Kazakhstan: Panicked Authorities with Activists

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Authorities in Kazakhstan are betraying a note of panic ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations by rounding up activists and sticking them behind bars.

Activists reported on social media accounts that police on May 17 barged into several homes of hopeful meeting participants and took them into detention.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported that at least five people were detained in Almaty. One of the people held by police was Yermek Narymbayev, who was recently convicted, but later given a suspended sentence, on charges of incitement to ethnic strife.

Narymbayev wrote on his Facebook account that another two Almaty activists, Suyundyk Aldabergenov and Bakytzhan Toregozhina, had been ordered to serve 15 days in jail. In an indication of the authorities' determination to keep as many potential rally organizers off the streets, the court passed its verdict against Aldabergenov and Toregozhina after 10 p.m.

The rallies planned for May 21 were scheduled ahead of a government decision to shelve proposed land auctions that had sparked widespread discontent. Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced subsequently that a state commission was to be set up to discuss privatization of land and that talks would include prominent opposition figures. Critics of the authorities have insisted, however, that it is necessary to keep up the tempo of public demonstrations to ensure that the government keeps to its word.

While agreeing to a compromise on the land sales, the authorities have shown they are prepared to take a firm line in denying all outlets for continued expressions of dissent.

Authorities in Astana, Almaty, Shymkent, Atyrau and other cities have formally denied approval to hold rallies on May 21. There have been several reported instances of people applying for permission to hold the meetings subsequently being detained.

Some people involved in the land protests have even found their social media accounts hacked by unknown persons.

Nazarbayev’s government has adopted a twin approach that it hopes will pay dividends. On one hand they believe they have taken the sting out of public anger and diminished the broad appeal of mass rallies by showing contrition over land reforms. And now they are smashing those activists unwise enough to continue popping their heads over the parapet. With popular misery provoked by economic hardship at an all-time high, however, it could prove be a high-stakes gamble.

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