Following weeks of large protests against land reform, Kazakhstan's government now faces another challenge in the form of militant Islamism. Public discontent over the authoritarian style of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's regime and falling living conditions are now starting to pose a threat to the country's much-touted stability.
Kazakh police killed four, wounded two and detained seven suspected Islamist militants in a counter-terrorist operation in the western city of Aktobe on June 5, Tengrinews reports. A group of what the authorities call “radical followers of non-traditional religious movements”, a phrase used in Kazakhstan to describe Islamist militants, attacked two firearms stores and a military unit killing six people, including three servicemen. A curfew was imposed in the city and authorities shut down the public transport and leisure facilities. Residents of Aktobe also complained about problems with mobile and internet services.
The oil city of Aktobe, located some 100km from the Russian border, was a scene of shootouts between security services and alleged terrorists in 2011. It was the site of the country’s first suicide bombing in 2011, when a local man detonated an explosive device inside the building of the state security service.
Authorities were quick to link the Aktobe incident to radical Islamists, a small but growing group in the country where religion had been banned for decades under Soviet rule. “The terrorist attack in Aktobe ahead of the holy month of Ramadan is a manifestation of the extreme cynicism and violence of the bandits. Most harsh measures are being taken to punish them,” Speaker of the Kazakh parliament’s upper chamber Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev wrote on his Twitter account.
“Since last November I have been touring prisons where I have met those of our citizens who for various reasons had been in Syria and fought there and who were then detained upon returning to Kazakhstan or in third countries and handed over to our [law-enforcement] bodies and were later convicted,” Yerlan Karin, director of the state-run KISI think-tank wrote on his Facebook page. “Among them were those who returned with specific goals and plans.”
Authorities estimate that more than 200 Kazakh citizens are fighting alongside “international terrorist groups” in Syria and Iraq. In March Karin ruled out links between Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda and local terrorist incidents.
“In the region there has been observed no serious activity by one of these radical groups, while some incidents and events blamed on IS or al-Qaeda to a greater extent are speculation and interpretation by the media and experts,” he said.
The former al-Qaeda affiliate Afghanistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has a violent record of terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, pledged allegiance to Islamic State in August 2015. Such groups are actively involved in promoting Islamic extremism in the region and recruiting Central Asians to their causes.
Critics, and even pro-government experts, suggest that authorities in Central Asia benefit from labelling opposition as radical Islamists in order to justify tightening their grip on power and their clampdown on civil liberties as the fight against terrorism invites sympathy in Western capitals.
However, it remains unclear if the gunmen really were religiously inspired. Central Asia does have a small radical Islamic element, the best known of which is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which has carried several attacks in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. But the radicalisation of the generally very secular Central Asian republics has not been a significant factor in domestic politics.
The Kazakh special services have already muddied the water by claiming on June 6 that the attack was actually an attempted coup d’etat by local businessman Tokhtar Tuleshov.
“Since last year, Tuleshov has been actively preparing for a violent seizure of power,” said spokesman for the National Security Committee, Ruslan Karasev, cited by the Moscow Times.
“Tuleshov’s plan was to create tensions within the country by organising protests and riots,” Karasev claimed, adding that the resulting upheaval could have allowed the businessman to create an “alternative government”. Special services detained several of Tuleshov’s alleged accomplices, including a former deputy prosecutor general and a former member of the constitutional council, Interfax reported. Tuleshov is also charged with drug possession and a number of serious crimes including kidnapping and deliberate destruction of property.
However, Tuleshov's arrest is just as likely to be related to some political score settling as it is to the attack.
Tensions in the country erupted two weeks ago in the land protests and the reaction to them has demonstrated the government's nervousness amid the ongoing economic crisis in Central Asia’s richest nation caused by low oil and other commodity prices. Up to 1,000 people were arrested in two days of protest, although the authorities have barely acknowledged the unrest, despite dramatic footage on social media highlighting the scale of the protests and the authorities' heavy-handed response.
The nearly 50% depreciation of the national currency, the tenge, has resulted in double digit inflation (16.7% in May). According to official statistics, real incomes fell by 0.3% y/y in the first quarter of 2016, as the workforce decreased by 0.8% y/y in April.
Nazarbayev will hope that his heavy-handed reaction to the land protests and the similarly harsh crackdown on religious freedoms expected in the aftermath of the Aktobe incident will now quell the unrest. The security authorities have amassed significant resources since the violent clashes between striking oil workers and security forces in the oil town of Zhanaozen in December 2011, which resulted in at least 15 deaths.
While discontent could continue erupting from time to time, it is most unlikely that a Ukrainian Euromaidan-style movement would take place in Kazakhstan: the economic boom of nearly a decade in the run-up to the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 has significantly improved the living standards of ordinary Kazakhs, making them relatively rich. They had a per capita GDP of $9,796 in 2015 (exceeding that of Russia’s for the first time in 2015 at $9,055 and favourably comparing to Ukraine’s $2,005 and Kyrgyzstan’s $1,113).
However, the growing middle class in Kazakhstan expects continued economic improvement and they are becoming increasingly assertive in their demands for political reform and rights. Nazarbayev and his government will eventually have to address these concerns.