Authorities in Kazakhstan reacted harshly to protests announced for Saturday by detaining possibly hundreds of journalists, activists and demonstrators. Police in full riot gear broke up the protests on Saturday, and dozens more were arrested in cities across the country.
They're protesting against a planned "Land Reform" program. The program would make it easier for foreigners to buy farmland or rent it for 25 years. Protesters fear that the changes would make it easier for large Chinese agribusinesses to take control of vast swaths of farmland. According to one protester, "We can't give land to the Chinese. If they come then they won't leave!" China shares a lengthy border with Kazakhstan and has been heavily investing in its energy sector and infrastructure.
The new law was approved in November, but only comes into effect on July 1. In the last round of protests, on April 27, there were one or two thousand people in each city, which is quite serious for Kazakhstan where no dissent is tolerated. Authorities fear a repeat of the huge protests in 2011, when oil workers went on strike, and 14 people were killed by police gunfire.
Kazakhstan is heavily dependent on oil exports and because of the drop in oil prices, its revenues plummeted creating budget deficit. The government had to decrease its expenditure, and the national currency lost half of its value, although it's slowly recovering now as oil prices are going up.
The collapse in global commodity prices, especially oil, drove Russia into recession, and has had s big ripple effect throughout central Asia, whose economies are dependent on Russia through subsidies and migrant labor. Kazakhstan's currency, the tenge, has lost 50% of its value against the US dollar, and other currencies in the region have suffered similarly.
Although the proposed Land Reform law triggered the riots and protests, the downward spiraling economy has turned it into general protests again Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in the last few years of the Soviet Empire, and then became president in 1991 when the Soviet Empire collapsed.
On May 5, Nazarbayev announced that the Land Reform would be put on hold, until the new laws could be discussed publicly. That was a huge concession to the activists, and perhaps was as much a sign of panic as anything else, but it didn't stop the protests from happening anyway on Saturday.
Radio Free Europe | 27 May 2016
Radio Free Europe | 27 May 2016
Kazakh authorities say individuals recently arrested for taking part or calling for unsanctioned mass protests are facing charges of inciting ethnic discord and of attempting to seize power by force.
The Prosecutor-General's Office made the announcement on May 27, after hundreds of activists were detained ahead of nationwide protests against new legislation on the privatization of agricultural land planned for May 21.
Many activists have been released, but a number of them were fined or sent to prison for 10-15 days. Others were sent to pretrial detention as criminal charges against them are pending.
On May 5, President Nursultan Nazarbaev imposed a moratorium on the implementation of the controversial law until 2017, but critics of the legislation pledged to continue the protest movement afterward.
Based on reporting by nur.kz and Kazinform