Books on Kazakstan
Update No: 391 - (26/11/13)
In 2013, the cracks in Kazakhstan's apparent stability began to show as the
number of terrorism-related trials sky-rocketed. The authorities continued to
renege on promises made to the European Union to improve its record in human
rights and rule of law and, turning eastwards, Kazakhstan has dropped its
courtship of the EU in favour of investment from China.
In two years, Kazakhstan has gone from being a socially stable country to one
riddled with extremists plotting to target buildings and officials. At least,
that's the picture drawn by the authorities. In May 2011, a resident of Aqtobe,
in northwestern Kazakhstan, carried out what was described as the first-ever
suicide bombing in the country. Since then, a number of security operations
against radical Islamists and trials of alleged religious extremists have been
held in several towns and cities in the west of the country. 2013 saw the
largest numbers of terrorism-related trials held in the country. However, some
were held behind closed doors and it's not clear whether Islamic extremism is
genuinely on the rise in Kazakhstan as it appears to be in other Central Asian
and Caucasian republics of the FSU and Russian Federation; or whether the
authorities are using the “fight against terrorism” for political gain, or both!
The incidents of “terrorism” all have a slightly different flavour.
Fighting for Muslims in the Middle East: On June 5, seven men in the western
city of Atyrau were sentenced to between 18 and 23 years in prison for
terrorism, kidnapping, murder, car theft, burglary, and the illegal possession
and distribution of weapons. The judge at that trial said the group planned to
travel to Syria to fight alongside anti-government forces.
Fighting for Islamic rule in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet regions: On
August 14, six people were sentenced to prison terms of between six and 10
years, for being members of a terrorist group, planning terrorist acts and
burglaries, and plotting to kill security officers and top officials.
Prosecutors reportedly said during the trial that the group's main goal was to
establish an Islamic caliphate in Kazakhstan. According to investigators, the
group planned to blow up the Opera and Ballet Theatre in the Kazakh capital,
Astana, and to send also financial support to Islamic insurgents in Russia's
Followers of a banned form of Islam: There is little religious freedom in
Kazakhstan so most forms of Islam are banned, meaning that some people have been
arrested without just cause. On October 10, nine locals in Atyrau were sentenced
to prison terms of between six and 23 years for being members of a group
propagating the Salafi version of Islam, which is the extreme Sunni version of
Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia – and indeed Saudi and Gulf Salafists largely
finance Salafist extremists anywhere. Usually the Salafi version of the Islamic
faith is the motivating engine for Islamic activists and terrorists of the al
However, under this Kazakh dictatorship, there have also been several trials
where it's not certain whether or not the accused were extremists at all: On
November 7, Sayan Khairov, 38, was found guilty of terrorism, abduction, illegal
arms possession, and illegal border crossing. That case was linked to an
incident in August 2012 when the bodies of at least 11 people – forest rangers
and family members – were found in Ile-Alatau National Park. Officials said
later that several suspected Islamist terrorists subsequently killed by security
forces near Almaty could have been involved in the mass killing. Khairov was
captured later and accused of being a leader of the group. It's not known
whether this version of events is true.
At the same time as the apparent crackdown on terrorists, Kazakhstan has again
been accused of using torture in prisons and failing on pledges made during its
chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, to do more to protect human rights. In July,
Amnesty International published a report saying Kazakhstan was failing to fulfil
its pledge to end prisoner abuse, and to fully investigate the authorities' use
of force during anti-government protests in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen
in 2011 :see New Nations, Kazakhstan Feb 2012 (archived). The group's
investigation, which found systematic use of torture and witness statements
obtained under duress, was based on information from those put on trial.
In addition to these claims, religious figures and political opponents have been
charged with criminal offences or, “declared insane for criticising the
government”! In 2012 a Kazakh lawyer, Zinaida Mukhortova, was forcibly admitted
to a psychiatric hospital in the central town of Balkhash. She was later
released, but on August 9 this year she was put back again. Doctors say she is
suffering from delusions, but Mukhortova says she is healthy and the authorities
began investigating her mental competence only after she filed complaints
against a regional governor.
In May, a Presbyterian pastor who had converted from Islam, Bakhytzhan
Kashkumbaev, was arrested for "inflicting damage" on one of his parishioners
through his sermons. He (not the parishioner) spent about a month in a
psychiatric clinic during his pre-trial detention. On October 7, Kashkumbaev was
transferred to house arrest due to poor health, but the next day he was
rearrested on charges related to alleged extremism - whatever!.
The press is also being squeezed. Dozens of media outlets were banned in
December 2012 for carrying what the authorities deemed "extremist content," and
the trend continues into 2013. In September, an opposition newspaper known for
criticising the authorities was shut down for three months for violating its
All of these developments led to a backlash from the European Union, with which
Kazakhstan had been trying to curry favour until a year ago. On April 18, the
European Parliament adopted a resolution "strongly" criticizing Kazakhstan for
failure to respect political, media, and religious freedoms. The resolution
expressed concern about the detention of opposition leaders, journalists, and
lawyers following trials "which fall short of international standards". The
European Parliament also urged the Kazakh authorities to ease restrictions on
independent labour unions and the ability of religious groups to register and to
practice their beliefs.
The Kazakh authorities took this criticism in their stride. Over the past two
years, particularly in 2013, the government has shifted its foreign policy:
ending its active courtship of Europe, as seen when it chaired the OSCE in 2010,
and entering into closer trade relations with China.
On September 7, during a tour of Central Asia to secure hydrocarbons, Chinese
President Xi Jinping struck a deal with Kazakhstan, giving China a stake in its
enormous and lucrative Kashagan oil project. Kashagan is the world's largest oil
discovery in fifty years – holding estimated reserves of 35 billion barrels of
oil, with between 9 billion and 13 billion barrels that can be tapped – and that
deal was just one of 22 oil and gas agreements worth around $30 billion signed
by China across Central Asia during Xi's visit.
Kazakhstan, which holds three percent of the world's recoverable oil reserves,
still relies on Western expertise and investment to develop its oilfields,
following the brain-drain that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But in recent years it has vowed to gain greater control over how its energy
fields are managed and to take a larger slice of profits from sales. As a
business partner, China is favourable to Russia, which is prone to demanding
steersmanship. But even though Kazakhstan is embracing cosier economic ties with
China, Europe is still its biggest partner, taking over 40 percent of
Kazakhstan’s exports – mostly oil and uranium.
As for Russia, it is fast losing influence in Central Asia as China swoops in.
When Xi Jinping went home from Kazakhstan triumphant in September, Russian
president Vladimir Putin didn't bat an eyelid. Observers believe that the
Kremlin will continue to act this way in the hope of ensuring that China remains
a crucial ally. That trend is likely to continue for some years.