Kazakh Opposition Activists Flock To Kyiv

Kazakhstan’s image is at odds with the reality

The success of the EuroMaidan Revolution three years ago turned Ukraine into a source of inspiration for opposition activists from Kazakhstan.

Political exiles fleeing repression from the authoritarian regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev seek asylum in Ukraine also because of the commonly spoken Russian language and some familiar cultural elements shared among post-Soviet states.

Dissidents in emigration

In early December, Time magazine listed Nazarbayev among five modern dictators along with the leaders of Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and North Korea.

Nazarbayev has been in power for 27 years, longer than his country has been independent from the Soviet Union. But he’s not a classical tyrant.

Rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan is a rapidly developing economy, ranked 35th among 190 countries in the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business index. It was also selected as a non-permanent member to the United Nations Security Council for 2017-2018.

However, this openness to foreign investment and progress on diplomatic scene may be deceptive at first sight, because when it comes to free speech, independent media and civil rights, Nazarbayev silences critical voices.

So it isn’t a surprise that anything resembling public protests like the Ukrainian EuroMaidan Revolution, which forced President Viktor Yanukovych from power, is a nightmare to the Kazakh authoritarian regime.

In April and May, a series of massive demonstrations against new land reform that allowed selling agricultural lands to foreigners flared up in several large cities across the country.

Some Kazakh leaders feared a Ukrainian revolutionary scenario.

Suspicion for plotting the tumult fell on Aidos Sadykov, a former journalist and civic activist from Aktobe, a city in northwestern Kazakhstan who has resided in Kyiv since 2014.

He decided to leave his country for Ukraine after he and his wife, also a journalist, had been persecuted for years for their anti-government activities. Besides multiple assaults and lawsuits, Sadykov spent two years in prison for ripping two policemen’s uniforms as he fought off their assaults during a public protest back in 2010.

Until recently Sadykov’s life as a Kazakh dissident in Kyiv must have been lonely. But today he has others around who share his aspirations for political changes in Kazakhstan.

Ermek Narymbayev and Moldir Adilova from Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, are awaiting political refugee status as they fled to Ukraine in the summer in the wake of criminal prosecution of participants of the protests against land reforms.

Narymbayev has a long history of confrontation with the regime. He spent two years in prison between 2010-2012 for similar offense as Sadykov. In the beginning of this year he was convicted for criticism of Nazarbayev, which officials qualified as incitement of hatred.

“I was sentenced to three years in prison for a repost on Facebook of the passage from 1993 book by Kazakh writer Murat Telibekov about Kazakhstan losing foreign policy to Russia, USA and China,” Narymbayev told the Kyiv Post. “I was the 43rd person who shared that post, but nobody else was convicted except for me and another activist (Serikzhan Mambetaliev), who was sentenced to one year.”

Later the court replaced imprisonment with custodial restraint. Narymbayev was banned from leaving his house and had his bank accounts frozen before he escaped to Ukraine. In addition, he is sentenced to five years for participations in demonstrations.

As for Moldir Adilova, an accountant by trade, she had never planned a revolutionary path. She joined the land reform demonstrations in Almaty in April to express her civic stance, but was detained for 15 days.

“If I return I will be dragged to interrogations. Usually they bring you as a witness, then they make you a suspect. During interrogations, policemen ask you to stop your activity. If you disobey, they initiate a criminal lawsuit against you,” said Adilova.

They both chose Ukraine for the same reasons as Aidos Sadykov, who settled here earlier – absence of language barrier and freedom.

They said they’d rather move to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but it’s too economically tied to Kazakhstan.


Real opposition parties don’t exist in Kazakhstan. They either don’t comply with the law on political parties that requires 40,000 members for registration, or they don’t survive the repression.

Several months ago Aidos Sadykov took a hand in establishment of a new social liberal force called Zhusan. It has not been officially registered and is rather an underground community with nearly 100 supporters scattered inside and outside of Kazakhstan.

From the beginning, Zhusan refused to run in elections under current laws and decided to engage in unsanctioned protests in different cities across Kazakhstan. They believe that Nazarbayev’s regime, like any other dictatorship, fears riots and their aim is to bring thousands of people on the streets demanding Nazarbayev’s resignation.

“We want to change the political regime, abolish presidential dictatorship and establish parliamentary republic. We want fair and honest elections and freedom of assembly and speech,” Sadykov told the Kyiv Post.

For Ukrainians, the EuroMaidan Revoultion might be a disappointment because it didn’t bring all the promised changes to the country. But for the Kazakh opposition, it is an exemplary triumph of democracy against one-man rule.

President Petro Poroshenko “has fallen short of hopes that were placed on him. Maybe the reforms are lagging. But Ukrainians have the most important things – experience and mechanisms for change. They have an opportunity to elect new leaders and be elected,” said Sadykov.

All three — Sadykov, Narymbayev, and Adilova — noted the differences between Ukraine and Kazakhstan in terms of freedom of speech and assembly and more democratic election process.

“There is ongoing movement in politics and society in Ukraine,” they said.

Unfortunately, the Kazakh opposition is still a disengaged minority that has little influence on politics inside the country from their exiles abroad.

Recently, another vocal opponent of Nazarbayev’s regime, oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, claimed that he plotted to topple the current government within the next three years.

Ablyazov, the leader of the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, was released from a French prison last week and is currently fighting extradition. He is wanted by Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine for the alleged embezzlement of $6 billion during his time as the chairman of BTA Bank.