face of growing opposition movements. Furthermore, the economy’s reliance on the US dollar and the housing boom in Almaty were a foreboding tale of the long-lasting effects of the global financial crisis of 2007. The Shanyrak events were essentially an explosive cocktail, the product of the unstable situation in the country.

The repression of opposition movements, the arrest of Atabek, and later on the violent reaction to the strikes in the oil town of Zhanaozen were stepping stones in the consolidation of Nazarbayev’s grip on power and the insurance policy on a season of political stability.

Remembering Aron Atabek in Almaty, 28 November. Photo from the-village-kz

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Originally posted on People & Nature on 6 December 2021. Thanks to its editor, Simon Pirani, for encouraging me to repost his obituary here. ||| TRR

Adaptatsiya, “Life in a Police State”

Adaptatsiya performing “Life in a Police State” at Hanger 49 in Berlin on April 13, 2013

The same old faces in newspapers and on screens
We have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide
Some leave the country, having in reserve
Another homeland, but
Not everyone is so lucky, someone has to stay
And resist all the nastiness
Not let them destroy themselves and others
To prevent another 1937

Life in a police state

A friend of mine lost his job
Now he’s sinking to the bottom
His family has gone begging in the streets
And he’s started boozing, cursing fate
Seeing no ray of light in the pitch-black stupor
More and more innocent people
Commit suicide or worse
They give birth to abnormal children

Life in a police state

And my mother protected me from my father’s beatings
You were one of the few who pushed on till the end
And when everyone was tired, you rushed forward
But blocking your way were
Mobs of dirty soldiers and hateful cops
They serve the regime of assholes like them
The ones who build palaces and move capitals
And you’re so eager to go off and tune out

Life in a police state

And if you ask me what will happen next
I will keep my counsel because it’s a slippery slope
There is no cause for optimism and faith
There are prisons, fences, bars and walls
I still have friends and a beloved broad
But I’m one of those who doesn’t find that enough
I am afraid for all my loved ones
I see and I know where we are headed

Life in a police state

Source: Megalyrics. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Morozov: The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea

krym nashGraffiti and counter-graffiti on the parapet of a bridge over the River Spree in downtown Berlin, March 8, 2019. By changing a single letter in the spelling of “Crimea,” “Polina, Lera, German, Roma, Arina, and Vlad” reasserted that “Crimea is ours,” i.e., it belongs to Україна (“Ukraine” in Ukrainian, not Russian), on January 28, 2019. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea
Alexander Morozov
New Times
March 11, 2019

The five years that have followed the events of 2014, regardless of whether you refer to those events as annexation, the Russian spring, a Putinist coup, reunification, a homecoming, an historic choice and so on, have emerged as a whole set of consequences powerful in terms of determining history, having a lasting influence, and shaping Russia as a whole, that is, impacting Russian domestic politics, the Russian economy, and the self-awareness of large segments of the Russian populace. These consequences have generated “another Russia,” a country different from the one that existed in reality and people’s minds throughout the previous stages of its post-Soviet progress.

Destroying Eurasianism
Early Putinism was drive by the integration of so-called Eurasia, i.e., the former Soviet republics. Nursultan Nazarbayev, president for life of Kazakhstan, was the man behind political Eurasianism, as we know. During the Yeltsin administration, Moscow was indifferent to the concept. Later, however, the idea that Russia was Eurasia’s leader was made basic Kremlin doctrine.

Moscow’s actions in this respect were alternately gentle and crude, but generally its policies were seen as rational, as attuned to the region’s economic growth and security.

The Crimean adventure completely gutted the Eurasianist policy. It managed to frighten such stalwarts of Eurasian integration as Belarus and Kazakhstan. At the same time, it put paid to notions of “Slavic unity” and inevitably provoked an assault on the so-called canonical geographical domain of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As long as the logbook contained only one point, the war with Georgia, we could say it had been an extravagance. But the occupation of Crimea was the second point, which could be joined in a straight line with the first.  The Kremlin abandoned its policy of cultural and economic expansion, pursuing instead a police of aggression, bullying, and crude displays of superiority.

Not a single neighboring country has recognized Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. Consequently, Russia has symbolically transitioned from Eurasia to solitude. Putin abandoned Eurasia, going over its head to engage in various unilateral actions in the far abroad. Although Russian university lecturers habitually still rattle on about Eurasianism, the occupation of Crimea has meant that Kremlin, like Zarathustra, has climbed to the top of an imaginary mountain peak, whence it transmits its rhetorical messages, addressed to the void.

Warring with the West
The occupation of Crimea has meant that, since 2014, the perpetual cold war with the west has taken on a more heated, hysterical tone than under the communists in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. During one of his last interviews, in 2014, the late former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, an imperialist politician if there ever was one, said, “Television has been laying it on thick. The propaganda [on Russian TV] suggests we are preparing the populace for war.”

