As Kazakhstan goes to the polls, even a blank placard is enough to get you arrested

The protest said nothing and, at the same time, so much about Kazakhstan, where voters will on Sunday take part in an election void of any real meaning.

Aslan Sagutdinov last month stood in the main square in the northwestern city of Uralsk and held up an blank placard. 

Mr Sagutdinov said he wanted to prove that people in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich former Soviet state in Central Asia, have no right to protest.

And so it proved: police detained him within minutes.

“He showed that it doesn’t matter what you protest against, the act of protesting is something not to be tolerated,” said activist Asya Tulesova.

A few days before Mr Sagutdinov’s protest, Ms Tulesova herself unfurled a banner at the Almaty marathon reading “You can’t run from the truth” – and was promptly sentenced to 15 days in prison.

Only officially sanctioned protests are allowed and even these tend to end up with mass detentions. The press is muzzled; opposition voices rarely heard.

“On the surface everything here is fine, and Almaty is a great place to live, but there are a lot of problems with corruption, with the education system, with the judicial system,” Ms Tulesova said.

In Kazakhstan’s 28-year post-Soviet history this is the first time that Nursultan Nazarayev, 78, is not on the ballot. 

He retired as president in March, although he said he would continue to run the country from his position as head of the National Security Council.

In his place, Mr Nazarbayev promoted Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a wooden bureaucrat best known for requiring heavy Photoshop editing on official photos to remove blotches and wrinkled skin from his face.

Kazakhs joke that although Mr Tokayev may be in the driving seat, Mr Nazarbayev has his hands on the wheel.

Kazakhstan has never held an election considered free or fair, and with reports of the usual pressure-tactics on voters Mr Tokayev is expected to win election handsomely.

An opposition figure is among the seven candidates for the first time in a presidential vote, but journalist Amirzhan Kosanov has has led a subdued campaign.

According to an opinion poll on the eve of the vote, Mr Tokayev is set to win 73% of the vote with Mr Kosanov the next highest on 8%.

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Still, there is a greater sense of frustration among ordinary people in Kazakhstan than ever before, with rising complaints about corruption and stagnant living standards across the country.

“I won’t be voting for Tokayev,” said Daniyar, a technician at Almaty airport. “But I won’t be going to any protests either, as I don’t want any trouble.”   

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