Election Fraud and Cold Torture: How Kazakhstan Enters 2021

Aizat Abilseit was one of the activists kettled by the Almaty police on Jan 10. Aizat was taken to the emergency room after she and the others were forced to stay outside for 8 hours. (Source: Free Kazakhs)

Well, the parliamentary election in Kazakhstan went according to everyone’s expectations. There were no upsets. The polling stations were closed by 8 pm on Jan 10, and the very next day, Nursultan Nazarbayev — our first president and self-appointed Leader of the Nation — was congratulating his own party on sweeping the elections: the Nur Otan party supposedly won by 71%. However, according to an independent exit poll conducted by Voices of Kazakhstan the ruling party walked away with only 13% of the votes, while the party to receive the most votes was Aq Zhol (kaz: “Bright Path”).

Again, nobody was surprised. It will take more than doctored numbers and shameless lies in the state-owned news media to surprise the people of Kazakhstan: a people who haven’t enjoyed a free and fair election since, well, ever. When Nazarbayev ran unopposed in 1991 and won by 95%, the first steps towards turning Kazakhstan into a complete autocracy were taken. Why would this time, then, be any different?

None of the other four parties that were running alongside Nur Otan offered any kind of alternative to the voters, government-friendly as they are. And the only party that can be considered oppositional boycotted the election altogether.

The public’s attitude towards the electoral process and the state of democracy in Kazakhstan was well reflected in how people approached these elections. The people took to different tactics to voice their discontent — some abstained from voting altogether, while others called for sabotaging the ballots or voting for Aq Zhol (a kind of protest vote). Taking a page from the protest movement in Belarus, those who voted for Aq Zhol folded their ballots before throwing them in the transparent urns — to give the observers some idea of who the majority was actually voting for.

Others still called for a total boycott of the elections. But voting in itself was an act of protest; a way to express one’s discontent in a system that suppresses any form of protest or dissent. People voted so that their empty ballots wouldn’t be used to further boost Nur Otan’s numbers. Which was absolutely a possibility: to ensure Nur Otan’s indisputable victory, the government didn’t shy away from even the most questionable and unconstitutional measures. Did they use the pandemic as an excuse to suppress freedom of speech, and restrict voters’ rights? Yes, they did. Did the Central Election Commission pass a last-minute resolution banning election observers from doing live streams on polling sites? They absolutely did that too.

The government was cracking down on independent observers hard, both leading up to and during the election day. But the real problem runs deeper than these desperate measures to make the elections as opaque as possible. It’s not just that there were instances of multiple voting (which the observers were able to catch on camera), but that the questionable registration rules allow for, as the ODIHR put it in their report, the “potential for multiple voting”.

Restriction of voters’ rights is integrated in the very laws and regulations of our country. For instance, the voter’s registration plays a crucial role as it is tied to their home region. Voters who are registered in one region but are for various reasons residing in another (usually that reason being work) must travel great distances just to vote. And while over 30,000 people applied for an Absentee Voter Certificate, which allows them to vote in any polling station only about 10,000 received them.

And while our government was desperately trying to create an illusion of a free and fair election, the main goal of the police was to keep the “trouble-makers” out of the way on the election day. The police cracked down on the protesters and demonstrators with unjustifiable brutality. According to human rights advocate Bakhytzhan Toregozhina 361 people were detained on the election day. But it has been difficult to gather information on the detainees because there are no records on them. Attorneys weren’t allowed to see their clients. Many were brought in on bogus charges. A number of people were sentenced to up to 15 days in detention for “participating in illegal demonstrations”. And while the official sources stated that all of the detainees (those who had not been sentenced) were released by the end of the day, many still remain in custody.

But the most unconscionable act took place at the Independence Square in Almaty, where the police had surrounded and kettled members of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan as well as activists from the Oyan Qazaqstan youth movement and kept them in the January cold for eight hours, while subjecting them to music torture. The protesters were not even allowed to go to the restroom. At least two of the protesters were taken to the emergency room with cold damage. One woman got her spine fractured after her “interaction” with the police.

These activists are now suing the Almaty police for excessive force, unlawful detainment and torture. When I read about this, my first thought was of the Belarus police keeping detainees in the open prison yards for up to eight hours last November. But the irony of the Kazakh law enforcement detaining and torturing protesters on the same square where thirty-five years ago, the KGB was brutally arresting Kazakh students before driving them outside the city and leaving them naked in the snow was not lost on me either.

During the 2019 presidential election, the ODIHR had initially declined the government’s invitation to observe the electoral process, explaining that it would be a waste of their time and resources. They did send a mission, and were not surprised by what they had observed. I don’t know why they accepted the government’s invitation this time but I’m glad they did, because the resulting report is a fascinating read. It’s a good way to get at least an overview of what is wrong with our system, and what methods Kazakhstan’s government is using to silence the opposition, and restrict voter rights. The report barely scratches the surface, but it’s a good place to start.

The question that has been on my mind is why does the government keep inviting ODIHR? And the answer may lie in the way Kazakhstan’s government is trying to portray our country to the rest of the world as this democratic and progressive nation that overcame the challenges of post-Sovietism and reclaimed its national and cultural identity after seventy years of Communist oppression. And while a lot can be said about the steps that were taken to revive our culture and unearth our history after decades of suppression and censorship by the Communist Party “progressive” and “democratic” are two words that do not apply to our country. The question is, how do we move forward?

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Dinara Tengri

Dinara Tengri

"Dreams are answers to questions we haven’t yet figured out how to ask." - Fox Mulder

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