TPRESIDENT from Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, likes to talk about political reform. The parliament of the oil-rich Central Asian country needs opposition, he says, and its citizens need more freedom to form political parties and organize peaceful protests. But when Zhanbolat Mamay, a 31-year-old documentary maker, took Mr. Tokayev at his word and attempted to establish a new force called the Democratic Party, he found himself behind bars after complaining of harassment from his supporters. When the party canceled its founding convention and called for a public demonstration instead, 70 other members were arrested. The handful of people who went to the site of the demonstration, including Mr. Mamay’s wife, were arrested on the spot.
It was a busy weekend for the police, which arrested dozens of protesters during separate demonstrations organized by Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a banned movement led by a wealthy Kazakh, Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in France. Detainees in Almaty included Erik Zhumabayev, a disabled man who attended a demonstration in his wheelchair. A prominent activist, Dulat Agadil, died in detention in the capital, Nur-Sultan, a few days later. This brought more protesters to the streets, resulting in more arrests.
The detentions followed the government’s release of a bill supposed to loosen restrictions on freedom of assembly, but which critics say would impose new ones. Last year, some 5,000 people were arrested during pro-democracy protests. The protests started after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the strongman of Kazakhstan for 30 years, abruptly resigned, handing over power to Mr Tokayev with little claim to a democratic transition. Mr. Nazarbayev, who is still pulling the strings, never showed any tolerance for dissent. Mr. Tokayev likes to present himself as a reformer, ready to revise the old order. The latest crackdown sends a “clear message” that liberalization is not being considered, said Mamay, who was released after two days in detention. He plans to try again to form his new party, but probably hopes not to have to do so from a cell.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Democracy is on the way”