protest culture

Stripped to their last pair of knickers… currency devaluation and protest in Kazakhstan

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With everything that’s going on in Ukraine, you’ve probably missed a much smaller scale series of protests that have taken place this month in Kazakhstan. These protests, stimulated by the government’s decision to devalue the tenge (Kazakh currency) by nearly 20%, are nonetheless noteworthy. Pretty much for the first time in its post-Soviet existence, young people in Kazakhstan are joining the protests, previously ground well covered by the country’s pensioners. Radio Azattyk has an interesting story which I picked up via Kyrgyz blogging site [which I can’t access today; hope it hasn’t been pulled offline] on the protests and the green shoots of a new generation of activism. The story [ru] is at with photos and videos, but I have provided an English language translation below. Story (c) Eldiyar Arykbaev, Azattyk Radio; English translation (c) me.


Even in the biggest cities of Kazakhstan, no more than 1,000 participants gathered for unsanctioned protests against the devaluation of the tenge [Kazakh currency]. However, experts say that the protests that did take place show that there are young people willing to take action, even though young people have been considered an apolitical mass. 


The recent sharp devaluation of the national currency [by 19%, see and for English articles] is much like the previous one of 2009, also in February. 

The depreciation of tenge savings, the jumping numbers on currency exchange noticeboards, the rising price of imports… Those were the arguments used by the government then, which seem to be being used again now. Five years later this ‘economic measure’ (as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called the devaluation) is called an economic benefit.  

But there is something that distinguishes this devaluation from 2009: protests. They haven’t been mass protests, or carefully organised or centrally coordinated. 

The people taking part in these protests are not the pensioners who usually take to the streets when monopolists raise the prices on communal services. It has been young people acting against the devaluation, those who have grown up in independent Kazakhstan, during the reign of its first, and so far only, President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

A few dozen young people gathered for the unsanctioned public meeting in Almaty on 15 February and it appeared that many of them met each other in person for the first time. They may know each other in virtual communities and probably even read and cite each other on the web.

And what’s even more surprising is that a protest against economic problems – the devaluation of the tenge and its aftermath – led to political appeals from a fragmented and apolitical group of young people.

“Shal, kyet!” (“Old man, leave!”) chanted protestors in Almaty on 15 February. When the police and municipal services staff blocked their way to the Abai monument, they moved to Republic Square, where the most active protestors were detained. As a result, dozens of demonstrators were fined and there were reports that one activist was arrested for 10 days. 

Saturday rally in Almaty: 


On Sunday 16 February, another protest against devaluation took place on Republic Square.

Those who came to the unsanctioned rally found that the area around the Independence monument in the centre of Republic Square had been closed off with a sign saying ‘Works taking place’ – but there were no signs of repair crews. Instead, there were dozens of police officers and police cars.

Activists resorted to allegorical methods: Zhanna Baytelova and Yevgeniya Plahina unsuccessfully attempted to lay lace knickers on the Independence monument. Art historian Valeria Ibraeva came to the square wearing lace knickers on her head.

The choice of women’s underwear was no coincidence: countries in the [Eurasian] Customs Union are bringing in a ban on the production, import and sale of lace underwear, designating it ‘not meeting the regulation’ of the union. The weakening tenge has been connected to the devaluation of the Russian ruble, the currency of Kazakhstan’s main trading partner in the Customs Union. 

[See for an English language report on the ‘panty protests’]

“Our message was that, with this devaluation, the state has stripped us to our last pair of knickers. It’s a violation of our rights – decisions are being made for us that we have to wear,” said Zhanna Baytelova to Azattyk.

In total, three protestors in the ‘lace knickers riot’ were held by police. Several hours later the court fined them around US$100 for ‘disorderly conduct’. Coming out of the court, the activities waved their lace knickers… 

Photo at

The police also detained several activists from the Sunday protest and released them after taking statements.

Detention of activists on Republic Square, Almaty, 16 February: 


During the protests of recent days, experts have observed the growth of a general trend towards the formation of a new protest and political culture in Kazakhstan. The main role in that process is being played by young people, who have access to alternative information sources on the internet and indeed are spreading this information. 

“The anti-devaluation protests haven’t been organised by political groups or by the opposition group Acorda. These protests reflect a growth in political participation, in citizenship in general,” said political scientist Talgat Mamyrayimov. 

Dosym Satpayev, Director of the Risk Assessment Group, believes that the anti-devaluation protests show signs of dissent amongst Kazakh people, and not only amongst young people. He gives as an example the fact that the older generation were also present at protests at the National Bank of Kazakhstan and at Almaty city council held immediately after devaluation was announced.

“This is a serious signal for the Kazakh authorities, who for a long time have convinced themselves that society is under control and that there are no protest groups. The saying ‘from a spark comes a flame’ is very real for post-Soviet states. The ‘Arab spring’ has demonstrated that the logic of protest and waves of dissent can be completely unpredictable for governmets. These past rallies shouldn’t be seen as small actions of protest that won’t affect people. On the contrary, many have seen that there are people who are ready to publicly assert their rights, publicly criticise and protest the state’s policies,” said Dosym Satpaev. 

