After declaring last week that he plans to stand for president of Kazakhstan in 2012, an opposition leader who happens to be a member of an ethnic minority, has ended up with egg on his face – literally – for arousing the ire of nationalists.
Taking the announcement by Vladimir Kozlov as an insult, Kazakh nationalists hurled eggs at him at a press conference in Almaty on October 27. Attempts by Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK opposition party, to explain his plans ended in scuffles between his supporters, nationalists and journalists. Police were called to the National Press Club to split up the warring sides and made two arrests.
“Don’t provoke our people, don’t stamp on our pride!” cried an angry member of the Zheltoksan (December) movement. A protestor described the bid by a non-ethnic Kazakh to stand for president as an “insult to the whole Kazakh people.” Ironically, Kozlov may not be an ethnic Kazakh but, unlike many members of minority groups, he’s made attempts to learn the Kazakh language and has espoused causes dear to the nationalists’ hearts.
The Zheltoksan movement is named after a protest in Almaty in December 1986 that saw mainly ethnic Kazakhs take to the central square to rally against Moscow’s appointment of an ethnic Russian as leader of Soviet Kazakhstan. The move to parachute in Gennadiy Kolbin, who had no experience working in Kazakhstan, to replace Dinmukhamed Kunayev sparked resentment among ethnic Kazakhs, who were at the time in a minority in the Soviet republic.
According to eyewitness accounts, the protest that became known as Zheltoksan began as a peaceful student demonstration and soon snowballed into riots as Soviet crack troops moved in to end the unrest, which lasted several days. It’s still not known how many died; Soviet sources at the time put the fatalities at less than a handful. Kazakh writer Mukhtar Shakhanov counted 168 dead, while other estimates suggest over 1,000 were killed.
Memories of Zheltoksan die hard in Kazakhstan, where the event is viewed as a turning point on the road to independence, as represented in an Almaty monument to the protest. The Zheltoksan movement sees itself as the guardian of the memory of the 1986 protest, and of Kazakh statehood more generally.
In this context, Kozlov’s plans have stirred up passions. “In 1986 we raised one question – to each nation its leader. This would, therefore, be a great provocation of interethnic enmity,” one protestor said.
The nationalists must know that Kozlov’s bid is almost certainly doomed to failure, first and foremost because the chances of a member of a radical opposition party assuming power in the post-Nazarbayev era are unimaginably slim.
However, his announcement appears to have revealed signs of a sometimes ugly nationalist mood that runs counter to the official line of ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan. After seeing how thin the line between nationalism and ethnic violence can be in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, that might give Astana pause for thought.