May 14, 2020
Rising Citizen Activism in Kazakhstan: Hope for Change?
By: Anna Gussarova
Kazakhstan has always been considered as one of the success stories in Central Asia, aiming for the top-30 most developed countries while being criticized by the international community for violation of human rights and freedoms. Nowadays when the nation is overwhelmingly fighting COVID-19, the Kazakh government rushed the new 'Protest Law' during lockdown, undermining freedom of assembly. The social media campaign "#WeDoNotNeedSuchALaw" has become the last effort for civil society and activists to stop President Tokayev from singing the bill. There can be little hope, as in 2015 the same situation occurred with the Law on NGOs, which limited civil activism to social component and created a whole system of bureaucratic difficulties in interacting with the state, and local authorities deliberately continue to detain and arrest those criticizing the regime.

Since then, a new wave of citizen activism has been emerging. Today the majority of civic activity takes place outside of NGOs: activism has arisen in various forms – from mass protests, for instance, "Oyan, Qazaqstan!" movement or "Feminita" marches, to individual actions such as "You Can't Run Away From the Truth: I have a Choice" by Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekova, solo pickets, art activism and citizen assistance initiatives, including LGBTQ.

The growing wave of citizen activism in Kazakhstan is eclectic and chaotic. Some activists more directly and openly oppose the state than traditional NGOs since it remains challenging to maintain permanent dialogue with authorities. At the same time, civic activism is more pragmatic; activists are looking for practical solutions to specific problems as an alternative to involvement in high politics. Most critical issues of the Kazakh society are reflected in caricatures, comics and music by Murat Dilmanov, LeShapalaque, Akyn Akynych, in projects of sex education (Uyatemes), ecology (AUA), gender security, animal protection and others. The emerging forms of activism in the country are even ideologically diverse: they combine the elements of the nationalist right, liberal democrats and citizens without a certain ideological component.

Rising citizen activism in Kazakhstan is sporadic, tactically innovative and multifaceted; it goes beyond traditionally 'protest' cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan to different cities and regions (see Activist Map for details). At the same time, the state continues to perceive civic activism as confrontational, linking it to "colour revolution" supporters. Since activism aims at the new type of politics and society, the Kazakh government is developing measures to regulate, control and limit those activities, as it used to do with the NGOs, including through the state social order.

Certainly, new activism in Kazakhstan is going through difficult times. However, due to new outbursts, the demand for a deeper understanding of various issues and the solution of many important problems are growing. According to activists, their motion is driven by responsibility for what is happening around and keeping no silence about it. The results of a research about the 'Evolution of citizen activism in Kazakhstan' suggest that one of the main constraints is the authoritarian nature of state institutions, and their incomprehensible and hostile bureaucratic nature. The idea that digital media provides equal opportunities for everyone to voice their ideas does not always work in the Kazakh reality where the government uses troll factories, bots and fake accounts, silencing individuals, and their appeals. Some activists reported their personal data theft and hacking of online chats, as well as checks and harassment by the authorities based on the information received. When these measures cease to be effective, the government uses blocking the Internet and social media to limit civic activities and communication. As a result, on the one hand, new activists deliberately refuse to partner with government agencies to maintain their reputation and not fall under the radar of the administrative control. On the other, some activists do not trust international donors in order to escape from a 'foreign spy' labelling, while others would like to observe increased political support from international organisations to develop citizen activism across the country.

Even though citizen activism and political change are of utmost importance for the country's future democratic path, its intertwined nature makes it difficult for the regime to establish long-term relationship with those who have alternative views. Once in 2008 the Kazakh ex-president Nazarbayev joked that he would like to make democracy, as in America, but was unaware where to find so many Americans in Kazakhstan. Twelve years later citizen activists prove to be passionate about positive structural changes in the country and make remarkable transition to democracy.

SEnECA blog contribution by Anna Gussarova, Director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies and Chevening Scholar at King's College London.

*This blog is based on results of the research project "Crowdfunding Instead of "State Social Order": The Evolution of Citizen Activism in the Age of Digital Technologies in Kazakhstan"
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