‘I woke up’: ahead of presidential elections in Kazakhstan, a young creative class fights for its future

‘I woke up’: ahead of presidential elections in Kazakhstan, a young creative class fights for its future

The surprise resignation of president Nursultan Nazarbayev in March, after 29 years in power, created ripples of unrest in amongst younger generations in Kazakhstan. With presidential elections on Sunday, the nation is seeing a potentially radical new phenomenon on the rise: hope that things might finally be changing.

7 June 2019

I am dying in Nur-Sultan. It’s the title of a song by teenage brother-sister duo Opia, released last month, which has become an anthem among the generation of young adults in Kazakhstan who will head to the polls this Sunday to vote for their new president. The first verse is addressed to the nation’s outgoing president Nursultan Nazarbayev, namesake of the newly-renamed Kazakh capital, formerly known as Astana: “My Elbasy [Leader of the Nation] let me out of this heaven/My people will never rise up/I can’t see where this grey steppe ends/I am dying in Nur-Sultan.”

In the two months since Nazarbayev’s unexpected resignation after 29 years in power, the country has seen an unusual and sustained protest movement emerge, led by a creative class fed up with the current political order. Since March, stories from the streets of Almaty and Nur-Sultan, as well as smaller regional cities including Uralsk and Kamenogorsk, have made headlines after young Kazakhs holding up posters and banners quoting parts of the state’s constitution were met with arrests and sentences of up to 15 days in prison.

“A couple of weeks ago, my friends and I gathered outside Le Janbyr bar and began singing Opia’s song,” says 27-year-old cultural journalist, Aidana Aidarkhan, pointing across Kabanbai Batyr Street to the hangout favoured by Almaty’s creative community. “It was rebellious of us, but it’s not illegal to gather together like that: we weren’t protesting or anything. We started singing and a policeman came up to us to investigate, but in the end he left when he realised there was nothing he could charge us for. What could he do?” Aidarkhan’s family is intimately familiar with the power of the Kazakh government to quell dissent. Her father, the poet and activist Aron Atabek, was jailed and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2007 for his involvement in protests against the government’s plans to demolish housing to construct luxury apartments, which led to the death of a policeman. Although she is politically engaged, Aidarkhan says she has not yet protested for fear of reprisals.

A generation of digitally-savvy Kazakhs have grown up with one eye on home affairs and the other on cultural trends in the West

With waist-length, platinum-dyed hair and an Adidas shell jacket, Aidarkhan is emblematic of a generation of digitally-savvy Kazakhs who have grown up with one eye on home affairs and the other on cultural trends in the West. Largely English-speaking and well-travelled, they have entered adulthood with no experience of having a say in the political life of their country. With Nazarbayev’s surprise departure, many of them thought they were witnessing the final throes of a dying regime, one that had hung onto power and presided over corruption for nearly three decades. If their parents’ generation, shaken by the rapid dissolution of the Soviet Union, broadly accepted the idea that democracy was the price paid for stability, Kazakhs in their twenties and thirties are now ready for change.

Aidana Aidarkhan. Image: Shah Abubakirov

But the excitement young people felt at Nazarbayev’s resignation was short-lived. The immediate inauguration of former senate speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as interim president dispelled any hope of real change. “We thought, ‘yes, [Nazarbayev] decided to step down and it’s not too late to change things’,” says 30-year-old Uliya Kusherbayeva, an editor at the youth culture-focused digital platform BLVD. “But that excitement didn’t last. The day Tokayev became president, he renamed the capital city after Nazarbayev. It was the only bit of evidence we needed to show us that nothing would change after all.”

One sign of the times is how accustomed Kazakhs have become to a managed media landscape: the mainstream press is tightly controlled, while access to social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram has been intermittently restricted during the evenings in recent years. In spite of this, there is a growing and dynamic digital media landscape, based out of Almaty, which offers young people, if not space to discuss politics, then a platform where at least the social and cultural issues they face today — from body positivity to combating sexism in the workplace — can be explored.

