In his first public statement since the bloodshed in Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev depicted his country as being a target for outside-led, violent revolutionaries.
The rhetoric underscored the frenzied paranoia gripping the leadership in Astana as policymakers struggle to devise solutions to an increasingly radicalized mood in the country.
Nazarbayev was ostensibly referring in his June 8 address to the string of shootouts over the weekend, but the remarks suggested he also sees antigovernment protests as part of the broad destabilizing efforts hatched by mysterious foreign parties.
He was explicit about his suspicions that Aktobe was organized by outside forces.
“According to information in our possession, the terrorist acts were organized by adherent of radical pseudo-religious currents — they received instructions from overseas,” Nazarbayev said in a televised speech, which included a belated expression of condolence for the families of people killed in Aktobe.
From there, it was a short leap to the recent anti-land reform protests. Nazarbayev did not identify the rallies specifically, but the implication was clear.
“Exploiting the liberality of our government policies and laws, somebody wanted to test the strength of the state. We will take strong measures against any actions by extremists and terrorists. The state has all the potential and power to do this,” Nazarbayev said. “We all know that so-called color revolutions can be executed through various methods and begin with contrived rallies, murder and a desire to seize power. These symptoms are being seen here too. In those countries where this happened, today there is no state, no stability — there is rampant poverty, banditry and the conditions for the emergence of extremists and terrorists.”
The speech presents the extraordinary prospect that the authorities may look to conflate — maybe even in their investigations and criminal trials — the ostensibly political protests and Aktobe, which is being cast so far as an act of Islamic terrorism.
On June 6, the National Security Committee, or KNB in its commonly used Russian acronym, announced that it suspects a Kazakh businessman with pronounced pro-Russian sympathies as being the brains and funder of the land protests, which it said were nothing less than a plot to overthrow Nazarbayev.
Tokhtar Tuleshov, an entrepreneur from southern Kazakhstan who has been under arrest on corruption charges since January, “actively took specific steps toward the forcible seizure of power,” KNB spokesman Ruslan Karasev said.
The KNB named five alleged co-conspirators who have been arrested: Ilyas Bakhtybayev, a former first deputy prosecutor of Kazakhstan; Khibratulla Doskaliyev and Saken Aytbekov, a former police chief and deputy police chief of South Kazakhstan Region; and Bekzat Zhumin and Kayrat Pernebayev, two lieutenants in the southern military command.
That was a surprising change of tack from the one previously pursued by state media, which had the protests as the handiwork of nebulous “third forces” from the West.
Needless to say, Nazarbayev volunteered no details about which outside forces might have been behind Aktobe.
In fact, authorities have so far also failed to provide any kind of strong substantiation for the characterization of those events as the work of militant Islamists. (Out of something approximating political correctness, security officials try to avoid ever actually referring to suspected terrorists as being inspired by radical Islam, calling them just religious, or in Nazarbayev’s language, “pseudo-religious”).
It would be interesting to know from which foreign radical Islamists it is that Kazakhstan’s security officials believe gunmen like the ones in Aktobe are taking their cues. The modus operandi of the Aktobe gang was quite unlike anything seen in the Middle East or even Western Europe, where bombings and random mass killings of civilians prevail. If anything, the preference for singling out security forces as victims — which also happened in Taraz in 2011, incidentally — is more similar to what has often been seen in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Indeed, what is most worrying for Astana about the presumptively Islamist-tinted violence that has on occasion hit Kazakhstan is how dissimilar it is from what takes place elsewhere.
The roots of the country’s problems are clearly all too domestic. Diagnosing their cause will be crucial to finding a cure, but going by Nazarbayev’s remarks, it looks like the authorities are preparing to search in all the wrong places.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.