violence in Janaozen fails to capture public imagination.  By Saule


weak, vulnerable and barely able to manage provincial politics.  By
Timur Toktonaliev


mobilise young people for their own ends.  By Pavel Dyatlenko

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Group formed after December’s violence in Janaozen fails to capture
public imagination.

By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

A protest movement launched in Kazakstan in the wake of December’s
violence in the western town of Janaozen is losing momentum after
failing to gain widespread public support.

Fourteen demonstrators were killed and more than 100 injured when
police opened fire on protesting oil workers in Janaozen on December
16. Witnesses said police fired indiscriminately into the crowd, and
footage posted on YouTube appeared to support this account. Police
countered that they were forced to defend themselves, and the
authorities backed their version of events.

Anger over the violence and the official response to it led to the
creation of a new movement of self-styled “Dissenters” (Nesoglasnye),
which staged monthly protests calling for justice over Janaozen, as
well as for wider democratic reforms.

Analysts say the Dissenters’ Movement initially captured the mood of
anger over Janaozen, shared by an admittedly small community of
concerned citizens. They also note the significance of a movement that
has latterly been led mainly by civil society activists, unlike most
opposition groups which are commonly associated with former government
officials and businessmen.

The movement was born on January 17 at a protest in Kazakstan’s second
city Almaty held by the opposition National Social Democratic Party,
also known as OSDP-Azat, two days after a parliamentary election,
predictably won by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party.

A second protest arranged by OSDP-Azat on January 28, proved to be the
Dissenters’ high point, though this attracted only a few hundred.
Similar rallies were held subsequently in Almaty, in the capital
Astana, as well as in several other cities, but were typically
attended by only a handful of people.

The authorities did not grant permission for these public gatherings
and arrested some organisers and participants, jailing them for 15
days or imposing fines.

Ermek Narymbaev, a protester and leader of the Arman workers’
movement, described how activists including Bakytjan Toregojina, head
of human rights group Ar-Rukh-Hak, take charge of the Dissenters’
Movement after OSDP-Azat’s involvement was scaled down.

Top OSDP-Azat figures failed to attend a protest on February 25
because the authorities arrested their co-leader Bulat Abilov and
deputy leader Amirjan Kosanov before the event even began, Narymbaev
said. “Toregojina picked up [the leadership] baton and set up a
Facebook group called the Dissenters, which was targeted twice by
hackers from the Committee for National Security.”

One reason why OSDP-Azat assumed a lower profile in the movement may
have been to avoid suffering the same fate as another opposition
party, Alga. Not only was Alga’s leader Vladimir Kozlov among those
rounded up in the wake of Janaozen, Kazak prosecutors have said
associates of exiled banker Mukhtar Ablyazov – who is connected to the
party – were planning terror attacks in Almaty. Ablyazov has said the
allegations are unfounded. (For more on this, see Questions Over
Kazakstan ‘Terror Plot’.)

Narymbaev joined the Dissenters’ Movement when he was released on
amnesty in February after serving part of a four-year prison sentence
on a conviction of "resisting police" while he was in custody after
being detained at an opposition protest.

According to Narymbaev, the Dissenters’ Movement is seeking fair
trials for the protestors accused of sparking the violence in
Janaozen. It wants officials who ordered the shooting to be held to
account, and the government to stop prosecuting opposition activists
and others on political grounds. More generally, the movement wants
democratic rights to be honoured, such as freedom of assembly, free
and fair elections, and an independent judiciary.

The Dissenters’ latest outing on June 2 saw around 100 people gather
around the statue of the iconic 19th-century Kazak poet Abay
Kunanbai-Uly in Almaty. They dispersed quickly, apparently to avoid
the risk of protest leaders being arrested.

As the event drew to a close, one of the organisers announced that the
Dissenter’s Movement would take a break until autumn.

Given the government clampdown on opposition and rights groups since
Janaozen, and the localised form that protests take in Kazakstan  some
observers say it is unsurprising that the Dissenters' Movement has
failed to make more of an impact.

Since Kazakstan is the world’s ninth biggest country but has a
population of only 16 million, discontent in one area does not
necessarily spread quickly to another, and people in different parts
of the country do not always identify with each other’s concerns.

Now that the Janaozen trials are drawing to a close, public attention
is drifting away from the issue. This is likely to further marginalise
the protest movement and further reduce the public attention it

On June 4, sentences were handed down to those accused of inciting the
unrest. Of the 37 people charged, 13 received between three and seven
years in prison and 24 were released. Of those released, some were
found not guilty, others were convicted but amnestied, while the
remainder received suspended sentences.