Before the occupation of Crimea, between 2007 and 2014, the period following Putin’s Munich speech, the Kremlin made numerous demands on the west, reacted harshly to any criticism of its polices and actions by international institutions, and sometimes made rather abrupt diplomatic moves. But the word “rivalry” still described all these things. The occupation of Crimea shifted relations with the west into another stage of aggregation known as hybrid war.

The term is quite obviously inaccurate, like any other term containing the adjective “hybrid.” But the key word in the phrase is “war.” It does not matter whether we believe the Kremlin has been conducting a well-conceived and well-coordinated war based more on the power of networks and the internet than brute force or whether we think the degree of coordination has been exaggerated. All observers have argued that the numerous discrete incidents paint a picture of a networked war against liberal democracy, the preparatory stages of a major war to redraw the world’s geopolitical spheres of influence or an attempt to provoke the United States. The occupation of Crimea put Moscow’s relations with the west on a different conflictual footing.

Transparency
The occupation of Crimea has made everything the Kremlin does automatically malicious, so that between 2014 and 2019 the notion of what the Russian presence means has changed completely. Nowadays, everyone looks for Russian fingerprints everywhere. This means that, as in the recent Troika Dialog money laundering scandal, very old deals and transactions are reviewed as well. Russia’s communications with the rest of the world have come under a spotlight, they have been run through an x-ray machine. Things previously regarded as dubious but acceptable have suddenly gone toxic. The Kremlin has gone from being a partner, albeit a problematic one, to a keeper of rat holes and catacombs. Foreign intelligence agencies, financial monitoring bodies, and reporters are now busy, as they once were with the Islamic presence in Europe, segregating what used to be considered the harmless Russian presence as something automatically toxic. However, the hot zone, meaning the people and entities found to have connections with the Kremlin and its malignant plans, has been expanding continuously for the last five years. Clearly, this investigatory work has not reached the midway point. The exposure of the Kremlin will continue for a long time to come.

Sanctions and Consolidating the Elite
The main outcome of international sanctions has been that the truly powerful segment of the Putinist elite has been professionally recounted. Before Crimea was occupied, people also had notions of who was a member of Putin’s inner circle, and they traced the orbits of his clients. But these speculations were a matter for experts and were thus open to debate. Everything has now fallen into place, which is quite important symbolically. The key personal positions of the players who vigorously went on the hybrid warpath are not just represented in political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko’s periodic “Politburo” reports or some murky media rating of the “100 Most Influential Politicians in Russia,” in which actual stakeholders are confused with officials who have no access to real resources. All of them have now been posted on the world’s bulletin board.

The sanctions have also caused the Russian elite to consolidate. Putin’s dependence on the elite has increased, and the so-called collective Putin has stopped being a metaphor, becoming a specific list of people. Of course, Russia’s history is not predetermined: history consists of twists and turns. But the actual collective Putin’s moves are predetermined, of course. The occupation of Crimea made it impossible for it to change course. At each new fork in the road, the collective Putin must turn towards further escalation, while Putin himself can no longer pull the emergency brake.

Novorossiya
Through the post-Soviet period, Moscow relied on the basic notion that there were two Ukraines, left-bank Ukraine and right-bank Ukraine. It was simply regarded as a fact that, in particular, gave rise to various “cultural” and “humanitarian” undertakings, for example, the long involvement in Crimea of ex-Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his people.

The occupation of Crimea, however, produced a monstrous historical about-face. In order to pull off its seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin had to support the so-called Novorossiya campaign to divide Ukraine, which has now gone down in Eastern European history. There is no argument that would make these events look any less inglorious than the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic countries. Whatever history holds in story for Crimea, the Kremlin’s outright malevolence towards a neighboring people in the twenty-first century has been recorded in big black letters. The Novorossiya campaign has meant that all elements of the Kremlin’s earlier policies towards Ukraine have inevitably been reexamined. In the light of latter events, they now appear to be only parts of a plan to invade Ukraine.

Intellectual Perversion
Crimea is the poison that for five years has been continuously injected in small doses into the entire system of education and culture in Russia, as well as the mundane ways the country argues about its national identity. The media constantly have to devise, spread, and discuss on talk shows different fallacious grounds for occupying Crimea. This lie has had to be incorporated into school textbooks, movie plots, the system of legal training for civil servants, and all the pores and crevices of public space.

Russian society cannot live with the thought it unjustly annexed part of another country, and it has an even harder time admitting that it has been complicit in the attempt to partition Ukraine.

It has thus been necessary to engage in nonstop production of the rhetorical glue that kept the textbook The History of the Soviet Communist Party from falling to shreds during the late-Soviet period, i.e., the solid, ornate lie that was meant to show the rightness of the party line despite the endless mistakes and violence.

This intellectual perversion itself turns into a huge machine that latter cannot be extracted from the state apparatus without damaging the entire system. The lie machine and the state come to be equated, meaning Crimea has been inflating like a bubble inside the system. It cannot be localized. Every day it dispatches cancer cells in all directions within the tissue of state and society.

