ALMATY: Scores of people were detained in Kazakhstan’s largest cities on Saturday as the oil-rich state held festivities marking “Capital Day” — a holiday coinciding with “Leader of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev’s birthday.

Ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev shocked Kazakhs by retiring from the office he had held for nearly three decades in March paving the way for a loyalist to succeed him in a June vote marred by hundreds of detentions.

A correspondent witnessed close to a hundred detentions in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty Saturday after a foreign-based opposition figure had called for nationwide protests.

Almaty was Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era capital but Nazarbayev, 79, moved the seat of government north to a provincial steppe town during the 1990s, subsequently overseeing its transformation into a city of a million.

After his ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over the presidency in March he proposed the capital be renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of his predecessor, who still wields significant powers in the country of 18 million.

The city was previously called Astana, which translates as “capital” in Kazakh.

Demonstrators were unable to form a crowd in Almaty in the area where the protest had been called. There was a heavy police presence and the internet was down.

A correspondent also saw several fights break out between demonstrators and police in Almaty, a city of 1.5 million.

Police detained several women and others who claimed to be passing through the area to cries of “shame, shame!” from demonstrators.

Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh service reported a number of detentions in Nur-Sultan and around 40 detentions in Shymkent, a southern city that also has around a million residents.

The protests were called by Nazarbayev’s arch-nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive former banker who has committed to overthrowing Nazarbayev’s regime from abroad.

Police said around 4,000 people were detained during election day on June 9 and the following week as Tokayev cruised to victory, scooping over 70 percent of a weakly contested ballot.

Kazakhstan, an oil-rich Central Asian country bordering Russia and China, has long been criticised by rights organisations for crackdowns on fundamental rights.Nazarbayev’s new title is Yelbasy, or national leader, and he is also head of the influential security council.

His July 6 birthday is a public holiday officially linked to the inauguration of the former Soviet republic’s capital, which was renamed Nur-Sultan after his resignation.

Protesters gathering near a square in Nur-Sultan on Saturday were met by hundreds of police officers in riot gear who quickly dispersed the rally, detaining dozens of people and taking them away in buses, said a Reuters correspondent at the scene.

In Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, hundreds of riot police awaited protesters gathered near the main football arena.

A correspondent at the scene saw them detain dozens of people, some of whom shouted “Wake up Kazakhstan!” and “Old man, go away!”, a commonly used anti-Nazarbayev slogan.

Police also detained a handful of people each in Almaty and Nur-Sultan on the eve of the protests, which were organised by supporters of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive former banker and government minister who lives in France.

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry said in a statement police had acted “to prevent disturbances of public order”. Public protests are illegal in Kazakhstan unless they are agreed in advance with the authorities, who rarely allow them.

Although they might have been a nuisance to the government, the protests were smaller than those which rocked Kazakhstan’s major cities last month after the snap presidential election which Nazarbayev ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won with about 70 percent of the vote.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019