Any Kazakh official with a microphone in front of them would say President Nursultan Nazarbaev enjoys widespread popularity.
They are not wrong. Most Kazakhs appear to support the first and only president the country has known since independence, upon whom parliament bestowed the title of "Leader of the Nation" in 2010.
But some officials in Kazakhstan seem to believe Nazarbaev's popularity is insufficient to fend off challenges from a declared opponent of his regime, and law enforcement bodies there are working diligently, and visibly, to stamp out any hint of protest before it begins.
On June 23, police and security forces in major cities around Kazakhstan were busy watching main squares, and at 2 p.m. they started loading people standing around or walking by onto buses and took the latter to police stations.
At least that's what it looked like.
In reality, police and security forces were responding to an announced protest called for that day. The person who made the call was Mukhtar Ablyazov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, who is currently in exile in France.
Ablyazov urged people to come out and demonstrate for free education in Kazakhstan. He dissuaded people from bringing banners, signs, placards, or any material expressions of dissatisfaction. Just come out in regular clothes without any paraphernalia, he suggested.
Kazakh authorities noticed the Democratic Choice's posts on social networks and took preemptive measures, detaining some potential participants ahead of the planned demonstration.
Journalists were included in these round-ups. Sanat Urnaliev, the Uralsk correspondent of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, was among those briefly detained hours before the June 23 public action.
The scenes of elite police picking up people and tossing them onto buses do not look like images from a country with a leader who enjoys widespread popularity.
Which is precisely the intention.
Ablyazov and his Democratic Choice have chosen to call for public demonstrations that, at a glance, seem to have nothing to do with Ablyazov or his party -- perhaps unsurprising as Ablyazov is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from Kazakhstan's Bank TuranAlem (BTA Bank) a decade ago, and in March a Kazakh court declared Democratic Choice an extremist group.
Ablyazov called for demonstrations on May 10. Some people did carry signs during those rallies, but those signs called for freeing political prisoners and an end to torture.
The same images of civilians being loaded onto buses were captured on film. In both the May 10 and June 23 detentions, there were people who said they were passersby and were unfairly taken in custody.
Democratic Choice was formed in November 2001, but by March 2002 Ablyazov was already detained and eventually imprisoned for a short time. He expressed regret for his actions and requested, and was granted, forgiveness. His repentance seemed genuine enough and by 2005 he was chairman of BTA Bank. In early 2009, however, the government nationalized BTA, but Ablyazov and possibly billions of dollars were gone.
Zero Tolerance Of Discontent
Democratic Choice remains a small party, and Ablyazov has not been in Kazakhstan since he fled the country in 2009. The actual challenge to Nazarbaev and the Kazakh government appears to be more of an annoyance than a threat, at this point.
But judging by the reactions to the May and June demonstrations called for by Ablyazov, authorities in Kazakhstan are unwilling to allow even small manifestations of discontent. The government was taken by surprise in spring 2016, when grumbling about a proposed land-privatization law proved the catalyst for building social tensions and led to the biggest protests the country had seen since the late 1990s.
Kazakh authorities seem to be taking a cue from Tajikistan. When a small organization called Group 24 called for peaceful protests in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in October 2014, Tajik authorities responded by blocking dozens of websites, suspending SMS operations, and deploying a large police presence to prevent any protests from starting.
A Tajik court quickly moved to declare Group 24 an extremist organization. Its leader, Umarali Kuvvatov, had fled the country and made his call for protests from Moscow. He was eventually killed in Turkey in March 2015.