By RFE RL
By Bruce Pannier*
(RFE/RL) — When new leaders came to power in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in recent years, people hoped it would spark an era of significant change in how the countries were governed.
New Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev said soon after gaining power (in 2019 and 2016, respectively) that reforms were coming to their countries, and their governments are fond of telling the international community that the changes have already begun.
What many Kazakh and Uzbek people in those two countries were hoping to see was the right to make their voices heard and to be able to participate meaningfully in politics.
And while there have been changes, particularly in Uzbekistan, the situation with freedom of speech and the right to be active in politics does not seem to be any different than it was during the reigns of their repressive, autocratic predecessors: Nursultan Nazarbaev and Islam Karimov.
One need only look at events in the first two months of this year.
There were widespread protests in Kazakhstan on February 28, with all of them but one, in the western city of Uralsk, being unsanctioned.
In some cases, individual activists called for local rallies, in other cases it was unregistered opposition parties calling on their supporters to come out into the streets and air their discontent.
But in all cases except Uralsk, police moved to stop the demonstrations and, in what has become a familiar scene, scores of people were detained.
On March 19, it will be two years since Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan’s founding president, stepped down from office and ushered in his handpicked successor, Toqaev.
It was disappointing for those who had dreamed of a different style of government in Kazakhstan after the long-ruling Nazarbaev would leave office. But their hopes were dashed quickly as the capital, Astana, was quickly renamed Nur-Sultan, and Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter Darigha was selected for the second-highest post in the country, speaker of the Senate.
Protests erupted afterward and dozens of people were detained.
Demonstrations against those leadership changes that followed Nazarbaev’s departure from office continued and peaked before, during, and after the snap June 9, 2019, presidential election that Toqaev won easily.
It soon became apparent that while Nazarbaev was no longer president, he was still the main power in Kazakhstan, even though Toqaev attempted to show he was different from his predecessor and would make serious changes.
On December 19, 2019, Toqaev said in a speech to parliament that Kazakhstan needed a new law that made it easier to conduct public meetings and rallies. He also said there needed to be genuine opposition parties in parliament.
Kazakhstan passed a new law on public assemblies in May 2020.
But the law imposed limits on how many people could participate, designated areas where rallies could take place and, while it officially dispensed with the pesky requirement of having to register with authorities ahead of time, it still forced organizers to inform local officials in advance of their intention to conduct a public meeting.
According to the law, local officials cannot deny permission for rallies and meetings but they can deny requests from unregistered parties and groups to conduct a public gathering, and they have.
Some groups were denied permission to hold public meetings. Others simply called on people to come to the demonstrations knowing that the authorities would work to stop them.
So police were out in force on February 28, carrying people into police cars and vans or employing their new tactic of kettling — surrounding protesters with a ring of police who for hours allow no one to join the crowd and prevent anyone from leaving it, for any reason.
Police used this tactic on January 10 when there were protests in several of Kazakhstan’s major cities prompted by parliamentary elections many described as rigged.
Mihra Rittmann of Human Rights Watch wrote on May 28 — just after the law on protests was signed — that “in 2015, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, said it best: ‘[Kazakhstan’s] approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning,’” and concluded by saying: “Sadly, despite promised reform, that assessment remains just as true today.”
And despite Toqaev’s statements about the need to have a true opposition in parliament, no such parties were registered to take part.
A new law on opposition in parliament was also passed in late May, but by that time Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry had denied registration to a half dozen new parties.
After Toqaev signed the law, parliamentary deputy Azat Peruashev from the Aq Zhol party gave a curious explanation of the need for an opposition party or parties in parliament, saying: “There should be a parliamentary opposition, which will express the opinion of the people and raises issues of concern to the entire population,” seemingly confirming that the pro-government parties in parliament are not working on behalf of Kazakhs.
The election results in January showed that the only three parties to win seats in Kazakhstan’s parliament since 2012 — the ruling Nur-Otan party, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan (formerly the People’s Communist Party of Kazakhstan), and Aq Zhol — once again were the only three parties to win seats in 2021.
