Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Much Talk, but no Revolution

The spectre of revolution is being used by both sides in the Kazak election campaign to scare each other, but it does not add up to much more than talk.
By Baurzhan Tleusenov
The opposition in Kazakstan says the authorities are artificially heightening fears of a Kyrgyz-style revolution in order to justify a security clampdown ahead of the presidential election. For its part, the government accuses opposition leaders of using scare tactics to justify their predicted defeat.



The authorities do seem unduly jumpy about the December 4 poll which incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev looks likely to carry off without difficulty.



On December 1, for example, a group of young people gathered on the central Abay Avenue in Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city, and unfurled an enormous banner with a portrait of opposition candidate Jarmakhan Tuyakbay, Nazarbaev's only serious rival. Within minutes, a police officer came up and demanded they put the banner away. When the group refused, they were taken off to a police station.



“This is the seventh arrest in the last three days," grumbled Andrei Dudnikov, a member of Tuyakbay’s campaign team. "Prior to this, employees of Tuyakbay’s [campaign] headquarters had been arrested for handing out campaign materials. The police remove them from the area, hold them for three hours to determine their identity, and then let them go. As a result, all their work is ruined."



Dudnikov's interpretation is that the Nazarbaev camp is running scared. “People can see that we aren't breaking any rules and that the authorities won't let us work. They're drawing the conclusion that our country lacks democracy and freedom of speech, they feel inclined to protest, and they join the ranks of our supporters.”



The security measures in place for this election are unprecedented in Kazakstan. According to the Almaty police department, 20,000 officers will be deployed to keep order in this one city during the election period.



The border with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has been all but sealed since November 29, and police have deported 245 nationals of these two countries plus Tajikistan as part of a nationwide sweep ostensibly intended to check up on illegal immigrants.



Although the Kazak leadership may have been unsettled by popular revolts which led to regime change in Georgia and Ukraine, it is Kyrgyzstan's "tulip revolution" of March 2005 that creates the most uncomfortable comparisons. Like Nazarbaev, Askar Akaev had led his republic since independence in 1991, and to most observers it had seemed impossible that he would be unseated at all, let alone so easily.



While Kazakstan is much bigger and economically more successful than its neighbour, the political and cultural similarities between the two nations make the idea of an imported revolution relevant, if not particularly likely.



Many members of the public are awaiting election day with trepidation as rumours of potential instability circulate – in part thanks to remarks made by government officials.



“The closer the election date gets, the more Astana [the government] reveals how nervous it is," political analyst Yerlan Karin told IWPR. "Astana's nervousness is also revealed by statements made by law-enforcement chiefs that they are aware of the aspirations of certain forces to organise mass protest actions, and that they will not allow a revolutionary scenario to unfold.



"Yet essentially, it's Astana itself that is creating the excitement, as it is carried away with anti-revolutionary hysteria.”



Tuyakbay agrees that the revolutionary hype is invention.



"The hysteria is coming from the authorities themselves, so that they can justify illegal methods of combating their opponents, and as an excuse for possible large-scale ballot-rigging. The potential for acts of civil protest is being put about by the authorities themselves, so as to de-legitimise us and give them a free hand to engage in repressive activities," he said.



Kazakstan journalist Sergei Duvanov believes that if there is any unrest, it will have been manufactured by the authorities as a way of discrediting the opposition.



“There are rumours that there will be some disturbances. This possibility cannot be ruled out, as it would be very profitable for the authorities in PR terms," Duvanov told IWPR. "Citizens would then be intimated by the example of their neighbours, above all Kyrgyzstan. Doubts about who to vote for would vanish at a stroke – people would support… the stable president.”



The authorities dismiss claims that they are whipping up fears over nothing, although different messages are coming from various officials.



At a meeting of the Central Electoral Commission on December 1, its chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov – who is supposed to be a neutral figure – suggested that the opposition was indeed planning to undermine the election. He accused them of having prepared reports in advance that set out spurious breaches of procedure on election day itself.



But Arman Shuraev, the head of the Khabar news group who is acting as Nazarbaev’s election campaign spokesman, was keen to distance the authorities from any "revolutionary" accusations.



“Talk that the authorities themselves have initiated rumours of a revolution are rubbish," he said. "The opposition has no other choice, since they will lose in an honest and fair fight… They want to discredit the election. It's the authorities who are interested in the election taking place honestly and transparently."



Shuraev indicated that the Nazarbaev camp did not want to undermine the country's reputation of being more stable than in Central Asian neighbours.



"Kazakstan is an island of stability, there's no shooting here. The authorities value this image," he said.



Foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev made a similar point in an interview with RIA Novosti, a news agency headquartered in Kazakstan key ally Russia, stressing, "there are no real preconditions for this – no social or economic reasons that could form the basis for destabilisation”.



Professor Nurbulat Masanov, a long-term political observer in Kazakstan, says the authorities and the opposition are acting quite similarly in their war of words.



“The authorities are setting up two contrasting images: revolution as a factor for instability, and the long-lasting stability which Nazarbaev provides. Their entire political game-plan is built around these concepts. People are directed towards the 'right' choice, and even TV footage of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan with no commentary acts as a subliminal message, telling people to vote to ensure there is no war or chaos," he said.



"The problem is that the authorities have forced these rules of the game on the opposition, who have opted for a war between personalities instead of a war of ideas. When Nazarbaev and Tuyakbay are contrasted, the average voter only has only one question – is it worth trading bad for worse?"



Baurzhan Tleusenov is the pseudonym of an independent journalist reporting from Almaty.