While there seems to be no connection between Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s unusually extensive tours to southern and western Kazakhstan in recent days and the riots in Andijan of Uzbekistan, the Kazakh strongman is obviously more concerned with his uncertain prospects for retaining power in the increasingly restive Central Asian region than with the well-being of his people. The May 13 uprising in Andijan was another reminder of his fragile position. As expected, the well-rehearsed Soviet-style manifestations of “popular support” for his current economic and political course gave Nazarbayev what he wanted to hear during the trip. In Aktobe (western Kazakhstan) one veteran, speaking on behalf of public organizations and the residents of Aktobe region, asked Nazarbayev to run for another term of office in the 2006 presidential elections (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, May 12).
Unlike the March uprising in Kyrgyzstan, the Andijan uprising did not arouse perceptible concern in Kazakhstan’s top echelons of power. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov has routinely commented that Kazakhstan is following the events in Andijan and that there is no reason to fear for the lives of Kazakh citizens in Uzbekistan.
In a statement released on May 13, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan emphasized that the border had been closed by Uzbekistan, not Astana. At the same time, with a stream of refugees from riot-affected regions of Uzbekistan anticipated, Kazakhstan’s border guards and police units in border areas stepped up security measures. Border guards are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the frequent attempts by Uzbek citizens to cross the border illegally. As of May 13 some 86 Uzbeks with forged documents had been detained while trying to use secondary roads to elude border checkpoints and customs posts. In many cases, illegal immigrants try to resist the border guards. At the Akzhigit border checkpoint in Mangystau region, hundreds of vehicles from Uzbekistan, mainly buses carrying refugees from the uprisings, have been forced to wait since May 15. Russia-bound migrants, many of whom may decide to settle in Kazakhstan, are complaining about shortages of food and water (Khabar TV, May 17).
Many political observers in Kazakhstan downplay any possible domestic political repercussions from the Andijan uprising. They believe that the unrest in Uzbekistan was generated by three negative factors that are less prevalent in Kazakhstan: extreme poverty (in the Fergana Valley and Uzbekistan in general), iron-fisted rule, and the potentially lethal clan rivalries within the ruling elite. Uzbekistan’s leaders come from several diverse regions, including Samarkand, Jizak, and Fergana.
Although events in Andijan seemed to follow the same pattern as observed in Kyrgyzstan in March, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov did not hesitate about killing hundreds of civilians in the name of law and order. Kyrgyzstan’s deposed president, Askar Akayev, had no stomach for such slaughter (Kazakhstan TV, May 15).
The Andijan uprising is likely to have a long-lasting destabilizing effect in the region, and it clearly undermines Nazarbayev’s plan to create a union of Central Asian states to reduce outside influence in the region.. At the current time, with the outcome of the July 10 presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan unpredictable and Karimov grappling with challenges to his regime, any alliance of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan must be relegated to the distant future.
Beyond foiled political calculations, Astana will likely face enormous economic strains from dealing with swarms of job seekers from Uzbekistan’s troubled regions and an anticipated inflow of ethnic Kazakhs from Uzbekistan. According to Nikolai Kuzmin, an analyst at the Perspektiva political research foundation, Kazakhstan’s economy, despite spectacular growth figures, will not be able to cope with these challenges.
It is now becoming clear that Kazakhstan made a mistake in its international diplomacy. For years Nazarbayev pursued a lopsided course, fostering close ties with the international powers competing for dominance in the region while neglecting his Central Asian neighbors. A regional approach is vital for developing common water resources, complimentary energy strategies, fighting drug trafficking, and curbing illegal migration. The deep-seated traditional rivalry between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for regional leadership is stronger than the desire to display unity in the face of danger or extremism. Given the widening gap in the economic development rates of these two countries they will remain at odds with each other for many years to come (Delovaya nedelya, May 6).
Earlier in May, in an interview with the Russian newspaper Tribuna, President Nazarbayev said that Kazakhstan had no political forces capable of destabilizing the country. What he did not mention is that the price for that stability is the sometimes muted confrontation with international human rights and civic organizations. Astana has attempted to limit the activities of Freedom House, Soros-Kazakhstan, the Eurasia Foundation, and dozens of home-grown NGOs. The Andijan uprising illustrates that Kazakhstan still faces a hard dilemma: either follow the course of radical political reforms or slip back to authoritarianism, which may lead to the downfall of the regime.