Kazakhstan is marking its 20th anniversary of independence on December 16-17 with great fanfare. At the same time, it’s commemorating another anniversary, albeit more somberly: a quarter-century ago the Zheltoksan (December) uprising left a profound imprint on the national psyche.
It was on December, 17, 1986, that thousands of demonstrators – predominantly young, ethnic Kazakhs – took to the streets of the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata (now Almaty). They demanded a stake in the political process, while protesting against their perceived status as second-class citizens in their own country.
Buoyed by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s slogans about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), they assailed Moscow’s appointment of a new party leader for Kazakhstan, Gennadiy Kolbin, objecting on the grounds that he was an ethnic Russian from outside the republic. The protest lasted several days and spread to other towns before being suppressed by Soviet security forces in what was dubbed Operation Snowstorm.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.