And despite the bitter cold weather, people came out to protest and were again detained and loaded onto police buses.
Protesters being dragged or carried away to waiting buses has become the dominant image of Toqaev’s presidency thus far and while authorities might brand these people as troublemakers or even extremists, it is clear there are many people in Kazakhstan who have not seen the type of reforms that they want.
Uzbekistan under Mirziyoev is a different country in many ways than it was under Karimov — especially in the country’s vastly improved relations with its neighbors — but many areas that are glaringly the same as they were are freedom of speech, media freedom, and the inclusion of new political parties that are not pro-presidential.
Mirziyoev was made acting president on September 8, 2016, six days after the announcement that Karimov had died. He won the snap presidential election on December 4 that year and will run for reelection in October.
Uzbek media outlets are reporting on topics now that they would have avoided when Karimov was president, such as corruption among lower-level officials, social issues like evictions and the demolition of homes, activist and blogger detentions, and the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.
On February 4, Mirziyoev was quoted by state media as telling journalists: “I am counting on your help. Do not stop delivering justice, do not be afraid. The president is behind you.”
An increase in inquisitiveness by some media outlets is obvious, though limitations on a free press still remain.
Just two months earlier, authorities warned media outlets about reporting on electricity and heating shortages and the problems officials had restoring power to homes in many parts of Uzbekistan.
Another example of self-censorship in Uzbek media was the recent case when there was no follow up on an extensive investigative report from RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, about massive construction at a site that appears to be a resort used by Mirziyoev except by referring to “information that has appeared on Internet sites.” They continued by defending the president, saying the luxurious retreat was intended as a holiday area for Uzbekistan’s approximately 90,000 railway workers.
In early December 2019, Senate chairwoman Tanzila Narbaeva boldly said that the government needs to deal with criticism in the media “correctly” and not respond with insults and threats.
On January 30, blogger Otabek Sattori in the southern Uzbek city of Termez was taken into custody and accused of extorting money and a mobile phone.
Sattori was known for criticizing local authorities on his video blog Halq Fikiri (People’s Opinion), including Tura Bobolov, the governor of Surhandarya Province where Termez is located.
On February 24, additional charges of slander and insult were filed against Sattori.
Sattori’s relatives have thus far been unable to see him since he was detained.
U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum tweeted about Sattori’s case, writing: “full transparency needed regarding circumstances of his arrest.”
On February 22, Mirziyoev addressed the UN Human Rights Council via video link.
In it, Mirziyoev said: “We intend to further develop the institutions of civil society, not stopping at the progress already achieved, and fully support freedom of speech in Uzbekistan.”
On February 26, officers from the National Guard detained Khidirnazar Allaqulov at his home in Tashkent.
Allaqulov is the founder of the unregistered Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot (Truth and Progress) party that had planned to hold a congress later that day.
He was questioned and released but still could face charges of violation of privacy and the unlawful collection and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without consent.
Allaqulov has suggested he was intending to run for president in the election due later this year.
Uzbekistan has five registered political parties; all of them are pro-government. No genuine opposition party has ever been registered in Uzbekistan.
In January, Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov met with representatives from the unregistered opposition Erk Democratic party, which was founded in 1990. He told Erk representatives that their party would not be registered.
Allaqulov’s party met outside of Tashkent on March 10 for a founding congress but it remains doubtful the party will be officially registered.
Despite the ample examples against greater freedoms in their countries, Toqaev and Mirziyoev have appealed to the international community to take another look at their countries and appreciate the small changes that they say have occurred.
Both governments have even hired international lobbying and advertising firms to promote their countries, drawing attention to the investment and tourism potential.
The Kazakh and Uzbek leaders have also repeatedly promised reforms, but it has been years since they’ve been in power and the most important domestic reforms have been either superficially addressed or not addressed at all. Maybe it is time for officials in those countries to either stop talking about reform or, better yet, to actually take action and make the changes they’ve pledged to make.
- Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.