A dozen or so speakers are leading an authorized rally in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, on September 13 to call for political reforms and to demand that they be allowed to form a new party in Central Asia’s most prosperous former Soviet republic.
Backers of the unregistered Democratic Party have publicly argued against selling Kazakh land to foreigners and urged an amnesty on loan payments, called for the release of political prisoners, and warned of creeping Chinese influence and expansion in Kazakhstan.
Virtually all of the participants and gaggle of journalists have been wearing facemasks, as police and medics patrol the area and take people’s temperatures as part of anti-COVID-19 measures.
WATCH: Live Stream Of The Rally In Almaty (RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service)
But authorities have not been intervening as the speakers take turns challenging President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to carry out democratic and economic reforms, and a few dozen supporters have gathered at Shoqan Valikhanov Square in central Almaty.
Demonstrators have been chanting slogans demanding freedom for dissident poet Aron Atabek and others, and, in a sign of the ongoing tensions with neighboring China, calling for Beijing’s envoy to Nur-Sultan to leave the country.
Opposition groups in Kazakhstan have long called for direct elections of governors across the country, a move that has consistently been rejected by the government.
The Kazakh economy has been hit hard by the double whammy of a drop in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which has choked off growth and forced many businesses to be shuttered.
Former President Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) with current incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)
The demonstrators in Almaty on September 13 have also questioned the powerful ongoing role of longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who stepped down after nearly 30 years in power in 2019 but not before carving out key posts for himself.
Nazarbaev continues to lead the ruling Nur-Otan party and the country’s secretive Security Council.
Smaller protests were held in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent and in the northern city of Aktobe on September 13.
Under growing pressure at home and abroad for his government’s failure to carry out reforms, President Toqaev has called for a “reset” of the state structures managing the oil-rich Central Asian nation but has yet to follow through on that pledge.
Addressing the nation at a joint session of both parliamentary chambers, the Mazhilis and the Senate, Toqaev said on September 1 that a new state body called the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms would soon begin carrying out its function to boost “necessary reforms,” while a second state agency will be created to support economic competition. Both will report directly to the president.
The changes, Toqaev said, include direct elections for governors in villages starting next year, as well as hiving off the Agency for Emergency Situations from the Interior Ministry to allow it a freer hand in responding to the coronavirus pandemic in the face of protests by citizens demanding compensation for losses caused by the outbreak.
Local human rights campaigners recently identified nine individuals they said are political prisoners being held by Kazakh authorities, including the chairwoman of an Almaty-based rights group.
The unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan is led by journalist Zhanbolat Mamay.