When civic rights are against the law - story of an unwished petition

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

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

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

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

The people have turned to the head of the state with serious concerns regarding the pollution effects on the environment and the health of the locals there may be in two following generations. “Despite the economic benefits of the deposit, the damage on environment of the region resulting from its development and extraction within the period for  of the next 40-50 can be incomparably higher - especially taking into account that  the town of Kargalinskoye is located only six kilometres away from the mine and the Aktobe city at the 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 considerable amount of people’s trust in the Aktobe
Region and across the whole country. We are sure that our hopes for your support will be heard.”

The peoples’ official request has maddened the governor. As an answer to this civic action Saparbayev has 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 organizators haven't come out to speak publicly. The fear for their own safety is the reason why. In Kazakhstan, the right to create petition is not provided 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 shall continue, the law enforcement bodies will start taking administrative measures,” Saparbayev proclaimed and therefore confirmed the worries of the so far anonymous activists. “Nobody has the right to engage in a provocation! Understood?!“

Not entirely.

Only a few days later a meeting was held. The region representatives together with activists and intrigued citizens gathered to resolve the situation aggravated by the governor’s flaming 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 of Zhilyanka potash mine enlargement of were cancelled in December 2016 and not revived ever since.

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)