Could the Bishkek Scenario Repeat Itself in Kazakhstan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 73

The second wave of revolution, which swept the Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, from power, has sent a clear warning to the ruling elite in Astana. The National Security Committee (KNB) has taken preventative measures to minimize the possible impact of the uprising in Bishkek and Talas on the public mood in Kazakhstan. On April 7, at the height of the widespread rampage in Bishkek, Kazakhstan’s 1,050 kilometer border with Kyrgyzstan was closed, allowing only those with diplomatic passports and civilians returning to their respective homes to cross the border. Sizable contingents of interior ministry internal troops were deployed to the border areas. Air force units from bases near Lugovoye in the Zhambyl region, and in Taldykorgan, including 5 helicopters (Mi-17, Mi-24, and Mi-8’s) as well as a squadron of SU-27 fighter jets, were relocated to border areas. Unprecedented measures were taken to ensure the safety of ammunition depots in southern Kazakhstan and three additional police check points were set up in the Almaty region. Border guard authorities in Kazakhstan consistently denied allegations that some former Kyrgyz government members had found refuge in the country (Kazakhstan Today, April 10).

However, independent sources claim that some Kyrgyz political figures from Bakiyev’s regime had fled to Kazakhstan. An anonymous customs officer from the Korday checkpoint alleged that on April 7, Zhanysh Bakiyev, the president’s brother, responsible for giving orders to security forces to open fire on protesters, had crossed the border. The same source also claimed that the former Kyrgyz president’s younger son, Maksim, had used the same route to flee to Kazakhstan (Delovaya Nedelia, April 9).

The violent riots that erupted in neighboring Kyrgyzstan have paradoxically called into question the long-term political viability of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Apparently, Nazarbayev sees no threat to his own rule, convinced that his personal popularity and Kazakhstan’s relatively stable development are a reliable deterrent to any Kyrgyz-style tulip revolution. In an interview with Euronews television channel, he expressed “deep regret’ about the bloody uprising in Kyrgyzstan, suggesting that extreme poverty had caused the mass protests. He argued that his multiethnic population basks in peace and political stability and provided supporting economic figures. Last year, Kazakhstan’s per capita GDP reached $8,000, while in Kyrgyzstan it barely reached $800 (Panorama, April 9).

On the surface, Nazarbayev, despite his declining popularity after a series of scandals relating to his corrupt family clan, still enjoys mass support. Recent opinion polls conducted by the Social and Economic Information and Forecasting Institute in Kazakhstan suggested that 40 percent of the population is satisfied with the present level of economic growth, and only 22 percent express pessimistic views about the future. Opinion polls also show that 66.4 percent of the population approve of Nazarbayev’s economic policies (Liter, April 10).

Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the undercurrents eroding Nazarbayev’s power and stoking growing public discontent. A recent mudslide, which destroyed a dam in the mountainous Aksu district of the Almaty region, razed to the ground the village of Kyzylagash, killing 46 people, according to official figures. Dozens of families were left homeless and without any effective aid from the government. The authorities revealed their utter indifference to the plight of victims of the disaster. Investigations initiated by the prosecutor-general’s office in response to insistent demands from the opposition, indicated that deep-rooted corruption, poor technical maintenance of the dam, and the negligence of duty by emergency ministry officials, were among the root causes of the tragedy, but no one was held responsible. In eastern Kazakhstan, a dozen villages became uninhabitable after unprecedented flooding. Once again, the government proved ineffectual in dealing with these problems, which served to fuel public anger (Kazakhstan-Zaman, April 9).

Protests are also brewing among independent youth organizations in Almaty. Students from several universities backed by the Rukh pen til (Spirit and Language) youth movement planned a meeting in Ancient Square in Almaty on April 11. Zhanbolat Mamay, the leader of the movement, told journalists at a press conference in Almaty that in 2008 students sent a letter to the government demanding higher scholarship fees, improved living conditions in hostels, greater freedom of speech, and the introduction of elections for the heads of universities. However, their demands remained unanswered. In February 2010, students reiterated their appeal to the government, but again they received no response. The current demands by youth organizations contain a salient political message: “Youth organizations insist that all government meetings, sessions in parliament, and public speeches by the president, should be conducted in Kazakh. The government ignores our appeal, though the letter was signed by thousands of students,” Mamay explained (Panorama, April 9).

The Almaty city government denied permission for the youth movement to hold a meeting. Yet, the students are determined to express their protest against current state policy. Despite the ban, on April 11, around 100 students gathered near the Kazakh-British Technical University to protest against the state language policy and the controversial Customs Union involving Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The meeting took place peacefully, but police detained four participants (, April 11).

It is unclear how long this standoff might last. Amid these confrontations, the opposition party, Azat, called on the government to hold a nationwide referendum on the issue of the Customs Union with Belarus and Russia. It seems, Nazarbayev, buoyed by the alleged success of his heavy-handed rule, might ignore such discontent, and risk repeating Bakiyev’s mistakes.