Three women arrested for wearing panties on their heads were among nearly three dozen protesters hauled through the courts in Almaty this weekend, as last week’s devaluation of the tenge brought demonstrators out onto the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Zhanna Baytelova, Yevgeniya Plakhina, and Valeriya Ibrayeva were arrested at an anti-devaluation protest on February 16 after putting lace panties on their heads and trying to place them on a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence.
They were immediately tried on hooliganism charges and fined around $100 each. Their quirky protest was inspired by obscure regulations, due to come into force in July, that will govern the level of moisture absorption in underwear sold in Customs Union member states Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
The action, Plakhina told EurasiaNet.org “is a symbol of the absurdity which is taking place in our country, including the recent tenge devaluation.”
“In Russian we have a saying, ‘giving one’s last underpants,’ which literally means becoming poor,” she explained. “This was a symbolic action.”
The three women were among five people arrested at the small anti-devaluation rally that drew around 30 people on Republic Square. That followed a larger rally the previous day, which riot police broke up after some 200 protesters marched to Republic Square.
The authorities are sensitive to demonstrations on the square, the scene of a violent protest against Soviet policies in December 1986 that has become part of Kazakhstan’s independence narrative. The crackdown may also have been sparked by protestors’ cries of “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.
Police arrested 30 protesters at that February 15 rally. One was jailed for 10 days; the rest were fined.
Public protest is unusual in Kazakhstan (where protesters breaching stringent laws on public assembly requiring them to seek official permission 10 days before a rally face fines and jail sentences), but there have been seven demonstrations in Almaty alone in under two weeks.
On February 12 irate protesters besieged the National Bank to urge government action over the February 11 devaluation. On the same day Baytelova (one of the “panty protesters”) held a separate action outside city hall demanding the resignation of Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov over his running of the city. On February 13 another small anti-devaluation protest was held outside city hall.
In unrelated protests, three bloggers were jailed for 10 days on February 5 for protesting over being barred from a meeting with Mayor Yesimov. Three days later a fourth, Dina Baidildayeva, was arrested for protesting, alone, over their imprisonment. On February 17 her trial was postponed for a fourth time and is now scheduled for February 21.
There were also a handful of arrests in Astana this weekend as a small group of activists staged a tongue-in-cheek protest against Russian rocket launches from the Baikonur space site in Kazakhstan, which have become controversial due to environmental concerns and sensitivities over national sovereignty.
Video posted on YouTube showed police chasing activists from the Antiheptyl movement (named after heptyl, the toxic rocket fuel used in the launches) who were jogging along a street in yellow vests chanting an anti-heptyl slogan.