The Kazakh Spring.
As I am being driven along the highway from Almaty towards Taldykorgan, the billboard posters have been changed from the usual images of pop stars, safety information and Casinos to an array of big yellow ticks, the number 19 and lots of smiling citizens. Some are in groups representing political parties and some individuals as independent candidates, all for the forthcoming elections taking place on the 19th March. There are two elections taking place, legislative and local and I try to work out from the images, as they flash past, which elections the posters are for and what makes these ordinary people want to stand and represent their regions or even as a deputy in the Mijahlis (Parliament) of Kazakhstan? The party’s billboards show matching logoed sweatshirts, most other people are in suits, the men in ties (usually red!) and the women in formal business attire and all are smiling broadly. These seem different images, to previous canvassing and indeed on the streets of Almaty I saw groups of young people handing out leaflets, and encouraging people to vote for their favoured candidates and again broad smiles.
The people will elect a total of 3,415 seats to 223 mäslihats (local assemblies) across all regions of Kazakhstan and although these seem to take up the most roadside space they are happening alongside the legislative elections, with 29 seats in 19 regions of Kazakhstan. Many would say that the legislative elections are the most important as these ‘electoral districts’ are a reinstatement of a system that was changed in 2007 and show part of the rapid political reform that has happened in the last two years. There does appear to be a real sense of change – maybe it is because we approach Nauryz -New day, the coming of spring after a long hard winter? Maybe it is more than that?
Maybe it is these reforms that encourage people to become actively involved? The presidential Elections in November or 2022 certainly had a more inclusive and ‘modern’ feel to them and President Tokaev’s emphasis on young people and the future generations is certainly making people more interested in politics.The choice of March the 19th is also not a coincidence – it is the fourth anniversary of the first President – Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation and the catalyst that started the new political age in Kazakhstan.
I decided to head north and the best way to interact with local people is on a train. The second fastest overnight train from Almaty to Astana, and then beyond to Suchinsk, gives plenty of time to converse and get views. The audience is captive and the time enables trust to be developed. As we wobbled and rattled across the seemingly endless steppe,I was hoping normal people would share their thoughts.
The lead metal greyness of the dusk was tainted orange by the rising full worm moon. Its light paled to yellow and silhouetted the wormwood and dogwood shrub along the iron rails and the numerous reed beds shimmered gold in an unfelt light breeze. The further north we travelled the more the moonlight rippled on the ice and snow that stretched to the horizon but the warmth of the carriage and acceptance that the journey would take as long as it would take, should encourage interactions. I have always found it charming that Kazakhs have a brazen curiosity and a grey haired Englishman in an unusual situation could not hide for long even if he wanted to! First the children ‘break the ice’, wide eyed, smiling and shyly inquisitive. Then older children welcomed me to Kazakhstan with practice perfect English and then the mothers and babushkas brought tea and cakes and sweets. We laugh and smile and I use the excuse of International Women’s day to praise and congratulate them. I am lucky my travelling companion is a young Kyrgyz woman – Nazgul- she translates perfectly and ,being Kyrgyz, has no hidden agenda. I wanted to know if the positivity I had seen on the streets of Almaty was reflected in the general population or if it was a marketing facade? I tentatively asked a group of young men, students going home for the holiday and from their responses it became apparent that there was real optimism and all were determined to vote in both elections. They all happily contributed. Nazgul struggled to keep up but it was positive and joyful. Listening to us, further down the carriage was an older man, probably in his seventies. He carefully joined us and with amazing reverence the younger men gave their seats, poured tea and then hung onto his every word. More tea and cakes appeared and a crowd formed in the corridor and the cabin. The older man waxed lyrical about the old days – a history lesson and a lecture about the development of an often misunderstood country. There was a matter of fact explanation from communism, independence until today. There was no animosity, no blame, no revenge, just how it was and how it is! Eventually he came to the last Presidential Elections in 2022 – “ it was the real start to change” he said “ and now we have the next step, more independent members of the legislature and more local people working for their own communities” He paused and put his hand on mine and looked me in the eyes. “This is what I have hoped for!” I could see into his dark soulful eyes and it was like looking back through time. Young men had their hands on his shoulders and I fully expected a round of applause – it did not come but more tea and cakes did!
The next part of my journey will be meeting the candidates and maybe then I will get the true answer as to what makes a person want to stand in elections and represent their region or community in 21st Century Kazakhstan?