Kazakhstan: “you can’t run away from struggle”

“The most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform” – Alexis de Tocqueville.

On Sunday 21 April, and in the following week, Kazakhstani society observed with anger and indignation the shameful trial of a group of young activists who unfurled a banner along the route of the Almaty marathon with the words: “You can’t run away from the truth”, “#ihaveachoice” [in Russian] and “#ADILSAILAYUSHIN” [meaning “for free elections” in Kazakh].

Two of the five detainees – Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov – were sentenced by an administrative court to 15 days’ in jail on charges of violation of the order of organising demonstrations (the maximum possible punishment on those charges); the others were issued fines. On the following day, the court of appeal upheld Asya’s and Beibarys’ sentencing and administrative arrest; the odious judge also issued a “private sanction” (effectively a disciplinary reprimand) to their lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva.

The numerous friends, relatives and supporters who had gathered to support the detained activists accompanied every announcement of the court’s decisions with loud and co-ordinated chants of: “shame!” Meanwhile, Asya and Beibarys had really become heroes of the people. The Kazakhstani corners of the internet and social networks are full of expressions of solidarity with the arrested activists. Zhanat Kamiyev, a resident of Karaganda, held a solitary picket in their support; and the Kazakhstani street artist Pasha Kas dedicated his reception of the Kurekhin Award on 21 April. Even Azat Peruashev – chairman of the puppet-party “Ak Zhol” – declared his support for “softening” the punishment and its replacement with a fine, which he offered to pay. However, while the authorities – even the ministers of justice and of the interior – were forced to comment on this case, most of the other representatives of the authorities preferred either to remain silent or to support the court’s ruling.

Banner reads you cannot run away from the truth Image fair useA number of young activists have been arrested and face harsh sentences for putting up a banner during the Almaty marathon, which read: "you cannot run away from the truth" / Image: fair use

The elites are afraid

The authorities are aware of the dangers that the transition of power could bring, which is why they are reacting nervously. The sudden decision to announce early elections shows that the regime feels threatened. Its main task right now is to consolidate Nazarbayev’s “successor”; someone who will arbitrate and maintain the balance of power between the various factions of the ruling class and oligarchy. At the same time, the ruling class must legitimise this successor in the eyes of the population as soon as possible. That is why they are about to play out the grand spectacle of early elections.

The interim president, Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, was nominated as candidate at the congress of the ruling Nur Otan party on 23 April. This excluded the scenario of the nomination of Dariga Nazarbayeva – the ex-president’s daughter. Due to her obvious familial allegiance (as well as her general unpopularity) she was seen as unfit for the role of a “neutral” arbiter and a keeper of the ruling coalition. Furthermore, the regime wants to maintain an image of an “enlightened authoritarianism” on the world stage, and is wary of the reputational damage that would inevitably follow from a hereditary succession of power. However, Dariga Nazarbayeva will now step into the role of Speaker of the Senate, which would make her second in the line of succession if the acting head of state is removed from power.

For the interests of the regime at the moment, Tokayev is a more reliable successor. He is an experienced diplomat, well known in diplomatic circles (where he is considered a liberal); knows English, French and Chinese; has not gained any clear (negative) image in the eyes of the masses, and seems to be maintaining a “diplomatic” distance from the main factions within the elite. Perhaps in different circumstances he might have been successful at the top of the hierarchy of Kazakhstani capitalism – the bureaucracy sees a qualified executive, a relatively impartial arbiter and a safe, un-ambitious successor in the apparatchik Tokayev. But at the same time, the narrow-minded bureaucracy cannot comprehend the complexity of the situation. Faced with the crisis of world capitalism, and rising class struggle and radicalisation, the rotten regime will have very little room for manoeuvre. These factors will form great obstacles for Tokayev to consolidate and legitimise his rule.

