Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 90

Following the example set by officials in Astana, leaders of the two main religions in Kazakhstan, Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church, sporadically sound alarm bells to alert the population of the dangers posed by “non-traditional” Western spiritual movements.

At the first sitting of the Ministry of Justice Committee on Religious Issues, established in March, the chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan, Absattar Derbisali, accused leaders of the non-traditional religious movements, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, of forcibly recruiting young Kazakhs using dishonest means. He also said that the Union of Muslims of Kazakhstan had received foreign funding to pay for frequent flights to London. The chairman of the Committee on Religious Issues, Yeraly Togzhanov, expressed his concern over the activities of, as he put it, “totalitarian sects” but reassured listeners that the “situation is manageable” (Liter, April 28).

With more than 40 denominations present in the country, the government of Kazakhstan is becoming increasingly insecure about the turbulent religious sector. Until quite recently, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan, the Russian Orthodox Church, and official institutions seemed to tolerate the mushrooming number of religious sects. Although the state initially welcomed the religious diversity as part of the democratization process, it is now taking steps to tighten control over religious groups and restrict their activities. Recently the local government of Karasay district, Almaty region, dispatched police to forcibly evict 50 families of Hare Krishna followers from their leased land. Members of the sect staged a sit-down strike in protest and ultimately won their case in court.

Derbisali’s words often reflect the views of the Kazakh establishment. His latest accusations that religious sects are conducting “destructive activities” come at a time when the National Security Committee (KNB) and the Interior Ministry have stepped up the government’s widely publicized anti-terrorist campaign.

In early April security services detained an Uzbek citizen in Taraz, South Kazakhstan, who allegedly belonged to the extremist Hizb-ut-Tahrir party, and accused him of organizing a criminal group in the Uzbek town of Qoqon. He was later extradited to Uzbekistan. Last December security forces similarly extradited another suspected terrorist, Rustam Chagilov, to Russia. In January of this year members of the banned Jamaat of Mujahideen of Central Asia were sentenced to prison terms from eight to 25 years. On April 24 the head of the KNB’s Department for Combating International Terrorism, Sergei Mishenkov, announced that “in close cooperation with foreign security services” the KNB and Interior Ministry had carried out a successful large-scale operation and foiled a terrorist plot. He said members of the organized criminal group had planned to blow up law-enforcement offices, government buildings, and public safety facilities in Kazakhstan. The suspects, including 10 Kazakh nationals, face charges of instigating religious strife and possessing firearms. However, Mishenkov did not name the terrorist or religious group the detained suspects allegedly belong to. It remains unclear what country assisted in conducting such a brilliant crackdown on 18 terrorist cells. Mishenkov asserted that the detained members of the criminal groups had acted on instructions received from abroad, but again declined to name the country (Megapolis, April 28).

Skeptics refuse to accept this sensational revelation at face value for many reasons. First, the KNB needs a victory to restore its discredited reputation after the mysterious death of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev in February (see EDM, February 23). Second, almost all observers are unanimous in asserting that there is no imminent threat to Kazakhstan from international terrorist organizations. In this context, the verbal attack launched by the chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan, combined with the series of extraditions by the KNB, may be a prelude to another wave of propaganda designed to burnish the reputation of the Kazakh security services as a reliable partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO. The director of the Risk Assessment Group consulting firm, Dosym Satpayev, believes the Kazakh security services have achieved a higher level of professionalism than have the security forces of any other Central Asian state, but the longer a Kazakh peacekeeping battalion remains in Iraq the greater the chances may become for future terrorist attacks on Kazakhstan (Central Asia Monitor, April 28).

Kazakhstan has greatly profited from closer military cooperation with China, the United States, and NATO to modernize its armed forces and security services, but it needs more sophisticated weapons and training, given the unpredictable political situation in Central Asia and the Caspian region. Despite Moscow’s objections, Astana has not abandoned its ambition to adopt NATO standards for its armed forces and remains active within NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. NATO plans to open a regional military training center in Kazakhstan, and Astana is expected to host the international Steppe Eagle military exercises in September. At the same time Kazakhstan has demonstrated its commitment to its alliance with Beijing by extraditing several Uighur separatists to China.

But such partnerships resemble a double-edged sword. Astana runs the risk of provoking domestic extremism by fostering close relations with Beijing and Washington. The Union of Muslims of Kazakhstan has made known its intention to invite Hamas leaders to Kazakhstan. While the outside terrorist threat to Kazakhstan seems to be minimal, the growing sense of solidarity of Kazakhstan’s Muslims with the Arab world may pose problems in the future.