Up to several dozen protesters demonstrating against Kazakhstan’s recent devaluation of the national currency were arrested on February 15 in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Riot police swooped down on as many as 200 protesters as they marched to city hall from their original venue nearby, where they had held a small unsanctioned rally against this week’s 19-percent devaluation of the tenge. Demonstrators urged government action over mounting socioeconomic problems and inflation.
Kanagat Takeyeva, who was designated spokeswoman among protesters who besieged the National Bank headquarters on February 12, was among the detained. “They’re taking me away,” she shouted into her telephone, as riot police grabbed her arms and marched her to a police truck amid what appeared to be targeted arrests of specific protesters.
It was not immediately clear how many arrests were made; EurasiaNet.org witnessed six, but witnesses spoke of up to 30. Three trucks containing detainees drove off.
The security forces moved in as the protesters attempted to reach Republic Square in front of Almaty’s city hall. Police formed a cordon to enclose protesters and chased down some who had escaped.
A prosecutor speaking through a megaphone warned the demonstrators to disperse and cautioned them that they were breaking Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assembly, which requires protesters to obtain official permission 10 days before a rally. Demonstrators breaching that law face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
Police did not intervene in the initial protest (which began with around 50 people) – even when some demonstrators cried “Shal, ket!” (“Old man out!”) in an apparent reference to 73-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades.
The crowd swelled as protesters started marching toward the city hall to cries of “Alga! Kazakhstan” (Forward! Kazakhstan) and “we have nothing to fear in our own country!”
Public protest is unusual in Kazakhstan, but this was the sixth protest in Almaty within 10 days.
In cases unrelated to the devaluation, three bloggers were jailed for 10 days on February 5 for protesting over being barred from a meeting with Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov. Three days later a fourth, Dina Baidildayeva, was arrested for protesting, alone, over their imprisonment. She faced a court hearing on February 17.
On February 12 irate protesters besieged the National Bank to urge government action over the devaluation, concerned about expectations of high inflation as the price of hard currency-denominated imports rockets. On the same day two people held a separate protest calling for Yesimov’s resignation over his running of the city. On February 13 another small protest over the devaluation was held outside Almaty's city hall.
Astana is conscious that socioeconomic disaffection is a potent issue in Kazakhstan – particularly since an oil-sector strike spiraled into fatal unrest in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011.
The authorities are particularly sensitive to demonstrations on Almaty’s Republic Square, the scene of a violent protest against Soviet policies in December 1986, which has become part of Kazakhstan’s independence narrative.