U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Kazakhstan today to “deepen our bilateral cooperation,” according to the State Department. This comes more than a year since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev suddenly promised reforms just days after ordering security forces to “shoot to kill” as thousands of people took to the streets in Kazakhstan in January 2022 to peacefully express themselves and call for political and social change in our country. Among them was my husband, Zhanbolat Mamay, who was arrested in the brutal crackdown that ensued. In a remarkable attempt at the time to transform the crisis into an opportunity by rebranding the country’s political elite as reformers, Tokayev had pivoted to pledge what he called a “New Kazakhstan.”
More than a year on, we are still waiting for significant change, and Zhanbolat is still not free. And yet, the United States and Europe have repeatedly expressed their approval, boosting the president and ignoring the warnings of Kazakhstanis who have demanded reform for a long time: we’ve heard Tokayev’s promises before, and they have always been empty.
My husband’s experience, and the experience of all of the victims of Bloody January – what people in Kazakhstan now call those dark days – is a perfect example of our leaders’ duplicity. Zhanbolat, a former journalist, has peacefully advocated for human rights and reforms, and has tried to establish a political party since 2009. That’s what he was doing that Jan. 4, when he was arrested after speaking to protesters, and again on Feb. 25, 2022, when he was arrested for his peaceful calls for accountability for Bloody January.
Approximately 10,000 people were detained during those dark days, many merely because they dared to speak their mind. Government forces kidnapped and tortured protesters and passersby, and unsurprisingly shot some of them in the street after Tokayev’s “shoot to kill” order. At least 238 people lost their lives in the violence, a large number of them civilians. Zhanbolat now faces new charges of organizing a riot, as the authorities try to lay the blame for Bloody January at his feet. Meanwhile, the public’s demands for real reform and accountability for Bloody January are still largely unanswered.
The tragedy of Bloody January is both personal and national, and will be difficult for Kazakhstanis to forget. Like me, many loved ones, and each of the survivors, are still grappling with the deaths and profound disruption to their lives caused by the government’s repression. As each of us struggles privately, our nation still yearns for accountability. The authorities have yet to mount a serious investigation into many killings and incidents of torture, opting instead to prosecute peaceful protesters like Zhanbolat. The large loss of life, the government’s cover up of its disastrous response, and the absence of accountability, or even an effective investigation, will have a lasting impact on everyone in Kazakhstan.
Much of the the Kazakhstani government’s supposed reform agenda can be explained by a desire to stay in power and to cozy up with the United States and Europe. This strategy appears to be working. With people who have a more democratic vision for our country — people like Zhanbolat who are in jail or prevented from organizing an opposition movement by the government’s repressive policies — there is no one to challenge those in power.
Like last year’s presidential election, the March 2023 parliamentary election will probably also lack any real competition. Notwithstanding recent changes to the electoral law hailed by leaders as meaningful reforms, and numerous other promises, it is still impossible to establish an independent political party that can field candidates. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, leading many, myself included, to run for single-member district seats as independent candidates. Unfortunately, good candidates like Alnur Ilyashev have been disqualified from running due to a previous politically-motivated conviction. These are just the latest signs that Tokayev’s reforms are nothing more than a facade, yet Kazakhstan’s partners in the West continue to welcome a reform agenda that has always been a farce.
Going along with Tokayev’s games is not the strategy western policymakers appear to think it is when they aim to facilitate Kazakhstan’s transition to a human rights-respecting democracy while peeling it away from Russia’s and China’s influence. Instead, it is another lease on life for a brutally violent regime, festering instability fed by the nation’s pain and anger, and probably years more in prison for my husband and others like him.
The United States and Europe should start demanding real progress, and conditioning deeper economic and political engagement on reform achievements. The release of Zhanbolat and all of the other political prisoners still behind bars would be a good first start, but change is needed across the board.
We need an independent investigation of Bloody January and accountability for those responsible. We need a vibrant political space, where people can speak their minds and establish political parties to play a role in the country’s governance. We need so much more that has been promised but not delivered. Of course, Tokayev can refuse, in which case Europe and the United States should treat Kazakhstan’s government as the recalcitrant authoritarian state it is, rather than the aspiring democracy that many of us want it to be.