Casey Michel: A Year Since Zhanaozen

Apologies to Casey and our readers for the delay in posting this, it was written to be posted the 16th of December, to mark the anniversary of events in Zhanaozen, when 16 were killed and over 100 wounded in clashes between riot police and residents during an independence day gathering. As ever, thanks to @cjcmichel for his-always great contributions to CES. 

A year since Zhanaozen by Casey Michel

There’s no need to rehash everything that happened one year ago today. There’s no need to share the videos or the testimonials. There’s no need to detail the hackneyed investigations, or the myriad scapegoats, or the lip-service recompense.

One year on from Zhanaozen, there’s no need to share all that. Little more can be gained. Little more can be found.

But as we gaze back over the year that followed – and as we let others detail the scattered, inglorious rejoinders from Astana – it’s edifying to not simply examine the responses, but to try to find the reasons behind. If we can identify the prevailing ideas as to why Kazakhstan’s spent this past year, as many havenoted, skipping toward further autocracy, we may find an indicator of what will come as country moves past the one-year mark of its darkest day as an independent nation.

As far as I can tell, there are four presumptive theories as to Astana’s backslide in 2012. If I’ve missed some, though, please don’t hesitate to tack them on in the comments section. In no particular order:

1. Questions of senility and response: Nursultan Nazarbayev is now 72 years old, a shade behind Islam Karimov as the oldest strongman within Central Asia. The man’s search for life-extending elixirs has, unfortunately, turned up only some cousin to GoGurt, and little else. And despite photos of him dotting the civic landscape – playing basketball, skiing double-diamonds, with nary a wrinkle or crow’s-foot to be found – the man’s health has come into question recently, with reports of prostate cancer cropping up as recently as last year. The man can’t go on like this forever; his senescence may be catching up with him.


As such, and in line with a common psychological current afflicting most patriarchs who outlive their service, Nazarbayev may have found extra sensitivity to the voices wondering at his timeline for abdication. The questions following Zhanaozen led, naturally, to whether Nazarbayev’s hold on power had slipped – whether he currently maintains the intellectual and political edge he once knew. His answer, if this is the case, was as predictable as it was swift: He would arrest those prominent voices who dared to question and oppose.

Indeed, the man seems to feel that he maintains his intellect and acumen as much as he’s ever known. (Age is but a number, and all that.) And one man’s leprous prostate should not necessarily prevent him from maintaining the power he’s always known. There’s no weakness in Astana. There’s no hesitation. Aging does not beget a softening. Anyone who thinks otherwise will swiftly understand how wrong they could be.

2. Internal dissent: In a related theory, such questions may not come simply from a grumbly, long-dissatisfied opposition. For those beyond his inner retinue – and even among those closest – Nazarbayev’s line of succession is as muddled as it’s ever been. A logical choice for replacement, son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, was ousted from his position as head of the nation’s sovereign-wealth fund following Zhanaozen. A few advisers may maintain the inner track, but the question’s as open-ended as it’s been since independence first fell upon the nation 21 years ago.

It’s possible that internal consternation has reached Nazarbayev’s ears. Much like the questions that would have emanated from independent, oppositional sources, such questions arise with implications of inevitability – that, of course, Nazarbayev will eventually cede power, that his time will pass, and a new chair will emerge. Implications of finality. Implications of transience.

And perhaps the man’s not yet ready to hear it. Thus, much like his Soviet forebears – Stalin certainly come to mind – Nazarbayev has turned to overbearing and quasi-impromptu lashes to keep those closest on their toes. Kulibayev’s firing fits such a notion. As does Aslan Musin’s recent demotion. A constant shuffling, counterbalanced with a tightening vice among independent voices elsewhere, allows Nazarbayev a two-pronged approach to retaining power, both near and far.

This theory, along with the first above, stems from the assumption that certain voices have reach Nazarbayev’s ears relating to some onset of senility and ageism. Both rest upon the idea that a man – even a man as incorruptible and indefatigable as Elbasy – may need to begin considering a successor. And both, for someone as taken with image as Nazarbayev, are messages neither welcome nor allowable.

3. Inevitability and excuse: Of course, we may be going about all of this with a pair of blinders. As aforementioned, Nazarbayev’s spend a preponderance of his time and treasures focused on spinning Kazakhstan as a nation of placidity and openness. Ethnically, religiously, politically – all were, within reason, welcome.

And, to an extent, it’s worked. The imagery of Astana, the ideas of religious conferences and political mediation, the reality that the obvious ethnic splits in the country haven’t led to any lingering acrimony (or worse) – there’s something about these “island of stability” claims that rings true. There’s part of it that should be attributable to Nazarbayev.

But then, we risk getting caught up in some form of relative hagiography, spun by Astana’s PR and blinkered to the creeping authoritarianism Kazakhstan has known since its inception 21 years prior. A cult of personality’s been nurtured for years, growing from mere abolishment of term limits, to omnipresent statues, to guaranteed lifelong political sway, to, now, discussions on whether to rename the capital after Elbasy. Meanwhile, while a nominal opposition has been allowed to straggle, the history of any form of political dissent within the nation has long been fraught with intemperate obstacle, physical assault, and dead dogs.

Even if Astana’s not behind the preponderance of these anti-opposition moves, the attempts to bring any form of justice to those merely opposing Nur Otan’s rule have been next to nonexistent. Much as the post-USSR Russian rule has been demarcated by earnest voices silenced and murder investigations untouched, one could argue that Astana’s taken a tack that can be, at best, purposefully ignorant.

As such, when the final dregs of a gutted opposition are snuffed – when those who would, twenty years on, seek to still oppose any form or function in Astana – it seems as if such steps are only logical conclusions to a long, harried road. We should have seen this coming. Yes, the riots may have expedited these subsequent arrests. But it was but a matter of time.

4. Russian fraternity: This theory may be but tangential, but I thought it perhaps necessary to note the similarities with which Kazakhstan and Russian have gone about silencing critics and critical organizations since Putin’s (re-) ascendancy. This is far from a proper forum/post worthy of such examination, but the parallels are, and have been, both obvious and growing.

In addition to letting rank murders go unsolved, both nations have seen fit to begin a program ofsystematizing and stigmatizing foreign-based organizations that offer some form of human rights education. Both have solidified power around a strengthening executive. Both have skirted limits and regulation. And both – especially within the past twelve months, especially following their respective protests – have begun rounding up the remnants of dug-in oppositions.

It was once said that Putin relied on Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko to discern what the former would be allowed to get away with, in regards how supranational circles view human rights allowances. Lukashenko provided a line, provided relativity: If Luka could get away with it, then so, too, could Moscow. And it seems that such a relationship has thusly begun, or continued, between Astana and Moscow. As Human Rights Foundation’s Thor Halvorssen notes, “Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan and Lukashenko’s Belarus are the only two European states that have been denied participation in the Council of Europe because of their appalling human rights records, so both presidents deserve to be equally recognized as Europe’s last dictators.” While Luksahenko’s round-ups seem that much more appalling – and while Moscow’s certainly gain that much more notoriety – there seems an inescapable correlation between the three in regards to pluralistic clampdown.

The increasingly autocratic political systems of the three nations will sort naturally within the impendingEurasian Union. And they may yet enhance one another – dictator begetting dictator begetting dictator. If that’s the case, it seems that the past year – whether a reaction, an inevitability, a mirror, or some combination therein – may have been the final days of political and media multiplicity Kazakhstan will see for some time. And it seems there can be no worse legacy for the nation following the Zhanaozen massacre than an end to any form or pretense of plurality within the country.

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