He suggests that youth leaders and new socio-political movements representing a wide range of interests will start to form. Under certain conditions, believes Satpaev, it is just these ‘new players’ who will define the political landscape in Kazakhstan after a change of power.

A growing protest culture in Kyrgyzstan?

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Linking closely to my most recent post about an article on growing social gaps in Kazakhstan, I read an article today about protest culture in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. As with the Kazakh story, whilst this BBC article does not directly link to higher education, there are definitely possibilities for interaction.

This gives rise to some questions. How politicized are young people in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in comparison to the elders featured in the article? If young people aren’t participating in protests, why not? Are they busy doing other things, do they not care or are they afraid? Or is there something else going on?

Whilst there is a common perception in the UK that university students don’t care about politics, actually it has been shown that they really do care, but their attentions are now more commonly drawn to interest groups (e.g. relating to the environment, or to human rights) than political associations. I don’t know if the same is true of students in Kyrgyzstan so I would welcome readers sharing their experiences or observations.

The original article is (c) BBC News and can be found at

12 June 2013 Last updated at 03:08

What is driving Kyrgyzstan’s protest culture?

By Abdujalil Abdurasulov BBC News, Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan

Elderly Kyrgyz women sitting near a traditional yurt in Jalalabad, KyrgyzstanThe mother-heroines are demanding the release of opposition MPs
Near a traditional yurt, several elderly Kyrgyz women are sitting and sorting through children’s clothing for sale. They are not traders. They call themselves mother-heroines and they are one of the driving forces of protest in the southern city of Jalalabad.

These mother-heroines have occupied the square in front of the office of the regional governor on and off since last October. They are demanding the release of three opposition MPs arrested over an alleged attempt to topple the government during a mass rally.

Just a few days ago their supporters stormed a Jalalabad local government building, forcing the regional governor to flee. They also blocked the only highway that links northern Kyrgyzstan with the south.

Such protests have become a daily routine in Kyrgyzstan. According to Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev, there were 1,286 protests across Kyrgyzstan in 2012. That means on average ,there were more than three protests a day.

A man addresses protesters in the village of Tamga in Dzhety Oguz district 31 May 2013 Even peaceful demonstrations can turn violent in Kyrgyzstan

Farmers, truck drivers, casino owners, land grabbers, traders, policemen – people from all walks of society are increasingly trying to solve their problems by taking to the streets. Tired of protests, several hundred people held a demonstration against demonstrations in Bishkek earlier this year.

Medet Tiulegenov, a political analyst from the American University in Central Asia, said a lack of trust in the government meant people readily took to the streets.

“Formal mechanisms to communicate with the authorities are weak or completely absent,” he said. “So street protests are often the only option.”

‘The people’

This protest culture has been shaped by two mass uprisings in Kyrgyzstan in recent years. In 2005 and again in 2010, mobs captured the White House, where the government sits, and ousted the ruling president.

This has led to a situation today in which a mob of a few hundred people, some perhaps paid to participate by interested parties, can “appoint” their governors, directors and other state officials. The government normally does not recognise the “people’s” appointee, but they cannot ignore the mood on the ground either.

Earlier this year, for example, a new police chief in the mountainous Naryn region had to flee his office after local residents and police officers unhappy with his appointment stormed the police department building. Although the government insists the chief remains its preferred candidate, he has not returned to his office yet.

And each mass rally becomes an example for others to follow.

“President [Almazbek] Atambayev came to power through mass protests. He also seized the White House. So why can’t we protest as well?” said Anarkhan Dehkanova, one of the mother-heroines, referring to the 2010 uprising and in response to the suggestion that the law was broken when the Jalalabad governor was ousted.

Amid this growing protest culture, the new government frequently uses the word el – “the people” – in its slogans to emphasis its claim to public legitimacy. One of the slogans on the website of the Interior Ministry reads: “Together with the people and for the prosperity of our Fatherland.”

Police are also finding it hard to disperse demonstrators even if they are breaking the law. In Jalalabad, police watched the protesters as they blocked the highway – causing a massive traffic jam and serious economic losses for local businesses.

“There were not just young men there,” said Almazbek Malabekov, police chief of the district where the road was blocked. “There were elderly men and women too. If we used force to disperse them, the situation would only have got worse.”

‘Soft approach’

Almazbek Malabekov, police chief of Suzak district, JalalabadMr Malabekov said elderly men and women were taking part in some protests

Peaceful demonstrations can, however, turn violent. Last month protesters in the Issik Kul region denouncing a gold mining deal clashed with police. The government was forced to announce a state of emergency in the area to end the mass disturbances.

To end the cycle of street protests and boost the rule of law, the government needs to punish those who break the laws, Mr Tiulegenov said.

“It’s important not to create the feeling of impunity that encourages protesters to be more radical. But it’s also important to combine negotiations and a soft approach,” he said.

Dr Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert, says that the government should also try to include opposition leaders in a political process and strengthen local government.

“Improving capacity and professionalism of the local government would enable them to respond to the very local issues people [protest about] and prevent mobilization of aggressive mobs,” she said.

Back in Jalalabad, several protesters remain on the square. Empty yurts are meant to indicate that a crowd could be gathered at any moment.

They are threatening to block the highway again if their demands are not met. As the Central Asian summer gets hotter, the protesters may take a break. But they will be back in the autumn.