When civic rights are against the law – the story of an unwanted petition

Potash mountains just outside the city of Aktobe
Photo: AktobeTimes.kz

“No one has the right to engage in provocation!” Those are the words of Berdibek Saparbayev, the head of the Aktobe Region in mid-western Kazakhstan. The statement refers to a petition attempt targeted against the enlargement of the Zhilyanka potash deposit near Aktobe, the region’s capital. Saparbayev even proclaimed the organization of the petition as being “an illegal activity” and “propaganda” and decided to track down the collectors of signatures.

Berdibek Mashbekovich Saparbayev is a former Minister of Labour and Social Protection of the Population and Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Since 2015 he has been the akim (governor) of the Aktobe Region. But in June 2016 he became outraged by the public petition of the Aktobe citizens criticizing the enlargement of a potash mine and enrichment plant addressed to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“Honourable Nursultan Abishevich, we appeal to you, as the Head of State, to prevent the enlargement of the Zhilyanka potash mine in the Aktobe Region.”

The people turned to the head of the state with serious concerns regarding the effects of the pollution on the environment and, potentially, the health of the locals in the next two generations. “Despite the economic benefits of the deposit, the damage to the environment of the region resulting from its development and extraction within the period of the next 40-50 years can be incomparably higher – especially taking into account the facts that the town of Kargalinskoye is located only six kilometres away from the mine and the city of Aktobe is at a distance of 10.5 kilometres.”

The petition further describes the medical and environmental consequences. A Chinese investor has been strongly interested in the whole project.

“Nursultan Abishevich, you are gifted with the trust of a considerable number of people in the Aktobe Region and across the whole country. We are sure that our hopes for your support will be heard.”

The people’s official request maddened the governor. In response to this civic action Saparbayev ordered his superiors to track down the authors and signatories of the petition. “Will you put an end to this request?” he commanded.

“Law-defying” citizens

Unsurprisingly, the organizers haven’t spoken out publicly. Their fear for their own safety is the reason why. In Kazakhstan, the right to create a petition is not granted by the law. Governor Saparbayev has taken the liberty of calling this democratic principle “illegal”: “If, after my expression, this illegal signature collection or propaganda continues, the law enforcement bodies will start taking administrative measures,” Saparbayev proclaimed and thereby confirmed the worries of the hitherto anonymous activists. “Nobody has the right to engage in provocation! Understood?!”

Not entirely.

Only a few days later a meeting was held. Representatives of the region, together with activists and intrigued citizens, gathered to resolve the situation, which had been aggravated by the governor’s provocative statement. The Aktobe residents made it clear and simple – they are not interested in the economic profit of the facility and won’t be so easily intimidated.

“Don’t go to rallies, don’t sign petitions. Have things here become like under the communists in China?”

The plans for the enlargement of the Zhilyanka potash mine were cancelled in December 2016 and have not been revived at any time since then.

Further reading:

RUS 27/11/2015 What will be the result of the extraction of potassium salts for the ecology in Aktobe? (Homeland, vlast.kz)

RUS 04/06/2016 Saparbayev threatened to bring to justice those who signed a petition against the extraction of potassium salts in Aktobe (Diapazon.kz)

RUS 05/06/2016 Berdibek Saparbayev has threatened the authors of the petition against the plant construction (Infoburo.kz)

ENG 06/06/2016 Kazakhstan: Aktobe Violence Wrongfoots Authorities (EurasiaNet.org)

RUS 10/06/2016 Opponents of the development in Zhilyanka: "Do they want to intimidate us?" (Aktobe Times)

RUS 02/12/2016 The enlargement of Zhilyanka has been cancelled (Aktobe Times)

ENG 05/09/2017 Dangerous Work: Increasing Pressure on Environmental NGOs and Activists in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union and the U.S. (Crude Accountability)

KZH + RUS Petition against the enlargement of the Zhilyanka potassium salt deposit of the Aktyubinsk region (Original document)

ENG Aktyubinsk regional governor’s office (Government.kz)

ENG The Kazakhi shadow report of Aarhus Convention on public participation implementation: Justice out of sight (Arnika.org)

RUS The Kazakhi shadow report of Aarhus Convention on public participation implementation: Справедливость не в поле зрения (Arnika.org)