Kasym Jomart Tokayev Image PoRThe interim president, Tokayev, is the ruling class' ideal candidate to maintain the balance of power within the elites, but the impending crisis of capitalism means he will face many obstacles to preserving stability / Image: PoR

Tokayev’s image and legitimacy took their first blow on the day of his swearing in where, as his first presidential act, he started the process of re-naming the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, while at the same time arresting many activists and journalists who protested this decision.

Given the quickly-acquired unpopularity of the new president, the authorities are rushing to create an illusion of pluralism and intrigue at the upcoming elections, especially compared to the previous presidential elections of 2015, when only three candidates were registered, of whom two were completely “technical”. In reality, the upcoming elections will not contain qualitatively more pluralism or competition than in the past 10-15 years. The only difference is that more candidates will be allowed than normally – among them Tokayev himself, candidates from the “Ak Zhol” and “Auyl” parties (the “people’s communists” KNPK are expected to announce their candidate on 26 April), as well as candidate from the “yellow” trade union federation FPRK, and an independent candidate. Perhaps the falsified election results will display the puppet candidates’ votes as somewhat higher than in the times when Nazarbayev was winning elections with 97-98 percent of the votes. But it is obvious that, in a country where all opposition has been methodically destroyed over the years, no real political struggle is possible through elections, and no remotely “fair” elections can take place. The people of Kazakhstan understand this clearly and mostly view this whole circus with bitter irony.

Ruling class cannot govern in the same way

Not only will Tokayev be unable to become a legitimate president “for the people”, he will also fail to become an adequate president for the elites. He will not be able to successfully perform his role at the top of Kazakhstan’s power hierarchy. The impending crisis in the local and the world economy will make it hard for him to consolidate and maintain stability for the elites. In the conditions of crisis, all of the contradictions of the capitalist system and the conflicts of competing interest groups within the oligarchy and the state apparatus will sharpen. Nazarbayev’s death will only exacerbate this process, deepening the divide within the establishment and intensifying the intra-elite struggle for power and wealth. Previously we wrote:

“At the end of the day, our fears and alarm about the ‘transition of power’ are yet another legacy of the long Nazarbayev reign, which left no trust whatsoever in the state institutions in the eyes of society; no illusions in the elites, consisting of incompetent and useless thieves, crooks and criminals; no confidence in the ability of these wreckers to provide us with stability and peace, and no faith that they will not pull apart the nation and rob it of what little it still has.

“The patience of the workers of Kazakhstan is running out! There is no point in hoping for serious changes in state policy and in the balance of forces within the authorities as long as Nazarbayev maintains control over the strategic levers of power. It is also not enough to await his (probably fast-approaching) death – for it is also eagerly expected by the bourgeois and bureaucratic vultures and jackals, dreaming of a new re-division of spheres of influence and, in their pursuit of profit and lucrative positions in the state apparatus, ready to tear the country to bits.”

Thus, we are beginning to see a process of radicalisation, which could force the weakened regime to make some concessions such as political liberalisation, social reforms, etc. In this decisive period (unprecedented in the memory of young activists) all healthy, progressive and proletarian forces must carefully analyse the situation (both the objective conditions and the subjective factors) as a basis for developing the tactics and strategies of struggle.

In the current situation (not least owing to the Almaty activists’ protest) democratic reforms are at the top of the agenda for many politically conscious people. Revolutionary communists fully support democratic demands. Basic democratic rights such as workers’ rights, freedoms of speech, print, assembly and organisation – including trade union organising – have always been a product of the struggles and sacrifices of the working class. The working class of a country where independent trade unions are effectively banned, and where workers organising strike movements often risk long jail sentences, is in a dire need of these rights.

