Kazakhstan’s presidential election may be two years away, but political passions are already starting to build. The announcement by an opposition leader who happens to be from an ethnic minority group that he will challenge incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev in the 2012 vote has already provoked a storm of protest from nationalists. It has also opened up a fresh debate about ethnic identity in multiethnic Kazakhstan.
The row erupted when leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK (Forward! DVK) party, Vladimir Kozlov, an ethnic Russian, announced his candidacy during an October 27 news conference. Activists from a movement called Zheltoksan 86 (December 86) attending the event reacted to the announcement by hurling eggs, which narrowly missed Kozlov and two politicians supporting his bid: Gaziz Aldamzharov and Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the leader and retired leader of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, which forms the People Power political bloc with Alga! DVK.
Zheltoksan 86 representatives also characterized Kozlov’s presidential bid as an “insult to the whole Kazakh people” and warned him not to “stamp on our pride.” Two protestors were charged with hooliganism. Gulbahram Zhunis, the head of Zheltoksan 86, was fined nearly $100, and Talgat Ryskulbekov received a seven-day prison term. Kazakhs comprise 63 percent of the population and Russians are the largest minority in the country at 24 percent.
Kozlov disputed the notion advanced by Zheltoksan 86 that Kazakhstan’s president should be an ethnic Kazakh. “They said that the country’s president should be a Kazakh and no one else has the right even to declare their desire [to stand],” he told EurasiaNet.org, adding that the Zheltoksan 86 representatives who disrupted his news conference should have faced more serious charges.
“Regarding their breaching of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s laws and constitution, this is far more serious because their statements ran totally counter to the requirements of the constitution – to key requirements concerning the equality of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s citizens in terms of ethnic affiliation and the impermissibility of nationalist demands,” he said.
On November 4 Kozlov asked law-enforcement agencies to investigate the activists for breaching the constitution and inciting ethnic enmity; legally, officials have 10 days to respond.
Ryskulbekov and Zhunis could not be reached for comment, but on November 5, Zhunis explained her point of view to the Regnum news agency: “Russia is the land of the Russians. Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks. And Kazakhstan is the land of the Kazakhs!”
Asked how that opinion reconciles with the Kazakhstan’s constitution, which states that any Kazakh citizen who meets certain requirements – including passing a Kazakh language test – can become president, Zhunis replied: “Let’s not examine the constitution, but simply look at the situation from the human point of view. No one likes it when their land’s insulted. We’re a great nation, a great people. Surely a Kazakh who could lead his land, his people, his state has been born?”
To the outside ear this view may sound radical, but Zhunis is expressing an opinion common among some elements of society who are native Kazakh speakers and proponents of a greater role for Kazakh language and culture – but who would not necessarily describe themselves as nationalists.
“If you look at the constitution, of course it’s possible [to have a non-Kazakh president], but our society won’t let [Kozlov] be president,” an Almaty-based Kazakh language lecturer told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a lot of nationalists, but there’s a deeper issue. He’s Russian, and society – Kazakh people – will be against it. They’ll think: We’re Kazakh; why do we need a Russian president? Kazakhstan needs a Kazakh president.”
Kozlov believes those opposing his candidacy purely on ethnic grounds form a small, but vocal minority. “There’s no mass support for such ideas in society,” he told EurasiaNet.org, pointing to expressions of support for his bid from prominent figures, such as Abdildin and Aldamzharov, who are ethnic Kazakhs.
Writer Mukhtar Shakhanov, who campaigns on Kazakh language and culture issues, has also said that there is no obstacle to Kozlov’s candidacy, if he meets the Kazakh language requirement. “My ethnicity is my personal business,” says Kozlov, who has pledged to be fluent in Kazakh by 2012.
Also at play are issues deeper than language, and one clue lies in the name of the Zheltoksan 86 movement. It is one of several movements named after a protest in December 1986 against Moscow’s appointment of an ethnic Russian from outside Kazakhstan, Gennadiy Kolbin, to replace then-Communist Party boss Dinmukhamed Kunayev as head of Soviet Kazakhstan.
This was not the first time a non-ethnic Kazakh had led the republic (Leonid Brezhnev was briefly leader in the 1950s, for example), but Kolbin’s appointment caused simmering resentments against decades of Soviet policy to spill over. The Soviet period had seen ethnic Kazakhs shrink to a minority in Kazakhstan due to the famine of the 1930s and immigration from other ethnic groups, and Kazakh language and culture had been suppressed by the Soviet system.
The 1986 protest by mainly ethnic Kazakhs – which began in Almaty and spread to other towns – was violently quashed, leading to an unknown number of deaths. Others were convicted of crimes; many lost their jobs or were expelled from universities. Among the dead was Kayrat Ryskulbekov, brother of activist Talgat who targeted Kozlov’s press conference.
Memories of Zheltoksan die hard, but other participants in the 1986 protest disagree with the tactics of the protestors who hurled eggs at Kozlov. Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, head of the Zhasa, Azattyk! (Long Live Freedom!) movement, has accused them of discrediting the memory of the 1986 protestors.
On November 3 Kuanyshalin breathed new life into the early presidential race by announcing plans to run as well, working in “tandem” with Kozlov – the best performing candidate will drop out in favor of the other.
Observers agree that both Kozlov’s and Kuanyshalin’s candidacies do not stand much of a chance of succeeding, as both are steadfast opponents of the incumbent administration. President Nazarbayev has already announced that he is seeking reelection. The president is genuinely popular and is likely to win in a landslide. Critics, meanwhile, contend that the presidential vote is unlikely to be free-and-fair.
The saga, however, looks set to continue. As the Delovaya Nedelya newspaper commented on November 5, “the show must go on, even if everyone knows the finale!”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.