Violence deepens in Kazakhstan

Unrest in western Kazakhstan has taken an ominous turn, as a video has emerged showing police shooting unarmed protesters. “The video was apparently taken by a witness from her apartment window and was posted on YouTube on December 20,” reports Radio Free Europe.

I’ve taken an interest in Kazakhstan, an important U.S. ally, since April 2009, when I attended the Eurasian Media Forum in the Central Asia nation’s largest city, Almaty.

The country, a former Soviet satellite, mixes authoritarianism with some elements of democracy. I interviewed critics of the government who seemed to have no fear of speaking (or writing) freely. Yet the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, though thought to be popular, rules with an iron hand, and was in the midst of a campaign to censor the Internet during my brief time in Almaty. You can find my blog posts about Kazakhstan here.

From my very sketchy perspective as an outsider, it seemed to me that Kazakhstan’s troubles began earlier this year, when Nazarbayev, according to this New York Times account, almost certainly stole an election he probably would have won anyway, claiming 95.5 percent of the vote.

In November, the Peace Corps withdrew its 117 volunteers from Kazakhstan for reasons that were unclear. Though one of the reasons given was that the country had become too economically advanced to need the Peace Corps, there was also speculation — according to the Christian Science Monitor — that the move was related to attacks by Islamist terrorists. That’s an ominous development in a country with a reputation for being secular and Western in its aspirations.

The recent unrest is related to a strike by oil workers, which has been going on for some time but which has escalated recently, according to the BBC. Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for the Harvard-affiliated blogging network Global Voices Online, wrote about the unrest on Dec. 19, offering what strikes me as a balanced approach between the government’s version of events and that of the protesters. (My video interview with Nurmakov is here.)

So I was struck by a post Nurmakov wrote on his Facebook page today. Nurmakov wrote in Russian, but according to Google Translator, he said:

This video has changed a great deal in my attitude to the events. Yes, by the time the meeting has ceased to be a rally, much has already been burned and looted the city, the situation became uncontrollable. However, in this video is not visible outside of police self-defense can not be seen as protecting the civilian population or any property. It is clear that the police used force disproportionately and arbitrarily and cruelly. And here it must be said directly — the state must recognize that the security forces crossed the line, then to not having sufficient grounds. The state should investigate all the facts of injury and homicide, identifying and publicizing their circumstances. The state must find the perpetrators of the facts of unjustified violence, and punish their police.

Nurmakov posted much the same thing on his blog, too.

Kazakhstan is largely off the Western media’s agenda, but this is important. On the one hand, an Arab Spring-like awakening would be welcome. On the other, a descent into violence and radicalism would be a tragedy for the Kazakh people — and incredibly dangerous, given that Kazakhstan is a rare oasis of stability and prosperity in that region.