The presidential elections, traditionally called early, are now behind us, having marked the lowest turnout in Kazakhstan’s history. Less than 70% of the voters went to the polls, similarly to the 2021 parliamentary elections and the 2022 referendum. Looking for a space of illusory security, many Kazakhstanis seemed to say “I am not interested in politics,” “I’m apolitical, this doesn’t concern me.”
But how is it possible to live “outside of politics,” if it concerns your rights and freedoms? And can voting and taking pictures of the ballot − for the university or employer that forced you to do so − be defined as “political activity”?
Citizens that do not participate in elections are not necessarily apolitical. They could be unwilling to recognize the electoral process or lack trust in the current government.
In our fieldwork across the country, we notice that we can have long conversations with local residents about their dissatisfaction about their life’s conditions or the country. That is until you mention “politics.” This word is like Voldemort, it cannot be said out loud, otherwise it would deprive you of your false sense of comfort.
More than half of the youth surveyed in a 2016 study for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation answered that security is more important than freedom. Almost half, 45.9%, said that engaging in politics was “not so important,” while an additional 35.5% said it was “not important at all.” This was during Nursultan Nazarbayev’s presidency, but a new poll in 2021 showed similar results under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: Almost half of the respondents said they are “not at all” interested in politics, both domestic and foreign.
You can turn a blind eye to human rights violations and live pretending that this does not concern you. This attitude, however, will not make the problems go away. On the contrary, it will help spread the disease.
Importantly, in this space, I wish not to shift all responsibility onto the citizens, glossing over the restrictive environment that the authorities have built for years. It was the government that taught us that the word “politics” was synonymous with danger. President Nazarbayev always repeated the formula “economy first, then politics.”
The result was a social contract by which they paid us social benefits and gave us subsidized mortgages, in exchange for our non-interference in politics.
Yet, politics is not just rallies. Politics is everything that happens around us. The desire to discuss our common future and be heard is also politics. We will be on a path to recovery from apathy once our society is ready to participate in political processes and stops being afraid of the word “politics.” So far this has not happened.