The murder of Kazakhstan’s Olympic figure skater Denis Ten in downtown Almaty, on July 19, aroused public grief and outrage as well as calls for police reforms. Two days later, thousands attended the memorial service of the 25-year-old, who won a bronze medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ten was stabbed in the street of the former capital in broad daylight, after confronting two men he had caught trying to steal the mirrors on his car (Inform.kz, July 19, 21)
Ten, the first skater from Kazakhstan to win an Olympic medal, was hugely popular and has since his death often been referred to as the “pride of our country.” The anchorwoman of the state channel Khabar was close to tears as she announced his death on the evening news, her voice cracking as she read out a statement by President Nursultan Nazarbayev praising his achievements (Khabar, July 19).
The death of the well-known athlete prompted deep mourning throughout the country. However, the circumstances of the killing and a widely shared sense that the same fate could happen to anybody has simultaneously generated an angry outcry. Public calls for the Minister of Internal Affairs Kalmukhanbet Kassymov to resign have been multiplying in recent weeks (EA Daily, July 19; Vlast.kz, July 23).
If a person as famous as Ten is not safe from being robbed and stabbed in the middle of the day, the reasoning goes, what is the state of security in the country? The police are notorious for cracking down on opposition figures and journalists, but are they prepared or even able to protect ordinary citizens from common criminals? Many Kazakhstanis have been hotly discussing such questions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. More remarkably and perhaps more worrisome for the government, the most critical comments have not come from the usual dissenters, but from regular people not known for speaking out against the authorities.
Slava Romadanoff, an event manager from Almaty, wrote a long and widely shared post on Facebook deploring the fact he had initially been a mere observer, following other people’s comments after Ten’s death and their accounts of experiences with police. But when his brother’s apartment was later burgled, he discovered his voice. “Maybe it happened because I was silent all these years,” he wrote on Facebook (Facebook.com/slava.romadanoff, July 24).
The outpouring of frustration and anger about the police on social media has been largely unprecedented, especially for Kazakhstan’s standards. As Freedom House has repeatedly reported, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Kazakhstan are restricted, while media independence is limited (Freedomhouse.org, 2018, accessed August 9). And yet, hundreds and hundreds of local people, mostly from Almaty, have been posting comments and sharing stories about their apartments having been robbed, cell phones stolen and subsequent fruitless encounters with the police. The most common complaints are a lack of response to emergency calls, the police’s rejection of charges filed for petty crimes, their failure to catch the culprits, and taking of bribes. By not accepting charges for smaller crimes, for which the perpetrators are seldom found, the police avoid ruining their statistics, commentators frequently claim. Sergei Duvanov, a prominent journalist and activist, sees all this as evidence of evolution of a growing consciousness in society. “This is how civil enlightenment comes about,” he remarked on Facebook, in reply to Romadanoff’s post (Facebook.com/sergey.duvanov.14, July 25).
Whether people’s perceptions about the prevalence and increase in crime correspond to official data is difficult to say. Statistics are viewed as unreliable due to suspected underreporting. The deputy head of the Almaty municipal Department of Internal Affairs, Gazaz Nurkayev, spoke at a meeting of the interior ministry’s Public Council, on July 23. He acknowledged that only two out of every ten burglaries and thefts were solved in the first half of this year. And according to City Council member Marat Shibutov, citing data from Nurkayev’s department, 45,000 burglaries and thefts were committed during the first six months, but only 4,000 of these cases were brought to court (Informburo.kz, July 23).
In addition to generating a public discussion, Ten’s murder has also triggered a significant rise in civic activism in response to the commonly perceived failure of the state to protect its citizens. Some have even suggested creating “citizens on patrol” programs to help make the streets safer. A glimpse of the general mood can be gathered from an informal Facebook survey launched by commentator Tim Nizami, who asks readers whether the police had ever helped them or not. Within a week, 1,354 people declared the police had not been helpful, while only 63 said they had been (Facebook.com, July 28).
Two weeks after the murder, around 17,000 people had joined the newly created Facebook group “We Demand Reforms of the MVD” (Ministry of Internal Affairs), with lively debates about possible reforms (Facebook.com, accessed August 7). Then, on July 24, over 100 group members gathered and collected a list with more than 60 proposals on ministerial reforms. Among them were demands for proper training (or rather retraining) of personnel, optimization of the existing structure, and improvement of service. While requests for permission to hold demonstrations in Almaty and Astana in support of reforms were quickly denied by the authorities, the public discontent is yielding an official reaction (Informburo.kz, July 31).
On August 3, Almaty’s Department of Internal Affairs said 165 criminal groups had been dismantled over the first half of this year (Mvd.gov.kz, August 3). On the same day, two senior city police officials were dismissed. While, on August 4, three days after members of the MVD reform Facebook group had visited the administrative office of the police hotline “102,” it was announced that the number of operators manning the emergency number would be doubled (Informburo.kz, August 4).
These modest steps have been welcomed but, so far, are being treated with a certain level of skepticism. Fundamental reforms take time and have to be wanted by the authorities. An example frequently cited is the radical, but effective police reform in Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili, for which there may be no appetite in Kazakhstan. “This is a very difficult task because the police is part of the system,” said Yevgeni Zhovtis, a Kazakhstani human rights activist. It cannot be done without independent courts, where cases are not fabricated and without indisputable evidence and proportionality of punishment, he has argued (Forbes.kz, July 26).
To date, three suspects have been arrested in connection with the killing of Ten.