Upsurge of Online Petitions
Following January Events
in Kazakhstan
Danila Bekturganov
"Sociologist, political scientist, director of Public Foundation "Civil Expertise".
Status of Online Petitions in Kazakhstan
So far online petitions have not beet legalized as a form of online participation in Kazakhstan. A package of amendments “On Introduction of Amendments and Supplements to Certain Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Matters of Public Control”, including, inter alia, amendments into the Administrative Procedural and Process-Related Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan (hereinafter referred to as the APPC of the RK), is currently being considered by the Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Those amendments define online-petitions and describe mechanisms of submitting and considering such petitions. The amendments were submitted to the Mazhilis for consideration in November 2021, and at present this draft law is still being elaborated.
The said draft law raises many disputable questions. To name a few most important ones: overdemanding requirements in terms of time limits and number of initial signatures as well as time limits and number of signatures for petitions of various levels; an extensive list of topics which may not be a subject of petitions; overstated time periods given for considering petitions; and uncertain final conclusions. More details on the amendments into the APPC, along with recommendations for developers and civil society organizations, are offered in the paper published at the LPRC web-site (Legal Policy Research Center).
January events showed that the absence of an official portal of online petitions had played its negative role in the evolving situation. Perhaps, an additional bottom-up communication channel would have helped in making prompt and effective decisions and alleviated public tension. It makes sense that well-timed petitions on the matters of prices would have allowed keeping the scenario within the legal framework. Yet, it is also obvious that petitions submitted and considered in a way envisaged by the current draft law version would not have improved the situation. Today, after January events, the most reasonable solution would be a total revision of the suggested amendments into the APPC, and specifically of the terms of submitting a petition, time periods for consideration, collection of signatures, and required number of signatures. The list of ‘non-eligible’ topics, which according to the current version of the draft law cannot be a subject of petitioning, should also be revised. The governmental portal of online petitions should serve as an immediate response tool to emerging challenges, rather than another imitational body as it seems to be now – slow-speed, complicated, excessively bureaucratized and unaccountable. Thus, while the law has not been adopted yet, both law-makers and civil society organizations have a chance to improve the suggested law draft and turn the governmental portal of online petitions into an effective and popular instrument.


Independent Online Petitioning Websites
The absence of the official online petitioning web-resource in Kazakhstan gave rise to a number of independent aggregator websites that publish petitions and allow collecting signatures. Those include both Kazakhstani websites, such as Otinish, egov.press (not associated with the electronic government portal), OnlinePetition.Kz, and international aggregator websites, such as Аvaaz.org, Сhange.org, CitizenGo. Petitions published thereat are deemed informal and, as set forth in the effective legislation, cannot be directly considered by governmental authorities. However, the formality of online petitioning by itself is not so much of importance as the fact that the topics covered by those petitions are significant and socially-minded. Informal petitions may be viewed as some sort of ‘social thermometers’ that show the relevance of the problem, help revealing matters of concern, and take prompt managerial solutions to relieve public distress. Such social tools are important and useful because the standing practice of the inadequate feedback exchange between the society and the government as well as disregard of the problems of citizens could be named among the fundamental causes of January protests.
On the other hand, there are issues related to the insufficiently reliable verification of authors and signatories of online petitions on independent websites. For many websites an email address is enough for the verification of the petition author or signatory; such primitive conditions give a possibility of fake engagement, which, in turn, casts doubt on the quantitative indicators of the petition. Thus, independent aggregator websites do not have a mechanism of the reliable verification of petitioning authors and signatories. It is rather difficult to say if that’s a good or a bad thing, since the world has not arrived at a consensus on how to fix that problem yet. Taking into account the repressive nature of many legislative acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan, including those for ‘disseminating knowingly false information’ or ‘inciting social hatred’, it is hardly a surprise that users prefer creating anonymous petitions.
After the Internet was restored on the 11th day of January (before that Almaty had been cut off from the Internet and on January 10th the access had been available for a short time, while the total shut down within the entire territory of Kazakhstan continued until January 10th), more than 50 various petitions, in one form or another reflecting the state of affairs after the active phase of confrontation had been over, appeared at the independent aggregator websites. Perhaps, that phenomenon could be explained by the illusion created by the government at the height of the crisis that demands of the protesters would be heard. This can also explain why the upsurge of online petitions is vividly declining as the number of new appeals on the burning political and social topics has obviously reduced already in early February. Activity of signatories has also lowered; if first petitions collected several thousand signatures within a day, in the beginning of February, i.e., in three weeks after January events, the number of new petition signatories has markedly decreased.
