Encircled by fences, under the statue of Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, a rally against violence took place in Almaty on November 26. The civic organization Zhana Adamdar (from Kazakh, ‘New People’) was there, distributing scarves and banners, next to a stage on which the movement’s leaders, as well as guests and influencers, were lining up to speak.
The hosts opened the rally in Russian and Kazakh: “We believe in our president. We share his opinions and we will help him,” are their first words.
The movement’s activists were split between “organizers” (in purple jackets) and “participants” (in yellow raincoats). Most of the participants were recruited via a website that promised to pay for travel and accommodation.
Zhana Adamdar was founded in August 2022 and, according to its leader, Assel Badenova, to date counts around 700 members. Badenova told Vlast that while not financed by the government, the movement’s ideas are in line with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s policies.
“Our movement openly supports the reforms of President Tokayev, we do not hide this,” Badenova said.
One of the organizers, who declined to introduce herself, said that there is no link between them and the government.
“I can say with complete confidence that we are not pro-government, as people say. We support Tokayev because his words resonate with us. Calling us pro-government is incorrect,” she said.
On November 14, Zhana Adamdar had sent in a request to the city of Almaty to hold a rally to “expose the problem of violence in Kazakhstan” on November 26. That the city administration agreed to such a demonstration so quickly can be seen as a sign of closeness to the government.
Other movements often try for months and send in multiple requests to hold rallies in Kazakhstan, with the local authorities always ready to find a way to deny the request. Since the new Law on Peaceful Rallies was adopted in 2020, feminist movements as well as activists against Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine were denied to hold a rally dozens of times. When people try to hold rallies without prior administrative approval, they are inevitably arrested and fined.
Despite bureaucratic hurdles, feminist organizations, as well as other civic movements, have been able to gather more than 500 participants several times during Tokayev’s era. The November 26 rally, however, failed to attract more than 300 people.
A Well-Policed Space
The area under the statue of Kalinin was fenced off by the police, which gathered in the hundreds to make sure that the rally ran peacefully. Amid the people who wore the purple-and-yellow scarves inside the designated area, dozens of policemen in plain clothes and National Security Committee officers were easily recognizable.
The policing of the event, however, was not confined to law enforcement officials.
One of the organizers insisted that journalists wore the bespoke badge that Zhana Adamdar had prepared for them. Only a handful of journalists in attendance agreed to wear the badge, on top of their blue press vests, one of the only legal requirements for journalists.
The presenters on the stage warned other movements and activists not to bring up any other topics during the rally and stay focused on the organizer’s cause against violence.
At the opposite side of the stage, a confrontation between Veronika Fonova, an activist for the feminist organization KazFem, and the organizers resulted in her banning from the rally.
“They didn't let me in. They said they would get in trouble with the city administration. I told them my posters were exactly on topic, against violence. I asked them to let me in and stand with them. They said: ‘No, you can’t go in with those’,” Fonova said.
Fonova had been at the forefront of several International Women’s Day marches and rallies in the past in Almaty. At the Zhana Adamdar rally, she had planned to raise the issue of the criminal investigation that the police launched last week against Dina Smailova, the head of #NemolchiKZ, an NGO for the protection of women and children who suffered violence.
Civic activist Alexander Shchekuteyev, who ran for local elections in March, said the push back against other activists casts doubts about the genuine nature of the protest.
“I just met [Zhana Adamdar] now. The organization raises a lot of questions because of their pro-government slogans. Some activists were not allowed in. That’s not very good,” Shchekuteyev told Vlast.
An Expensive Deal
Several popular influencers gathered together with Zhana Adamdar. Among them, Bota Nurseitova, with more than 500,000 followers on Instagram, Aina Isayeva, with around 630,000 followers, and Nurlan Batyrov, whose Instagram account is followed by 1.1 million people.
“I want to support the protest against violence. Finally, other influencers are joining in. Violence has no place in our society,” Batyrov told Vlast.
When asked about his attitude towards the Zhana Adamdar movement, Batyrov said he was not very familiar.
“We will get to know them more over time, but for now I don’t know much about them,” Batyrov said.
Yet, on November 13, Batyrov shared a lengthy video by Zhana Adamdar calling for a rally on his feed. It is unclear whether any of the social media celebrities who took part in the event were paid for their role in publicizing the rally.
The Zhana Adamdar leadership confirmed that they paid hundreds of participants a train fare and accommodation, as well as having allocated a budget for merchandising and props used during the event.
When asked by Vlast about the total cost of the event, Badenova refused to answer.
“We are financed by philanthropists and businessmen interested in the development of our movement. We do not receive state funding,” Yersultan Bekes, another organizer, said.
When asked about why businessmen would not want to disclose their philanthropic donations to a movement that stands against violence, Bekes shrugged.
Activist Alnur Ilyashev noted that organizing such an event is expensive.
“There’s a lot of money [being spent] here. Civic activists do not have such funding,” Ilyashev said.
“People Behave Like Animals”
Initially planned for November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the rally was moved to November 26, International Cake Day.
The idea for the rally emerged after former minister of economy, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, beat his wife Saltanat Nurkenova at a restaurant, allegedly causing her death, on November 9. The following day, Bishimbayev was accused of murder and sent to pre-trial detention for two months. This event sparked a widespread debate about domestic violence in Kazakhstan.
“This question would have not emerged without such a high-brow case. There is violence against women and children every day. Why didn’t we do the same with Aikorkem?” a participant said after the event had ended.
Aikorkem Meldekhan was the youngest victim of Qandy Qantar (Kazakh for “Bloody January”, the violent repression of urban protests in January 2022). She was four years old when her father’s car was shot at by a group of soldiers patrolling a city-wide curfew in Almaty.
The official theme of the rally was “Say no to the animal world”, a phrase intended to liken violent people to animals, without conscience.
Zhanar Sekerbayeva, the co-founder of the feminist initiative Feminita, refused to participate in Zhana Adamdar’s event. Reached by Vlast, she said this organization is trying to hijack the feminist agenda.
“This is a pro-government organization that is trying to take the women's rights issue away from the feminist movement. We have been organizing against violence for a long time, and no-one from Zhana Adamdar ever joined us in solidarity,” Sekerbayeva said.
“They said they will not advocate for the adoption of the long-forgotten draft law on domestic violence. So what’s the point of their rally? Why the ridiculous slogan about animals?”
The organizers later publicly stated that their action had nothing to do with animal rights.
“It’s not about animals in any way. We are saying that people have a consciousness, but they act like animals.”
After 40 minutes of speeches, the presenters asked the crowd to disperse, quoting Tokayev one last time: “One people, one country, one destiny. We say no to violence!”
Both the organizers and the police then invited people to vacate the space.
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