What is next? The five post-Crimean years have been much to short a historic period to make generalizations. It is clear, however, that if Putin had not seized Crimea and then organized the Novorossiya campaign, it is scary to imagine the wonderful chances he and his gang of stakeholders would have had at increasing their influence unchecked in a world encumbered by Trumpism and a Europe weakened by Brexit. But now Putinism is not merely a cowboy, but a horse rustler.

Therefore, international crises and growing uncertainty do not work in favor of the Putinists, although they do fool themselves when it comes to uncertainty, trying every which way to manufacture it themselves. The Putin gang will never try and play nice again. Any way you slice it, Russia will ultimately have to show the world another gang, because the current gang has proven incapable of accommodating itself to Russia’s long-term place in the world.

Thanks to Sergey Abashin and Alexander Etkind for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Kazakhstan: Land Protesters Face Police Rampage

Kazakhstan: Land Protesters Face Police Rampage
People and Nature
May 25, 2016

Street protests against plans to step up land privatization were broken up by police in many of Kazakhstan’s largest cities on Saturday, May 21. The demonstrations were organized by informal online networks rather than by any of the recognized opposition groups. Here are the key points from a report by Andrei Grishin, published in Russian on the website of the Fergana News Agency.

Special rapid-reaction police detachments attacked small groups [of demonstrators] wherever they gathered. They grabbed everyone, regardless of gender, age and nationality. Dozens of journalists were arrested.

Kazakhstan had waited for the events of May 21 with bated breath. [Protesters had named that as a day of action after a previous wave of demonstrations had forced the government to pull back from planned land reforms. See an earlier report here.] The official media had railed against the protests. And it all ended, as it has so many times before, with the “slaughter of the innocents,” but this time more brutal than usual. The detention of dozens of journalists, including foreigners, was proof of that.

Police detain land protester in Almaty
Police detain protester in Almaty, May 21, 2016

However, for the first time, people came out to protest all at once, in a number of cities and towns, without any leaders, because these leaders had either been arrested in advance, or had agreed to the authorities’ demands [after the previous demonstrations] and joined the [government’s] land commission.

[In Almaty in the southeast, the largest city in Kazakhstan and former capital, the authorities used every possible method of disrupting people’s plans to demonstrate. They created a “terrorism” scare, announcing the discovery of a stash of molotov cocktails, sticks, money and explosives; blocked social media; and issued orders forbidding public sector employees, students and workers in large enterprises from demonstrating, and in many cases, called people into work. Nevertheless, people gathered in small groups at Astana Square and by 11.30 am there were about a thousand of them. The police then went on the rampage, arresting and dispersing people.]

In other towns where activists made attempts to gather in squares or parks, the authorities acted similarly, although the numbers of both demonstrators and police were much smaller than those in Almaty. [There were arrests in Astana, the new capital, whereas things went compariatively peacefully in Kustanai and Pavlodar.]

In any case, no revolution took place! The president of the administrative policing committee at the ministry of internal affairs, Igor Lepekha, announced on Saturday that there had been “no unsanctioned gatherings or conflicts with the police. No breaches of order were permitted.” But at the same time he confirmed the detention of a number of people, including journalists; there had been a “misunderstanding” with the latter, he said.

Nevertheless, even this small number of demonstrations was a new phenomenon in Kazakhstan, in the sense that they started simultaneously in different regions. And all the experts noted in chorus that the land question was just the pretext, that in fact people have all sorts of other issues with the government. And that is really worrying parliament, above all, the fact that people are openly, and quite legally, calling for the resignation of the president.

And so it was clear that the government once again would deal with the problem [of protest] with repression. Evidence of this was the series of criminal cases opened even before May 21 against civil society activists, and the announcement by the internal affairs department of Western Kazakhstan about “preventing mass disorder.”And it is still possible, of course, that the Almaty police will “find” the owners of the molotov cocktails and sticks [i.e. use frame-up tactics against militants].

Police detaining protesters in Almaty on Saturday, May 21, 2016
Police detaining protesters in Almaty on Saturday, May 21, 2016

However at the same time the authorities have treated the land question with great caution, thus the one-year moratorium [announced by President Nazarbayev on 6 May] on the amendments [to the land code], and the establishment of the land commission, and inclusion in it of several “disloyal” civil society activists, and the hints that have been dropped about the possibility that each citizen of the country could be granted by law 1,000 square meters of free land.

Riot police loading protesters onto a bus, Almaty, May 21, 2016
Riot police loading protesters onto a bus, Almaty, May 21, 2016

Just a few days ago, when the government feared the spread of mass action, President Nazarbayev appealed to Kazakhs “not to shame ourselves before the world, but to solve our complicated problems by means of constructive dialogue.”

Despite this talk of “constructive dialogue” from the president, the police special detachments hid firearms in their buses on Saturday. Whether they had plastic bullets, tear gas or live ammunition we don’t know. But thankfully they didn’t open fire on the crowds: bearing in mind the events at Zhanaozen and Shetpe [in December 2011, when police fired on a crowd of striking oil workers, killing at least 16 and wounding at least 60], it seems there was enough sense at the top to order that there be no repeat of that. 25 May 2016.