Marxists and elections

Marxist theory and revolutionary practice warn against any and all illusions in the possibility of “fair elections” under the economic domination of the bourgeois class, and in the framework of the bourgeois state apparatus. Let us cite the words of Lenin:

“The Scheidemanns and Kautskys speak about ‘pure democracy’ and ‘democracy’ in general for the purpose of deceiving the people and concealing from them the bourgeois character of present-day democracy. Let the bourgeoisie continue to keep the entire apparatus of state power in their hands, let a handful of exploiters continue to use the former, bourgeois, state machine! Elections held in such circumstances are lauded by the bourgeoisie, for very good reasons, as being ‘free’, ‘equal’, ‘democratic’ and ‘universal’. These words are designed to conceal the truth, to conceal the fact that the means of production and political power remain in the hands of the exploiters, and that therefore real freedom and real equality for the exploited, that is, for the vast majority of the population, are out of the question. It is profitable and indispensable for the bourgeoisie to conceal from the people the bourgeois character of modern democracy, to picture it as democracy in general or ‘pure democracy’, and the Scheidemanns and Kautskys, repeating this, in practice abandon the standpoint of the proletariat and side with the bourgeoisie.”

We must always understand the real class character of bourgeois democracy and the limitations of electoral and civic rights and freedoms under capitalism for the majority of working people. This is also true in Kazakhstan, where even in the “freer” years, politics was mostly reduced to the struggle of various oligarchs for the right to exploit working people, who had no way to meaningfully participate in political life.

Lenin speaking in 1919 Image Goldshtein GLenin explained that we should maintain criticism of bourgeois elections, but use them as a platform to raise revolutionary ideas / Image: Goldshtein G

This does not mean that we never participate in elections and parliamentary politics. The stance of revolutionary communists and workers’ organisations regarding elections must be determined tactically and pragmatically. Let us turn again to Lenin:

“Should we participate in bourgeois parliaments?

“It is with the utmost contempt—and the utmost levity—that the German ‘Left’ Communists reply to this question in the negative. Their arguments? […]

“Parliamentarianism has become ‘historically obsolete’. That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately.”

Lenin could hardly have foreseen that the march of world-historic process could be thrown back so far, especially in post-Soviet countries, where counter-revolution was victorious. Unfortunately, new communist forces in Kazakhstan and in the Central Asian region are largely in an embryonic stage of development. Ahead of us is a long and difficult path of party-building, in certain periods of which, tactical participation in electoral politics is completely possible – for example, in a situation where electoral agitation and the use of parliament as a platform could serve a powerful propagandistic function. That is, to expose the reactionary nature of the regime and the sham of bourgeois parliamentarism. However, at the current stage, we find the slogan “For fair elections!” mistaken. Truly fair and just bourgeois elections are impossible even in theory – let alone in the upcoming shameful and repulsive circus of an “election”, which is worthy only of ridicule and a boycott by all healthy and progressive forces of society.

For a workers' party!

The top priority now is the building of a cadre communist party: a revolutionary organisation of the working class, which will be able to orientate to the struggles of the working class, to play a leading role in these and to rally the masses behind it. As we wrote previously:

“Yes, we must, of course, use all open opportunities, but while keeping in mind the broader perspectives. A revolutionary situation will give us access to wide layers of the working class. People’s readiness to listen, to listen to just about anyone and to listen for hours, as well as to read, is perhaps the most reliable sign of a revolutionary situation. As they become actors of history, the workers begin grasping the situation more deeply and arguing. In order to win them under our banners we must produce top-quality militant literature, have strong orators and propagandists who are able to explain the most difficult questions of Marxism in an accessible language for hours and hours on end, possess agitators who are able to reach even the most backward and isolated layers of workers.

“All of these people, cadres in our language, will not appear out of nowhere. They are the result of the party’s everyday work over many years. By factory gates, in workers’ collectives, on demonstrations, in the editorial offices of the paper. But cadres are not just individuals who hold a certain set of professional skills; if that were so, we would have no chance against the well prepared and technically equipped propagandists of the ruling class. Cadres must hold a high theoretical level and the ability to use the apparatus of Marxism to solve the burning problems of the current political moment. This cannot be the result either of ‘pure’ theoretical study or of purely organisational practical experience. Constant training in the analysis of the present political and economic situation, publishing and critical discussion of the publishing are necessary – not as a goal in itself, but as a means of elaborating a political and a tactical line of the party in the current situation. How accurate our analysis is and the extent to which it is validated by events are one of the measures of the process of the growth and development of cadres.”