There is a growing and dynamic digital media landscape offering young people a platform where the social and cultural issues they face today can be explored

Some publications skirt closer to the fringes of actual politics than others. During the May protests, BLVD published a quiz inviting users to guess the punishment meted out to those carrying a selection of banners bearing quotes from the constitution and other slogans. Kazakhs in digital media are increasingly brushing up against the boundaries of what the government deems acceptable, but they’re aware of the limitations they are working under and the kinds of content that could get them blocked. “We try and keep interviews with activists focused on their creative projects. But with everything that’s going on now it’s impossible to stay away from politics, so we’ve also been featuring quotes on the importance of their activism,” Kusherbayeva says. The editors at BLVD save the more explicit support of activist groups for posts on their social media platforms, “reminding people to vote in the upcoming elections, what to do if you’re detained, which accounts to follow.”

Screenshot of the youth culture website BLVD-x. “Test — how long were they given for their banner?”

Despite patchy access, social media are still being used as powerful and effective conduits for lively, youth-friendly political messaging. The catchphrase “I woke up” recently went viral, after a video that cut together a number of statements from young Kazakhs on how they see their country encouraged others to do the same. “I woke up in a country where the name of the capital gets changed overnight without asking people’s opinion”; “I woke up in a country where internet access is blocked”; “I woke up in a country where I can’t afford an apartment at 30 years old.” In the week since the video was first posted, the meme has turned into an online flashmob; the hashtag #менояндым (#iwokeup) has been used over 11,000 times on Instagram.

The use of art in the recent protests — imaginatively painted signs and large-scale murals on paving stones — has also become a tool to unify disparate social groups around political issues. “Before, politics was only about parties and politicians, and about what they get up to in Astana,” says Leila Zuleikha Makhmudova, who works on educational projects that promote gender equality. “But now, with political protests using art, it’s become more popular, breaking beyond boundaries of ‘politics’ and showing that it’s more than just [procedure]. Citizens from very different backgrounds, including artists, media people, people from the corporate world, come out and say: ‘we should be responsible for our political system, too.’”

Efforts have been focused on getting young people to begin engaging with the political process, a first for the majority of Kazakhs born around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union

Few among Kazakhstan’s creative class have any doubts that Tokayev will win the election on Sunday, but influencing the result of this presidential race has not been the central goal of their recent protests. Instead, efforts have been focused on getting young people to begin engaging with the political process, a first for the majority of Kazakhs born around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, who have known no other president than Nazarbayev. The tentative cultivation of democratic citizenship is already visible in the number of young people registered for the first time to become observers at Sunday’s election — the independent NGO MISK puts the number upwards of 80 — an accessible and legal way to engage with Kazakhstan’s political infrastructure.

“Recent events have shown us that we still have a chance to make a difference — to raise awareness about corruption, poor human rights, freedom of the press,” says 24-year-old journalist and theatre art manager Aisulu Toyshibekova, who is registered as an electoral observer in her native Almaty. “We have voices.”

The most palpable shift in the nascent post-Nazarbayev era is that the desire for change is now accompanied by belief that it may in fact be possible

Perhaps the most palpable shift in the nascent post-Nazarbayev era is that the desire for change is now accompanied by belief that it may in fact be possible. Cynicism is often the defining characteristic of cosmopolitan classes in post-Soviet states; in Kazakhstan — for now, at least — there is genuine hope that the cultivation of a civic mentality will, in the long run, bring about the necessary changes in politics and society: substantive democratisation, freedom of the press, tackling corruption. The question now is whether this change in attitude can span across generations, too.

“Yes, Tokayev may win on Sunday, but this atmosphere and desire to change something won’t go anywhere,” says Kusherbayeva. “I believe things will change and there’ll be more people who’ll speak up. Now is the time, because if you don’t say something right now or show up to vote at a time like this, when will you?”

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