Attendees pray for those who died in Zhanaozen 100 days ago.
An opposition rally in downtown Almaty on March 24 drew only a couple of hundred demonstrators, indicating that a protest movement launched in the wake of violence in Zhanaozen in December and disputed parliamentary elections in January is losing momentum. Police abandoned the heavy-handed tactics they employed at a rally in February, keeping their distance and allowing the demonstration to proceed.
Protestors could not reach the planned demonstration site around a statue to Kazakh poet Abay, however, because it was cordoned off for a public celebration that some activists believed was arranged to thwart them. Music from that event drowned out prayers at the rally for those who died in Zhanaozen a symbolic 100 days ago, blasting through the minute’s silence observed in memory.
Top leaders from the OSDP Azat party, which has been a driving force in the protest movement, did not attend. Co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov, who both served two short prison sentences for organizing rallies without official permission in January and February, flew to western Kazakhstan to attend mourning ceremonies for the victims of the Zhanaozen violence.
Prominent OSDP Azat member Marzhan Aspandiyarova was among activists visited by law-enforcement officers ahead of the rally and warned of sanctions if she attended. Even so, Aspandiyarova addressed the hour-long rally in the morning. By evening she had not been arrested or received a summons, she told EurasiaNet.org by telephone. Several activists were detained before the rally and are likely to face cautions and fines.
While they did not give official permission for the rally, the softer line taken by Astana toward protestors this time may suggest the government is seeking to defuse tensions that have built up over three months, with the opposition staging monthly protests.
In recent weeks Astana has also unexpectedly freed two prominent prisoners: newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy and lawyer Natalya Sokolova. Nevertheless, activists including Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, remain behind bars facing charges of inciting violence in Zhanaozen.
Trials of some protestors accused of involvement in the unrest are to begin in Aktau on March 27.
Activists in Almaty pledged to stage another rally on April 28, but the protest movement appears to be fizzling out.