Most Outstanding Online Petitions
The petition that collected the most signatures (225 888 signatures as of February 14, 2022, 12:00 a.m.) is the petition published at egov.press on resuming the former name of the capital city of Kazakhstan. The petition is addressed to the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The fact that the activity of signatories has significantly declined is proved by the results of the measurement taken on January 24, when by 12.00 a.m. the petition had collected 223 101 signatures. It means that from the moment the author published it on January 11, 2022, and until January 24 (15 days) the petition received support from more than 220 thousand people, while for the following 20 days, i.e., from January 24 through February 14, only 2 787 signatures were added. Unfortunately, egov.press does not have tools to analyze the activity of signatories, and yet those measurement results demonstrate that the activity is decreasing. Nevertheless, this petition is the ultimate leader in terms of the number of people who signed it after January events.
The second in the number of collected signatures is the petition published on January 18, 2022, at CitizenGo (international online petitioning platform, which is known to be an ultraconservative resource often promoting anti-vaccine, homophobic, and antifeminist content). On February 14, 2022, by 12.00 a.m., the petition had 207 968 signatures. It demands extradition of Mukhtar Ablyazov, whom the author (or authors as the petition is anonymous, and the name Abylai Netlenov, indicated as the author’s, seems to be a pseudonym) considers guilty in terrorism and death of people during January events. The petition is addressed to G.Nurdauletov, the General Prosecutor of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Another remarkable petition is a demand published on January 18, 2022, at egov.press, which called for annulling the Law on the First President. As of February 14, 2022, 12.00 a.m., the petition was supported by 52 100 signatories. The measurement showed that by 12.00 a.m. of January 24, 2022, the petition had collected 45 126 signatories, which also indicates decreasing activity of signatories: first six days brought more than 45 thousand of signatures, while the following 20 days added about 7 thousand only.
The only petition with a large number of signatures, on which the President took a specific decision, was the one published on January 13, 2022, on Otinish web-site that belongs to TALAP Center for applied research. The demand was to dismiss Almaty city Akim B.Sagintayev. This case has become the most scandalous example of how petitions work in Kazakhstan.
The first uproar was caused by the detention of D.Zhumadilov, the author of the petition. He was taken in on January 15, 2022, after he had hung the banner with hashtag #Сагинтаевавотставку (#dismissSagintayev) and appealing words “20K people have signed the petition; we are for public elections of city and region Akims” at the passage bridge over Al-Farabi avenue in Almaty. The author of the petition was released several hours after his detention.
For the period from January 13 through January 24, 2022, the petition collected 26 478 signatories. In his interview to Khabar Agency on January 29, President Tokayev said that he ‘could not ignore the opinion of the citizens’ and would replace the Akim of the city of Almaty in the nearest future. On Sunday, 30th day of January, there appeared an informal message (which might have been an authorized ‘leakage of information’) that Ye.Dosayev would be appointed as a new Akim of Almaty on Monday, 31st day of January. The petition on the Otinish website was closed on the same 30th day of January. By that time, it had been supported by 26 654 people, which means that only 176 signatures had been added for six days from January 24 to January 30.
On January 31, 2022, Ye.Dosayev took over the office of Almaty Akim. Yet, on 30th day of January, prior to his official appointment, egov.press had published a petition against his candidature. As of February 14, 12.00 a.m., the number of signatories arrived at 30 065, which means that more people stood against the appointment of Ye.Dosayev rather than in support of the dismissal of his processor B.Sagintayev.
It should be separately noted that Zhumadilov’s petition was satisfied only in respect of the Akim’s dismissal. The demand on conducting direct elections of Almaty Akim had not been considered. Besides, on February 5, an authorized rally ‘For the Elective Akim of Almaty!” took place in the city, where people laid down demands on the conduction of direct elections of Akims.
It is rather difficult to judge what influence the said petition on dismissing the Akim of Almaty had on the decision to replace him. However, this case is the only example when the Akim of the city of the republican significance was removed from his post as a result of the petition. Many other petitions on dismissing Akims, who had fallen down their job, were ignored as no response from the government followed. Thus, the following petitions were published: on dismissing the Akim of the city of Nur-Sultan (468 signatures), the Akim of the city of Shymkent (514 signatures), the Akim of the city of Aktobe (2009 signatures), the Akim of Atyrau Region (514 signatures), the Akim of West Kazakhstan Region (197 signatures), the Akims of East Kazakhstan Region and Zhambyl Region (1052), and even the Akim of Munailinsky District of Mangistau Region (26 signatures). In addition, there were petitions on the removal of other high-ranking officials, specifically: Minister of Education A. Aimagambetov (1118 signatures), Minister of Internal Affairs Ye. Turgumbayev (1973 signatures), Mazhilis Member D. Nazarbayeva, the First President’s daughter (2601 signatures), and Vice-Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Development R.Sklyar (6200 signatures). Neither petition succeeded (all data on the number of signatures in support of the petitions were obtained as of February 14, 2022, 12.00 a.m.).
Before February 15, 2022, none of the online petitioning platforms published petitions concerning the violent suppression of protests, arrests, tortures, or disclosure of the names of the victims of January events. On January 16, 2022, civil activists A. Zhapisheva and B. Orynbet launched a petition ‘For disclosing the list of those who died and providing aid to their families’, but that petition was not published at the aggregator website, but was spread in social networks and messengers as a direct link to the Google form. The functional properties of such form do not allow identifying the number of signatures which have been collected. Notably, in reply to the enquiry on the number of victims, the General Prosecutor’s Office refused to provide such information with reference to the secrecy of investigation.
