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Political statement

July 25, 2012

While in custody, Kazakh theater director Bolat Atabayev stayed one step ahead of the government. Protests in Germany helped protect and support this 2012 Goethe Medal recipient.

Bolat Atabajev
Image: Barbara Fraenkel-Thonet

Bolat Atabayev has returned to his actors. They are rehearsing in the conference room of an office building in Almaty, Kazakhstan's financial center. The shimmering glaciers of the Tian Shan Mountains can be seen through the windows.

"The space we have was made available by friends," said the Kazakh theater director. The actors pull on homemade costumes, baggy uniforms or farmer's clothes. They are rehearsing for "Avalanche," which touches on a hot topic.

In the play, villagers whisper for fear of avalanches nine months out of the year. Weddings, parties, births, anything involving sound may only take place in the last three months. The secret police enforce this vow of silence. But then a birth occurs in the middle of a whisper period, and there is no avalanche. The villagers discover that their fear was a projection of power.

In real life, the resource-rich country of Kazakhstan is led by 72-year-old President Nursultan Nasarbayev as a modern state, even though there has never been a democratic election during his 22-year rule and the political opposition is persecuted or killed as soon as they cross the line.

Critical material

Theater director Atabayev produces dissident material both on and off stage. In early July, he was released from prison after Kazakhstan officials gave in to an international wave of protest. "That was also staged by me," said Atabayev.

In August, Atabayev will be presented with the 2012 Goethe Medal, an award given by the Goethe-Institut to foreign personalities who have learned German and contribute to outstanding cultural exchange. "Atabayev is a special artist who we've been working with for many years," said Barbara Fraenkel-Thonet, director of the Goethe-Institut in Almaty.

The 61-year-old theater director was raised in a German environment in Kazakhstan. Many Germans had been living on the Volga River, but Stalin deported them to the Kazakh steppe when World War II broke out.

Atabayev felt a strong connection to German culture. He founded the German theater in Almaty, where he made the movie "Ulzhan" with colleague Volker Schlondorff; he also collaborated with director Roberto Ciullo for a year at the Theater an der Ruhr in Mühlheim an der Ruhr in Germany. "Roberto showed me that a play on stage doesn't have to reflect reality," said Atabayev.

Bolat Atabajev
Atabayev used his arrest to put the international spotlight on his country's politicsImage: Barbara Fraenkel-Thonet

When it was announced that Atabayev would receive the Goethe Medal, he was known as a theater director whose critical and idiosyncratic productions of Goethe and Schiller caused a stir. But until then he hadn't interfered with the Kazakh government. Nevertheless, in January 2012 he was accused of social unrest and on June 15, he was arrested.

The artist and the oil workers

This part of the story began in May 2011, thousands of kilometers west of Almaty in the oil-rich western province of Mangistau. In the provincial capital of Aktau on the Caspian Sea, thousands of oil workers went on strike for higher wages and more rights.

"A strike can maybe last a month," says Atabayev, "but the government didn't listen." The state media was silent about the protest, so Atabayev decided to visit the oil workers. "It cannot be that only the pockets of the elite are filled; I wanted to support the demands of the workers," he recalled.

He spoke with the oil workers and assured them his support. Back in Almaty, Atabayev collected money and performed the play "Avalanche" as a fundraiser. "Your demands are justified, but those in power want to isolate you, because they have only one goal: to keep the Khan on the throne," he told the oil workers.

Repression begins

On December 16, 2011, the strike escalated. Ironically, it was on the country's 20th Independence Day that protesters stormed the festive procession in the nearby city of Schanaozen. The festival stage was overthrown, shops looted, the mayor's office and a branch of the oil company went up in flames. The police fired into the crowd, killing a dozen people and injuring hundreds. During the massacre, President Nazarbayev was far away in the distant capital, Astana, listening to a recording of his own poems.

Then the repression began. The government persecuted activists, opposition politicians and journalists who had supported the oil workers. Atabayev was among them. "The government provoked the bloodshed, they needed a reason to end the strike and the month-long agitation," he said. At first, authorities shied away from arresting Atabayev because of his popularity, but he was expected to be available for questioning.

Oil workers in Kazakhstan
Atabayev had promised the oil workers his supportImage: DW/M.Bensmann

Atabayev defends himself

At the end of May 2012, he no longer wanted to participate in this Kafkaesque farce. The director squandered a summons and refused to fly to a hearing in Aktau, where the trial was to take place against the defendants.

The investigating authorities sent the summons again and even included a plane ticket. But Atabayev refused and awaited his arrest. The artist saw that the world had forgotten the events of Schanaozen, and all the speeches and panel discussions had brought nothing.

"It was very painful; it needed to heat up." And Atabayev believed his refusal to appear in court would bring the needed awakening. "For over two weeks nothing happened, and I was afraid they forgot me," he said. But then the authorities came knocking - and fell into his trap. They came in jeeps, knocked him down and carried him in a prison car for days through the desert west of Aktau, which was not without risks since Atabayev is diabetic.

Freedom with champagne

An international reaction did not take long. Informed by the Goethe-Institut, well-known members of Germany's arts scene, like director Schlöndorff, were up in arms. German parliamentarian and Commissioner for Human Rights Markus Loening called for Atabayev's release. Protestors doused themselves in blood in front of the Kazakh Embassy, and the German media started writing again about the events of Schanaozen, which had nearly been forgotten.

The government was under pressure. Not least in Germany, where during a state visit in early 2012 the Kazakh president signed a commodity partnership, and wanted Kazakhstan to be perceived as a modern state. All the millions of euros that were spent on a polished image fizzled with the news that Atabayev had been sent in chains thousands of kilometers through the desert.

Atabayev had to be released. But he remained uncooperative; he did not admit guilt or incriminate his co-defendants. The investigators had to be satisfied with the confession he wrote that stated he had visited the oil workers and assisted them, and he was sorry that blood was shed. "That's what I signed, nothing more," said Atabayev, adding that he regrets nothing.

Then everything happened very quickly. Taken from his cell to the airport, he flew business class back to Almaty. "This is one of the absurdities of our country, on the prison train to jail and then back to freedom with champagne," chuckled Atabayev.

He wanted to sit in jail until his court date and demonstrate that the ordeal was a farce. Even so, Atabayev brought the oil-autocrat Nazarbayev to his knees. No fairytale, but a skillful production by this year's recipient of the Goethe Medal.

Author: Marcus Bensmann / hc
Editor: Kate Bowen