At a separate trial involving residents of Shetpe, a village close to
Janaozen where one person died in smaller-scale violence in December,
11 men were convicted in May. Four were sent to prison for between
four and seven years, and the rest were released under amnesty or
given a suspended sentence.

The only case involving police implicated in the shootings ended in
late May with five officers sentenced to between five and seven years
for overstepping their powers. Another officer was given five years
for detaining people illegally in Janaozen.

Some commentators say poor leadership and lack of imagination explain
why the Dissenters’ Movement failed to make a lasting impact on a
population that is by and large apathetic.

Alisher Elikbaev, blogger and founder of the popular photography and
video website Vox Populi, said people wanted leaders who were
charismatic and recognisable personalities, rather than opposition
politicians or rich businessmen.

Many opposition groups feature former politicians or businessmen who
turned against the government after falling from favour, leading some
to suspect that their real ambition is to restore their own power and
influence rather than build a democratic society.

“[A leader] should be someone who isn’t tainted by past association
with the authorities,” Elikbaev said.

Several thousand people signed up to the Dissenters’ Facebook
campaign, but Elikbaev pointed out that online followers sitting at
home would not necessarily be prepared to come out and face the

“Going online and clicking the mouse to join a protest is so much
easier than going into the streets and joining a protest,” he said.
“Some of them may think they’ve expressed their support by clicking
‘Like’ on Facebook, so the problem has been solved,” he said.

That way, people get to feel part of the opposition without making any
effort or risking the loss of a state salary or benefits, he added.

The movement was also undermined by its failure to expand outside
Almaty, where life is relatively comfortable and opportunities more
available than, say, in the countryside.

“Unfortunately, young people in Almaty are largely apolitical. Only
handful are interested in politics,” Elikbaev said.

Adil Jalilov, editorial director of the Vlast.kz news website, said
that despite a promising start, the Dissenters failed to grow into an
opinion-shaping organisation.

“There are many reasons for that – fear, lack of clear planning and
rules, and demands that are too broad,” he said. “What’s more, many
urbanites like those in Almaty don’t feel an affinity with the people
of Janaozen.”

The movement also failed to find ways of reaching out beyond the
traditional opposition-leaning constituency to mobilise broader
support. It could, Jalilov argues, have recruited pop musicians and
well-known actors to build support.

“They failed to engage young people, leading intellectuals,
opinion-formers and celebrities,” Jalilov said.

Narymbaev acknowledged the weaknesses of the protest movement,
including lack of coordination and overall leadership.

He noted that a hard core of activists identifying themselves as the
“Almaty Dissenters’ Club” plan to continue operating through the
summer, and to engage special-interest campaigning groups.

“We want to organise activities tied to various groups working on
social issues like the rising price of public transport and petrol,
and to arrange public meetings to discuss these matters,” he said.

After engaging these groups, the Almaty Dissenters plan to build up
their numbers and get 7,000 protesters out into the streets to mark
the first anniversary of Janaozen this December, Narymbaev said.

Given what happened at the June 2 protest, where the actual
participants were nearly outnumbered by plain-clothes officers and
journalists, the movement has some way to go.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.



Central authorities weak, vulnerable and barely able to manage
provincial politics.

By Timur Toktonaliev

Kyrgyzstan’s recent history of springtime revolts, which in 2005 and
again in 2010 led to presidents being ousted from office, created some
trepidation about possible unrest this year. But a series of
anti-government protests since early March have not escalated into a
real threat to stability.

Demonstrations have been staged by the Ata Jurt party, which came
first in the 2010 parliamentary election but is now in opposition
after leaving the governing coalition, by its political ally Butun
Kyrgyzstan, and by another opposition party Ar Namys.

In an IWPR interview, Zaidinin Kurmanov, director of the Institute for
Parliamentarism and Democracy in Kyrgyzstan, said that even if the
opposition is incapable of mustering forces for another revolt,
central government remains chronically weak, and is threatened by its
own underperformance, declining living standards, and a loss of
control at local level.

IWPR: The opposition rallies have come to a halt, and Ata Jurt leader
Kamchybek Tashiev has said recently that he will cease his attacks on
Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov after leading protests demanding his
resignation. What has happened?

Zaidinin Kurmanov: There could be several reasons for this. First, the
attempt to stage protests across the country has failed. There was
support for the opposition only in the south [stronghold of Ata Jurt].
Opposition forces have yet to build up adequate support in the north.