The task ahead of us is colossal, and the weight of historical responsibility on our shoulders is truly great. In the unfolding situation young cadres and activists must not only study Marxist theory and educate themselves in political economy, history and modern society – our task is complicated by the tension of the current moment, orientation in which must be both quick and cautious: often the elaboration of tactics and slogans requires surgical precision.

Moreover, often situations of large-scale social upheaval carry some dangers, and so now it is especially important to carefully avoid them. When our forces are so small, we might be tempted to get fully absorbed and carried away by other, more numerous protest movements of a liberal or “civic” character, out of fear of lagging behind. But we must always remember that history is on our side – but it also requires a subjective factor, and the task of building it lies with us.

Artist Roman Zakharov unfurled this banner in Almaty he takes a quote directly from Kazakhstans constitution The only source of state power is the people Image fair use"The only source of state power is the people" / Image: fair use

To tread carefully between sectarianism and opportunism truly is an art. Organisational independence of the communist party and independent, Marxist perspectives must always be maintained, while not cutting ourselves off completely from existing mass mobilisations (which are often far from an “ideal” image of a protest movement). Like with elections, the question of communists’ participation in democratic protests and social movements can only be answered tactically. We must criticise – but this is not enough. The perspectives of building a cadre organisation demand an active search for activists and sympathisers among the working class and student youth, who are most open and receptive to progressive revolutionary ideas and are ready to be trained into cadres – and it is obvious that such individuals will be found in the movements we are witnessing in Kazakhstan today. One of the most important skills for a Marxist is the ability to link the conditions, circumstances and the balance of forces of the current moment with the longer-term revolutionary perspectives. It is exactly this – an informed and critical Marxist analysis, explaining the current state of affairs, exposing the limitations of liberal or any other bourgeois agenda and showing the right way forward for revolutionary struggle – that will convince potential comrades and activists in the correctness of our ideas, analysis and perspectives, and which will win them over to our side.

The development of events will widen and radicalise the ranks of such potential supporters even further. Of course, this development will also constantly pose before us new tasks and difficulties, for which tactical solutions will have to be found when the time comes. We express solidarity with Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov, we sincerely wish luck and strength to all progressive, proletarian, revolutionary forces in Kazakhstan, and we will seek to contribute as much as we can to the workers’ struggle and support it with word and deed. Ahead of Kazakhstan and the whole region is an exciting period of struggles and battles in which the forces of revolution must secure a decisive victory over the dead weight of reaction – such is our world-historical responsibility.

  • Immediately release all political prisoners!
  • Dismiss the representatives of the repressive apparatus, the judges and their superiors responsible for the shameful “trial”!
  • Freedom of speech, print, assembly and organisation to the working people of Kazakhstan! Immediately repeal the reactionary, anti-trade union legislation and release all imprisoned labour activists and organisers!
  • Our main slogan: for the only true democracy – the democracy of the working class, revolution and socialism!

Note: by the time of publication, Asya and Beibarys had been released on the evening before the scheduled day of the end of their sentences, as the police were afraid that the crowd that would gather to greet them outside the jail would grow into a political demonstration. Asya has bravely endured 10 days of hunger strike and is now recovering. The day after the release, during an interview with the press, Beibarys was taken away by the army conscription authorities and informed that the ongoing procedure to draft him up into the army is under the personal supervision of the Minister of Defence. Meanwhile, several well-attended protest demonstrations were attempted across a number of cities in Kazakhstan on May Day, with dozens of arrests taking part, and several sentenced of 5 to 15 days in prison, as well as numerous fines for the protesters. The authorities are preparing for the prospect of more protests erupting on the upcoming Victory Day on 9 May. Registration of candidates is now over, with seven candidates officially participating in the presidential elections, on course to take place on 7 June.