Incredible as it may sound, the majority of Kazakhstan’s population has no idea about recent events in the country next door, Kyrgyzstan.
Long after the “governable democracy” of Kyrgyzstan had become clearly unmanageable and President Askar Akayev fled his country on March 24, Kazakhstan’s government-controlled television channels kept showing sketchy images of street riots and “disorder,” as news commentators and Foreign Minister Kasymzhgomart Tokayev characterized the situation (Khabar TV, March 24).
Alternative electronic information sources, such as the centrasia.ru website, were effectively blocked, and the Kazakh media had to almost completely rely on Bishkek-based foreign news agencies. Curiously, the Kazakh media only reported the disappearance of ousted President Akayev 48 hours after the Italian satellite channel RaiNews24 showed a military helicopter taking off from an air base in Kyrgyzstan in the direction of Kazakhstan, presumably with Akayev on board. Kazakh officials neither confirmed nor denied these and other reports coming from foreign sources. Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Ilyas Omarov, as well as the director of Kazakh air traffic control, Sergei Kulnazarov, evasively told journalists that they had no such information. On the following day, March 25, a reliable Russian source reported that Akayev had arrived in Russia following a stopover in Kazakhstan (Interfax, March 25).
Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution does not bode well for the top echelons of political power in Kazakhstan. Akayev was Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s closest ally. In July 1998 this royal friendship was sealed by the (unhappy) marriage of Akayev’s oldest son, Aidar Akayev, and Nazarbayev’s daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva. In the wake of the shocking developments in Kyrgyzstan, however, Nazarbayev would be well advised to put his personal career before the old friendship.
Obviously stunned by the riots in Bishkek and their consequences, Nazarbayev declared that “thugs and rebels” were behind the unrest. His first statement on the events in the Kyrgyz capital came only on March 25, at the annual Congress of Entrepreneurs. “It is absolutely obvious that social and economic problems, which have piled up for years in that country, led to mass poverty and unemployment.” Nazarbayev criticized the Akayev regime for its “weakness” and promptly added that events in Kyrgyzstan confirmed that Kazakhstan is on the correct path for maintaining political stability (KTK TV, March 25).
The Kazakh government’s conspicuous reticence during the early upheaval in southern Kyrgyzstan suggests that Astana did not expect that the “disorder” on the streets of Bishkek would rapidly assume proportions large enough to throw Akayev out of office. Ironically, Foreign Minister Tokayev told Kazakhstanskaya pravda on March 25, when the world was guessing Akayev’s whereabouts, that Kazakhstan “reaffirms its interest in rendering any assistance to Kyrgyzstan in case it is needed.” Tokayev further commented “at the request of the media,” as the paper noted, that President Nazarbayev was holding telephone talks with his counterparts Vladimir Putin of Russia, Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, in addition to consulting with representatives of the United States, China, and OSCE on the Kyrgyz crisis (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, March 25). It remained unclear, however, whether the promise of assistance was addressed to Kyrgyzstan’s acting prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, or the toppled Akayev.
As the uprising in Bishkek unfolded, a scheduled meeting of the heads of governments of the Eurasian Economic Community convened, but it looked more like a face-saving effort than a serious move to cement the alliance within the shaky community. Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Kubanychbek Zhumaliyev, who substituted for Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev at the talks, remained out of the limelight. The leaders wisely avoided journalists, delegating Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to appear before the press, where he focused on economic issues. Fradkov evaded comment on the Kyrgyz uprising by dismissing it out of hand as an act of vandalism and looting committed by an uncontrolled mob (Kazakhstan TV, March 24).
Astana closed the border with Kyrgyzstan and recalled Kazakh nationals from the troubled country, indicating that officials do not believe that the situation will stabilize soon. But the conflicting statements made by authorities in recent days leave the decided impression that security measures are uncoordinated and chaotic. The commander of the Southern Directorate of border troops, Marat Mazhitov, told journalists that border guards had introduced security measures along the border. Foreign Ministry spokesman Omarov, however, denied this, saying that there was no need to strengthen the border as all structures were working as usual (Liter, March 24).
The newly created coalition of opposition forces “For a Fair Kazakhstan” seized upon the unrest in Kyrgyzstan as an opportunity step up its activities. The coalition nominated a single presidential candidate, former speaker of parliament Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, a renegade member of the pro-presidential Otan party.
Many independent observers have pointed out that Kazakhstan’s opposition is in no better shape than were the disorganized and weak Kyrgyz democratic forces. Political scientist Nikolai Kuzmin, for example, has questioned Tuyakbay’s chances to succeed in next year’s presidential elections. Another analyst, Azimbai Gali, believes that, given that the country’s population is 60% ethnic Kazakh, any opposition group with a Russian mindset is unlikely to enjoy popular support. Amid this skepticism, For a Fair Kazakhstan sent a message of support to the Kyrgyz democrats, who are depicted in the semi-governmental Kazakh press as organizers of an illegitimate coup d’etat (Kazakhstan TV, March 27).
Given the chaos now reigning in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, any solidarity with the Kyrgyz opposition may be seen as an attempt to push Kazakhstan toward bloodshed.