On February 15, 2022, onlinepetition.kz published a petition that demanded to initiate an investigation for shooting up citizens of Kazakhstan at the Republican Square on the 6th day of January, and also for all other instances of unjustified use of fire arms by law enforcement officials. In addition, the petition contained a demand on the public disclosure of the dead list. Authored by journalists A. Bukeyeva, A. Tleubayeva and N. Darimbet, and addressed to the President of Kazakhstan, this petition collected about 100 signatures during a few hours.
According A. Bukeyeva and A. Tleubayeva, they made an attempt to publish the petition on the Otinish website, but it was declined without assigning any reason. That fact was announced by the authors on Facebook. The Otinish website has a link to the Rules of Publishing Petitions, but it does not work, so it is not possible to track the status of the petition or read those rules of publishing. There is only one contact address indicated at the website, to which the authors sent a request to clarify the situation, but no response followed. A.Tleubayeva also shared that the case was not unique as Otinish had already declined a number of petitions. A similar situation with that website had happened several years ago, when she had tried to publish a petition on inspecting Korgau HR Public Foundation’s activities for spreading anti-vaccine contents. That time her petition had not been published as well, and the author had not received any clarifications from the website’s owner, TALAP Center for Applied Research. Such facts, when the aggregator website refuses to publish a petition without giving any reasons, may be considered as an act of censuring.
On February 17, 2022, the hosting of onlinepetition.kz was stopped. We do not know whether the access to the website was denied due to the published petition on the investigation of shooting up people at the Republican Square in Almaty or not.

On the same day, after the authors of the petition had applied to PS.kz hosting services company and to the domain owner, the access to the website was restored. Neither the hosting provider, nor the domain owner commented on the situation. The petition was also published at the international platform named Avaaz.

Conclusions
1. The absence of the official aggregator website for online petitions constitutes a significant gap in the realization of the electronic participation in Kazakhstan as well as one of the root causes of the poor communications between the government and the society.
2. Legal framework for the launch of the official website for online petitions is being developed in a slow-speed and nontransparent manner.
3. Suggested amendments into the laws that regulate procedures of submitting and considering online petitions, as well as collecting signatures, will not stimulate the active use of such tool by the citizens of Kazakhstan, because they envisage excessively complicated and restrictive requirements on the number of signatures, ‘non-eligible’ topics, deadlines for collecting signatures, and timeframe for considering petitions.
4. Due to the lack of the legal framework, currently available alternative platforms for publishing petitions do not provide citizens who submit and sign petitions with a real opportunity to influence decisions of the government.
5. Imperfection of the verification procedure for authors and signatories of online petitions, which is common for the most of independent aggregator websites, allows fake engagement.
6. Petitions published at the independent aggregator websites can be used as ‘social thermometers’, and yet the governmental bodies continue ignoring opinions of those who publish and sign such petitions.
7. Only once the demands of the online petition were partially satisfied.
8. The upsurge of online petitions caused by January events and the number of their signatories have been reducing, and this may lead to unpredictable consequences. Should the citizens become disappointed in the possibility to influence vitally important decisions through a peaceful mechanism of petitioning, they might prefer to follow a radical path and go out to the streets once again.
9. There is information that petitions submitted about the victims of January events and tortures are declined by some aggregator websites without any explanation. Besides, on February 17 the hosting of onlinepetition.kz was stopped after it had published a petition to investigate details of shooting up citizens of the Republican Square in Almaty. On the same day, after the authors of the petition had applied to the domain owner, the access was restored. Those facts can indicate censuring.

Recommendations
For draft law developers, Mazhilis Members of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan:
1. Conduct a total revision of all requirements on the number of signatures, signature collection deadlines, timeframe for considering petitions, and topics, which currently cannot be a subject of petitions, so to loosen up or exclude legislative norms that hinder prompt and effective consideration of petitions by the governmental bodies.
2. To speed up the process of adopting the draft law after it is amended to make the use of the online petitioning easier for citizens and all excessive restrictions are removed.
3. To provide an extensive mass media coverage of how such amendments are reviewed.
4. To ensure that competent governmental bodies have a possibility to consider petitions submitted through independent aggregate websites and discuss them with concerned parties.
For civil society organizations of the Republic of Kazakhstan:
1. To initiate a wide civil advocate campaign to inform citizens of Kazakhstan on the draft law on electronic petitions and on the amendments that will enable to use this electronic petitioning tool without contrived restrictions.
2. To create guidance documents and information resources on electronic petitions and electronic participation for civil society organizations (CSO) and activists.
3. To exert efforts to strengthen expertise of CSO and activists in the field of electronic participation and its tools, including, inter alia, electronic petitions.