Disenchanted activists demand Kazakhs 'wake up' before presidential vote
Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP)
In a country tightly run by one man for three decades, even small protests are a rarity.
But ahead of Sunday's presidential poll in Kazakhstan, some activists are risking jail
Dressed in a plain grey sweatshirt, with short black hair shaved at the sides, Asya Tulesova is defiant of the danger she faces in the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic.
"We have elections, but no choice," she told AFP in the largest city Almaty.
The 34-year-old and another activist were sentenced in April to 15 days detention for unfurling a banner during a marathon in Almaty which said: "You can't run from the truth".
The truth, as Tulesova sees it, is a sham election where the result is not in doubt.
Kazakhstan's interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will almost certainly be confirmed in the job on Sunday after being handpicked by former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who still wields enormous power behind the scenes.
"We see that rallies are formally permitted but in reality (prohibited)," said Tulesova.
"The internet is often blocked. So citizens have no ability to express their opinion other than through creative actions."
Now out of prison, Tulesova is calling for young people to get active and her slogan -- "You can't run from the truth" -- has become a popular meme on social media, with thousands using the hashtag.
The only recognised opposition candidate standing in the polls, veteran politician and journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, is using the slogan to boost his low-key campaign.
But few conceive of any outcome other than a crushing victory for Tokayev, who took on the presidency following his mentor's shock resignation in March.
- 'I have woken up' -
Tokayev, a 66-year-old career diplomat, indicated within minutes of his inauguration that he would not overhaul a system which critics say is prone to authoritarian abuses and corruption.
In a display of power a week after taking office, Tokayev ordered for the capital Astana to be renamed "Nur-Sultan" in his mentor's honour -- without any public consultation.
"I have woken up in a country that changed the name of the capital city in a single day without asking citizens," said actor and activist Anuar Nurpeisov.
Along with Tulesova, he appeared in an activist video titled "I have woken up", focusing on social injustice, censorship and environmental pollution.
Viewed tens of thousands of times, it marks a new stage in Kazakh youth activism, rejecting the Muslim-majority country's stage-managed transition of power.
The video's title is a reference to poems called "Wake up, Kazakh!" written by Kazakh poet Mirzhakyp Dulatov in the early 20th century when the country was still part of the Russian empire, which called for a new national consciousness.
Nurpeisov, who came up with the idea for the video, said he took inspiration from cultural and political figures who struggled for national independence, which Kazakhstan finally gained from the Soviet Union in 1991.
"My Kazakh language teacher at school always told me that these men laid the foundations for the independence that we have today," Nurpeisov said.
"But this independence isn't complete yet, because we are still slaves to the current system."
In a sign of growing activism, one student at a top university in Nur-Sultan even recently wore a cap daubed with the slogan "Wake up!" at her graduation ceremony -- attended by Nazarbayev.
"Going back to the same place seems increasingly impossible," said Timur Nusimbekov, co-founder of Adamdar, a culture and human interest news website based in Almaty.
- 'Spoil ballots' -
Democracy activists are not the only ones making videos.
Pro-government supporters recently filmed their own "I have woken up" video, but this time celebrating the success of Kazakhstan as a state and society.
"It's time to grow up," one speaker says.
"Don't make others responsible for your problems," said another.
As 18 million people in the Central Asian state prepare to vote, Tokayev looks set to be confirmed as president.
Endorsed by some pop stars and film actors, he appears to have the weight of the state machine behind him.
But on a boulevard in central Almaty last week young poets spat out rapid verses to a cheering audience, complaining about the elections, corruption, smog problems and social media users loyal to Nazarbayev -- known as Nurbots.
Young people interviewed by AFP said they did not intend to vote or would deface ballot papers.
"We will go but we will spoil the ballots," said Suinbike, an artist, who only wanted to use her first name.
In April, she was held for over ten hours by police and fined for filming the "You can't run from the truth" banner protest.
What stayed with her most, she said, was the state of the toilets in the detention facility she was held.
"I think they were the face of this system. If (police) cannot clear up after themselves, how can they protect us?" Suinbike asked.
? 2019 AFP