Kazakh uprising is an optimistic sign that citizens can prevail in dark places

 

The most encouraging aspect of the mass uprising in Kazakhstan this week isn’t that the hideously decrepit Soviet-era kleptocracy that runs the country is suddenly coming apart at the seams. Or that the riot police and soldiers who didn’t lay down their truncheons and join with the people were overpowered by the sheer physical force of tens of thousands of furious Kazakhs pouring into the streets of cities all across the country.

It’s not even the heartwarming sight of dozens of troop carriers and police vans upturned and burning all along the boulevards of Almaty, or the mayor’s office in flames, or all that smoke billowing so magnificently from the nearby prosecutor’s offices. The best thing about all of this is that it happened at all, and that it happened so quickly and unexpectedly.

One of the few things that make the prospects for 2022 a bit less dreary than you’d think, given the trajectory of democracy’s 15-year global retreat and last year’s cavalcade of military coups in Guinea, Mali, Myanmar and Sudan, is that democratic insurrections like the Kazakh uprising tend to occur like bolts from the blue.

They’re triggered by some seemingly minor event, or by some simmering grievance that unexpectedly bubbles up and boils over, or by some simple, stupid policy miscalculation that ends up causing such hardship that ordinary and otherwise quiet people in extraordinary numbers are driven to decide, all at once: that’s it, damn it, we’ve had quite enough

The Arab Spring upheavals began on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, who supported his family by selling vegetables from a wheelbarrow, set himself on fire in the city of Ben Arous, in Tunisia. Harassed by city officials for selling his wares without a permit and unable to afford the bribes demanded by local police, Bouazizi’s final humiliation was the confiscation of his wheelbarrow. He bought a jerrycan of gasoline from a gas station, stood in traffic, doused himself and struck a match.

The riots and marches that followed led to the ouster of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali only three weeks later, ending more than two decades of misrule. Tunisia’s upheavals sparked the historic uprising in Egypt, which inspired insurrections in Libya, Syria, Morocco and Yemen. Most of those uprisings were crushed — most brutally in Syria, where the bloodletting continues.

 This file photo taken on June 22, 2012 shows thousands of supporters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi packing Cairo’s landmark Tahrir Square on June 22, 2012.

© MARWAN NAAMANI This file photo taken on June 22, 2012 shows thousands of supporters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi packing Cairo’s landmark Tahrir Square on June 22, 2012.

While Morocco, Oman and Jordan opted for minor reforms, it took nine years for Abdelaziz Bouteflika to be dislodged from power in Algeria and for the mass murderer Omar al-Bashir to be turfed from the presidential palace in Sudan, where a transition to democracy that began two years ago has been stalled and violently reversed by the country’s military bloc.

The Sudanese uprising was triggered by sharp increases in the price of bread. The trigger in Kazakhstan was a Jan. 1 hike in the price of liquified petroleum gas.

From Hong Kong to Afghanistan, from Iran to Belarus and from Nicaragua to Venezuela, democrats have learned the bitter lesson that they cannot rely on consistent or effective support from the world’s democracies, so they have little choice but to take matters into their own hands. Their tormentors among the generals and the dictators have learned that Beijing and Moscow are always standing at the ready to help smash skulls to keep a lid on things.

The “West” is paralyzed, so it’s increasingly falling to third-party interventions to force accountability on United Nations member states run by murderous elites who enjoy impunity and endless free passes from the international bodies that have failed so miserably in enforcing human rights standards and bringing transgressors to justice.

There’s some cause for optimism in that effort, though. Just this week, the Ontario Superior Court awarded $107 million to some of the families of the victims of the Iranian regime’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020. Judge Edward Belobaba found that on the balance of probabilities, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps deliberately fired missiles at the plane as it took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Of the 176 victims, 55 were Canadian citizens and 30 were permanent residents. Lawyer Mark Arnold said Tuesday that the Iranian regime still has assets in Canada even though Ottawa shuttered the Iranian embassy in 2012, and efforts will be made to secure the $107 million from Iranian assets in allied countries. The action was brought under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which provides civil remedies for Canadians victimized by terrorist groups and state sponsors of terror.

Meanwhile, several European activist organizations have forced the French judiciary to open an investigation into several multinational garment and footwear corporations to determine whether their shadowy ties to Chinese factories relying on the forced labour of Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority amount to the crime of concealment of crimes against humanity.

The ability of citizens in rule-of-law countries to use the courts to enforce international anti-slavery laws their own governments fail to police and to punish multinational corporations for trafficking in slave goods would serve as a useful end-run around democratic governments too timid to challenge the People’s Republic of China. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals immediately spring to mind.

The French law opens the possibility of pursuing the Kremlin for its grotesque human rights abuses, too.

Russia passed a constitutional amendment last year giving its national legislation precedence over international treaties and rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which Russia joined by treaty in 1998. The 2020 constitutional amendments also eradicate judicial independence, giving Vladimir Putin the power to hire and fire Russia’s judges.

Russia’s above-ground opposition groups have been effectively obliterated by the enforcement of laws against “terrorists,” “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations.” Last October, Russia’s leading human rights organization, Memorial, released a study showing that there are as many political prisoners in Russia today as there were in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Prominent among those prisoners is Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt with the Novichok nerve agent only to be arrested and sentenced to two and half years’ imprisonment last February.

Memorial was itself outlawed last year. Last week, the ECHR sought to have the Russian courts put aside the order to dissolve Memorial and the related Memorial Human Rights Centre until the ECHR could review the matter. Nobody expects the Kremlin to pay any serious attention.

The regime in Kazakhstan has been following Putin’s playbook to the letter. Opposition figures are harassed and imprisoned on phoney charges. Independent journalism is squelched. Last year, the government suspended several human rights organizations, stripping them of their ability to operate. Corruption is an organizing principle of the government, which is still more or less run by Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, a Soviet-era Dear Leader figure who took power in 1990. Nazarbayev handed over the top job to flunky Kassym-Jomart Tokayev two years ago.

As the cities convulsed in riots and mayhem this week, Tokayev accepted the resignation of his own government, appointed a new cabinet, and reversed the gas price hikes. We’ll see if that settles things down, but whatever happens next, Kazakhs have already proved to themselves that they can make their leaders quake with fear.

And that can’t be a bad thing.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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