Two powerful blasts rocked Almaty on Sunday, November 28, around 7 pm. The explosions caused serious damage to an agricultural library and triggered a flood of rumors and speculation. While pro-government media suggested that it was merely the work of hooligans, investigators as well as the public are wondering whether this was an act of terrorism. Shortly after the explosions, the chief of the Almaty city police, Moldiyar Orazaliev, summoned journalists for a press conference and said that the police had no reason so far to consider the case to be an act of terrorism, as defined under Article 233 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan. He said he was more inclined to believe that a group of vandals or rival criminal gangs stood behind the incident. At the same time, Orazaliev said that the National Security Committee (KNB) was offering its own version of events, which does not rule out the involvement of some “Islamic fundamentalists operating in Kazakhstan” in these blasts. “We have submitted all the materials of the investigation for examination, and we cannot tell at the moment where the investigation will lead,” Orazaliev concluded (Kazakhstan Today, November 29).
Sunday’s incident is not the first time explosions shook Kazakhstan’s former capital city this year. On May 12 Mikhail Nartov, from Kostanay region, blew himself up with an explosive device he was carrying. The incident happened at the entrance to the Zhibek Zholy shopping mall at rush hour and, thanks only to pure luck, there were no other casualties.
The police and the security services put forward conflicting versions of Nartov’s death, but never got to the bottom of the case, and it remains unclear whether he had any political motives. As soon as the rumors around the mysterious blast at Zibek Zholy died down, investigators closed Nartov’s case.
Shortly before the explosion at the agricultural library in Almaty, yet another bomb went off in one of the rooms of the Irtysh hotel in the city of Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan, killing a 44-year-old man (Kazinform, November 27). However, there is little reason to suggest that there is a link between these two blasts, and the perpetrators’ motives may be quite different.
Some versions suggest that the blast in Almaty might have been intended to destroy the office of the city branch of the pro-presidential Otan party, which had rented rooms on the second floor of the agricultural library. But this version does not sound plausible. The explosion was apparently not powerful enough to destroy the Otan officers. The device, 200g of TNT, blew out windows on the ground floor and caused some damage to rooms on the first floor (Khabar, November 29). But according to the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan, only a bomb attack, arson, or any other criminal act perpetrated with the intention of exerting political pressure on state institutions by causing considerable material damage and loss of human lives can be categorized as terrorism.
Moreover, leaders of the Otan party are keeping a low profile and refraining from making accusations against their political rivals. At a press conference held on Monday (November 29) afternoon, two of the party’s deputy chairmen, Alexander Pavlov and Amangeldy Yermegyaiev, rejected speculation that the blast might have been masterminded by a political party, and they indirectly appealed to their rivals to work for “the stability of the society” (Kazakhstan TV, November 29).
Indeed, there are sufficient grounds to suggest that the attack was not directed against the Otan party. The device was not timed to go off during office hours and obviously it was not powerful enough to kill party activists. Despite scathing ongoing criticisms of the pro-presidential party for allegedly manipulating the September 19 parliamentary elections, no political organizations have ever resorted to open or veiled threats.
Nevertheless, the ruling elite seems to see political implications in the Almaty explosions. President Nursultan Nazarbayev said that he personally would monitor the course of the investigation. Significantly, the investigation committee, according Almaty police chief Orazaliev, consists of “the best and most experienced police forces” of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department and the department for fighting organized crime. He said that Almaty city police had introduced heightened measures of security in government offices and broadcasting stations in Almaty, and that more patrol units were mobilized to ensure law and order in the city’s streets and public places (Kazakhstan Today, November 29).
Shortly after the blasts, which wounded a bystander who was later taken to the hospital, police cordoned off the area at the intersection of Abylaikhan Avenue and Kazybekbi Street and urged people to resume their regular activities. Reporters complained that police prevented them from getting any information from witnesses (www.navi.kz).
The atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the incident only fuels new waves of rumors circulating in the country. One popular TV channel admitted that electronic and print media like Al Jazeera and Reuters proved to be more effective and faster than Kazakh ones in giving a detailed and accurate account of the blasts (Kazakhstan TV, November 29). Despite the reticence of the authorities, this incident will undoubtedly be discussed at all levels in coming weeks.