August 30, 2019 / 3:04 PM / 2 months ago

Adopting softer stance, Kazakhstan allows small-scale protests

FILE PHOTO: Participants hold a banner, which reads "Reconstitution", during a rally demanding a constitutional reform in Almaty, Kazakhstan August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s government allowed pro-democracy youth activists to hold small-scale public rallies demanding constitutional reform on Friday, signaling more tolerance for its critics.

Public protests are effectively illegal in the Central Asian nation, and police have routinely dispersed those that have taken place. But state security agencies seem to be adopting a softer approach since Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as president from veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev in March.

Activists of the recently established Oyan, Qazaqstan — Wake up, Kazakhstan — a movement mostly made up of Kazakhs in their teens and twenties, held small-scale rallies in several Kazakh cities on Friday to mark the Constitution Day.

In Almaty, the former Soviet republic’s biggest city, some two dozen activists marched through a central street demanding constitutional reforms and a switch to a parliamentary republic. Some carried banners quoting the articles of the constitution, which bar censorship and protect freedom of assembly.

Unusually for such rallies, police made no attempts to detain them or interfere with the march, although some activists had complained earlier about being summoned by police and warned against participating in the rally.

The Oyan, Qazaqstan movement has emerged since Nazarbayev abruptly resigned in March, after running the oil-rich nation for almost three decades. The 79-year-old Nazarbayev endorsed his ally Tokayev, 66, as his successor, but retained sweeping powers as head of the security council and leader of the ruling Nur Otan party.

Tokayev has pledged policy continuity, but he also invited some of prominent government critics to discuss future reforms at a special council and has shown greater lenience towards dissident groups such as Oyan, Qazaqstan.

The group has become prominent for its creative approach to protest,- from hanging a banner that read “You can’t run away from the truth” along the path of a government-sponsored marathon to standing in square with an empty banner. Police arrested the lone protester anyway.

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, editing by Larry King

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