Second, the protests were designed to force those in power to sit down
at the negotiating table and start horse-trading on political
positions. They’ve delivered their message – the question is whether
it will be heard and what kind of response it will get.

Third, maybe this was a trial-run designed to gauge what the
opposition is capable of – a kind of dress rehearsal for events yet to
come. Government has been very weak in recent years, which gives its
opponents the potential to win. Its performance has been inert and
ill-conceived, and few of its electoral promises have been delivered.
That’s worrying now and for the future.

Recent opinion polls suggest that the local council elections held in
March 2012 have made people somewhat less fearful of a civil war,
although some 43 per cent still believe this is likely.

IWPR: Might these anti-government protests be repeated, and if so, when?

Kurmanov: Probably this autumn, when the country will be facing a
budget deficit.

IWPR: How can one can explain the lack of nationwide backing for the opposition?

Kurmanov: It is obvious that in its current form, the opposition
doesn’t have a great deal of potential, and that its chances of
success are limited. The current leaders can only make the running in
the south of Kyrgyzstan. In order to change its image and expand its
support-base, the opposition needs to overhaul its membership and rid
itself of careerists, and instead attract intelligent, authoritative
figures of unblemished character.

IWPR: If the authorities face another wave of unrest, will they be
able to stay in control?

Kurmanov: The coup d’etat seems to have become the standard, simplest
way to come to power. You get 10,000 or 20,000 of your followers to
come to Bishkek’s central square on some pretext, and the White House
[former presidents’ office] surrenders. You don’t need to do the
humdrum tasks of organising and campaigning, you don’t need to think,
explain your point of view or publish articles.

In both uprisings [2005 and 2010], marginalised sections of society
and immature young people were the prime movers. Now they are
thirsting for another revolution, or to be more precise, for another
opportunity to do a bit of looting.

Kyrgyzstan’s law-enforcement agencies are demoralised, and will not
defend the authorities, particularly given the ongoing trials of
policemen who are charged with shooting demonstrators in April 2010.

Political party leaders no longer trust the police to uphold the law,
so they are setting up their own armed units, disguised as volunteer

IWPR: What do you think it would take to swing the popular mood
towards the opposition in the north as well as the south?

Kurmanov: A decline in living standards. If that happens, nothing can
save the authorities. The shortage of investment is forcing them to
take unpopular measures, which could trigger a social explosion. There
could be another cause as well – if relations worsen with another
state, or if the opposition gets support from major external outside

IWPR: Why isn’t the opposition properly integrated into the political

Kurmanov: The opposition is represented in parliament – it holds the
post of deputy speaker as well as chairing two parliamentary
committees. But that isn’t enough to harness it to the common cause.
It should be more integrated into government, as well. At the moment,
there is no one from the opposition in the executive, with the one
exception of Culture Minister Ibrahim Junusov. But that appointment
didn’t come out of negotiations; it was more of a goodwill gesture by
the prime minister or the president.

Hence, Ata Jurt feels itself at liberty to express its unhappiness out
in the open, and that is what is happening.

IWPR: Ideologically and intellectually, there seems little to choose
between the political groups that are in opposition and in power.

Kurmanov: The parties are built around their leaders, and consist of
followers who serve the interests of their leader and his immediate
circle. There isn’t much in the way of ideology or values, and party
programmes don’t count for much. Voters choose the individual, not the

None of the parties has a strong membership. For example, the
candidate list of the Social Democratic Party at the last election
consisted of its leaders’ friends, relatives, wives, sons and

In Kyrgyzstan, competition is not about ideas, it’s about power,
position, assets and influence. That explains why there’s little
substance to parliament’s activities, and why the government has no
priorities or values. So there’s a sense that the country is
constantly swaying from side to side, in its foreign policy as well as
in its domestic politics.

There’s no fundamental difference between those who are in power and
the opposition. It’s difficult for ordinary people to make conscious
and effective choices. So voters go for personalities, clan or region
– even though that brings them no real personal benefit.

IWPR: How would you describe the current state of the government?

Kurmanov: It has little authority, nor is it in a position to coerce
others. Its only option is to shape a consensus among various forces,
but there’s limited capacity to negotiate solutions and to stick to
them. No one feels that’s necessary. So it’s difficult for the
government, president and parliament to do anything.

After the March 4 local elections in which mayors [of Osh, Karakol and
Tokmok] were also selected, it became apparent that real power on the
ground lies not with the parliamentary parties, but with other
political forces. In other words, there’s a disconnect between the
centre and the local level.

