News has emerged of a number of connected protests in / relating to Tajikistan. However, if at first glance this appears to be a tiny step towards practicing the freedoms (of speech, to gather in public etc) nominally guaranteed to citizens under Tajik law, don’t get your hopes up.
Leading the story on 23 September, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty made its views clear through the quote marks employed in its headline: “‘Volunteers’ burned a portrait of Muhiddin Kabiri” [ru]. For context: Muhiddin Kabiri is the leader of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), once the only opposition party (and the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia) and now the subject of multiple extremely worrying attempts to suppress its members. The IRPT is not by any means a fundamentalist Islamic party, Kabiri is now in exile, but his family members back in Tajikistan have not been left unaffected by the authorities.
The ‘volunteers’ in question are students at the National University of Tajikistan and the Medical University of Tajikistan, both based in the capital city Dushanbe. This followed a 300-strong protest at Dushanbe’s Pedagogical Institute which claimed that the IRPT could bring Tajikistan back to war, as well as smaller groups of young activists who protested at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Dushanbe offices. One of the university protest organisers, Asliddin Khusvaktov, claims that hundreds of students took part, which were in response to another set of protests also relating to Tajikistan. Asia-Plus reports the same story [en] with slightly different numbers.
So now let’s move to Poland, the stage for the protests our students have taken issue with. Capital Warsaw is hosting the OSCE annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. A handful of people – presumably Tajik nationals – disrupted sessions on 19 September with silent protests, wearing T-shirts showing the faces of opposition figures (politicians and lawyers) who who have been arrested by the state.
Apparently this has led to repercussions for the families of those protestors [en], in a depressingly familiar cycle from the Tajik state. You choose to protest? We choose to pressure you: either you directly, or your family members, or similar.
The student groups who led the protests in Dushanbe are mainly part of an organisation called “Avant Garde” [ru], set up by the government in 2015 to to prevent the spread of extremist ideas amongst young people. This is how Tajikistan does youth policy.
You can only wonder how long the government can maintain this level of oppression in a world where internet access is increasing (and those who are caught behind frequent government bans on websites are able to find alternative ways to access sites that are targeted such as Facebook and YouTube) and where it is easier than ever – albeit with some cash and resources – to travel out of the country. And yet there are no immediate signs that change is on the horizon, protests or no protests.
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 kloop.kg [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 http://rus.azattyq.org/content/almaty-week-and-protests-tenge-devaluation/25265768.html 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.
POLITICAL DEMANDS FOLLOW THE ‘ECONOMIC MEASURE’
The recent sharp devaluation of the national currency [by 19%, see http://rt.com/business/russia-ruble-tenge-currencies-367/ and http://www.eurasianet.org/node/68060 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:
‘THE REVOLT OF THE LACE KNICKERS’
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 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/18/panty-protests-russia-kazakhstan_n_4806126.html 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…
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:
THE GROWTH OF CITIZENSHIP
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.