Kazakhstan has opened a new anti-terrorist training center in Almaty designed to enhance the sophistication and professionalism of some of its most elite anti-terrorist personnel. Located within the existing Police Training Academy, the center will eventually provide courses in anti-terrorist techniques for police officers and also encompass efforts to deal with “extremism,” as well as the growing problems stemming from drug trafficking routes through Central Asia.
Kazakhstan Interior Minister Zautbek Turisbekov hailed the center as a breakthrough in Kazakhstan’s contribution towards the global war on terrorism and curbing domestic or regional terrorism. Nonetheless, he conceded that short-term problems exist in making the center successful and in further developing full Kazakh control over its courses. Equally, there are complications on the horizon regarding the precise nature of the training and education made available for officers, principally rooted in the confusion over terrorism and extremism and fears that the skills acquired may be misused by the political authorities as another mechanism to “manage” democracy.
The specialist training center itself, under construction for more than one year and intended to enroll officers from every region within Kazakhstan, currently has a severe shortage of Kazakhstani officers to run courses for its students. Turisbekov confirmed that 150 police officers would be sent on foreign courses in order to redress this initial imbalance. Meanwhile Russian officers are teaching there until Kazakhstan has sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to carry out teaching duties at the center. Although this staffing strategy will instill Russian methods and practices in anti-terrorist training, full control over the center will gradually be gained as more Kazakhstani officers are appointed. Seeking independent means to carry out the work, while relying upon Russia’s assistance and sending personnel abroad for training whenever possible, denotes Kazakhstan’s piecemeal approach to resolving its security challenges.
Opening such centers makes a good public display of strength in dealing with the threat of terrorism. However, by extending the courses to cover “extremism,” the lack of definition on terrorism invites potential abuse. This was underscored by the recent debates within the Majilis (lower house of parliament) examining new legislation on national security. The focus of attention centered upon banning more religious groups and casting a wider net in terms of restricting the legitimate activities of missionaries.
Amangeldi Aytaly, a member of the Majilis, proposed limiting the activities of religious unions and associations. Official statistics indicate that around 500,000 Kazakhstani citizens have rejected their traditional Islamic religion to become followers of other movements and sects. Aytaly believes that this poses a significant threat to the nation, which could ignite inter-ethnic feuds. Pro-democracy campaigners in Kazakhstan regard such stringent legislation as further evidence of the reticence of the Nazarbayev regime to open society, preferring instead to impose restrictions on religious freedom.
A parliamentary working group formed to examine these issues also decided to include an additional article in the Criminal Code. In the event of a banned public association resuming its activities, those found guilty would face large fines or up to three years imprisonment. Thus by labeling such foreign and domestic missionary activity as “extremist,” the authorities may be enabled to target individuals with no connection whatever to terrorist movements or posing any tangible security threat.
The “democratic forces of Kazakhstan” expressed deep concern that the draft legislation had passed its first reading, and in particular highlighted the unconstitutional nature of the laws on elections and national security. Among opposition concerns, the laws appear intended to limit democracy by banning peaceful public rallies. They call for closer OSCE involvement in examining the shortcomings of the legal guarantees on elections and ensuring that religious freedom is not victim to the label of “extremism.”
Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry, like other ministries, tries to demonstrate active involvement in the anti-terrorist efforts that President Nursultan Nazarbayev has committed to so publicly. However, its lack of expertise and financial investment in the security sector weaken the government’s attempts to implement practical steps towards greater security. Drug trafficking is now recognized by the Kazakhstani security agencies as the main source of funding for international terrorist organizations. The Interior Ministry is studying proposals to control the main and side roads in border areas to prevent the drug trade burgeoning still more. At the moment, Kazakhstan does not allocate appropriate funding levels to support such ventures, leaving its border security susceptible to exploitation.
While Kazakhstan’s effort to establish facilities to develop greater specialist knowledge in investigating and combating terrorism is a welcome step, it must also be accompanied by concerted efforts to assist in the definition of terrorism and to prevent the blurring of genuine security concerns with possible repression. Turisbekov is painfully aware that the new anti-terrorist center faces its own challenges, though the nature of the threat confronting Kazakhstan calls for clear ministerial guidelines, otherwise the country’s already over-burdened security bodies will be strained even more.
(Khabar TV, April 9, 11; Kazakh Television First Channel, April 9, 11; Interfax, April 11)