More local elections are on their way [in October], and it’s hard to
predict who will win. The gulf between central and local levels is
likely to widen, so that the local councils, of which there around
500, slip away from the control of the state.

Interview conducted by Timur Toktonaliev, an IWPR journalist in Bishkek.



Political classes mobilise young people for their own ends.

By Pavel Dyatlenko

The weakness of central government in Kyrgyzstan has encouraged the
growth of amorphous youth movements which are manipulated by sections
of the elite trying to gain more power.

Youth groups were at the forefront of Kyrgyzstan’s two revolutions, in
which one president, Askar Akaev, was ousted in 2005 and replaced by
Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was himself forced out in April 2010.

Among those who took to the streets and stormed government buildings,
there were many idealists who genuinely wanted democratic change and
held legitimate grievances against their rulers. They took to the
streets and faced government forces, and some of them were killed.

These were not, however, genuinely grassroots movements. Instead, they
were an instrument which disgruntled elite figures used to topple
their political foes and seize power.

The various youth movements in Kyrgyzstan are fragmented rather than
homogenous. Some draw on young people from rural areas, and a smaller
number are identified with city dwellers, notably in the capital
Bishkek and the southern city of Osh.

A minority are independent and tend to be liberal, left-leaning and
focused mainly on human rights. They do hold demonstrations but their
organisational capacity and media profile is limited.

Other youth groups are backed by politicians and parties, and it is
they which always seem to be in the public eye, making vocal
statements and organising attention-grabbing campaigns, sometimes on
controversial issues like ethnicity and language.

Despite attempts to position themselves as independent players, they
have largely become proxies for the influential groups that dictate
their agendas, as the 2005 and 2010 uprisings demonstrated.

For politicians, they are a useful way of demonstrating broad public
support for their agendas.

Because it is easy to set up a “public organisation” un der
Kyrgyzstan’s law, these groups have proliferated. Some are
well-established, others are loose associations that are propelled
onto the national stage by a single-issue campaign before fading into
the background, often never to be heard of again.

They are not to be confused with the formal youth wings of political
parties, which tend to be drawn from the immediate entourage of the
leadership and more noted for their loyalty than for their
effectiveness as mobilisers.

Informal youth groups were involved, for example, in protests against
the planned deployment of international police in southern Kyrgyzstan
in the wake of the June 2010 ethnic conflict that left more than 400
people dead. They were also a key part of a campaign earlier in 2012
calling for ethnic Uzbek school pupils to be prevented from taking
exams in their own language. (See Row Over Uzbek Language in

These “managed” youth groups operate like rapid-response units,
mobilising large numbers of people in a short space of time, and
making themselves heard by holding press conferences as well as

The existence of groups of marginalised young people can be traced to
demographic changes that began in the late 1980s, when significant
numbers of people began moving from countryside to town. Mostly ethnic
Kyrgyz and poor, they struggled to find work and a place to live.

Because education, welfare and healthcare entitlements require
official registration as a resident, the newcomers were often denied
basic services. They naturally campaigned on such issues and pressured
town authorities to provide them with state-owned land to build houses

Young people now make up a substantial proportion of Kyrgyzstan’s
population, and many fall into this marginalised category.

Those born around the time that the Soviet Union was collapsing fell
between two stools – young to benefit from Soviet-era free education
and guaranteed employment, but ill-equipped to cope with the
transition to life in a hard-nosed market economy.

There is little social mobility within this class of rural and first-
or second-generation urban poor. With no money or connections, it is
hard to set up a business, get a decent jobs, or go to university.

It is hardly surprising that many were drawn towards populist, Kyrgyz
nationalist ideas as a way of articulating their grievances.

Because of the leading role they played in the two revolutions, youth
groups are taken seriously, and government, media and civil society
groups treat their views as a kind of barometer of public attitudes.

Participants, too, benefit from their contact with political parties,
acquiring experience and connections and offering opportunities for
mobility they would otherwise be denied.

“Managed” youth groups are likely to persist as long as nationalistic
rhetoric and social deprivation are present, and as long as they are
useful tools for political operators.

They will only wither away when young people have more avenues open to
them, through economic recovery, a better business environment and
easier access to loans; when Kyrgyzstan’s political environment
becomes more stable; and when the rule of law is enforced properly so
that revolutions are no longer an opportunity to go looting with

If and when these conditions come into being, young people will have
less of a motivation for joining such movements.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank
in Bishkek.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a
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