Kazakhstan: the limits of authoritarian crisis management


Violent attacks on state institutions have shaken the Nazarbayev regime in recent weeks, exposing its fixation with information control over state management.

Luca Anceschi
26 July 2016


18 July: a police officer conducts crowd control after an exchange of fire in the centre of Almaty. (c) Anatoly Ustinenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

When a gunman killed five people in central Almaty on 18 July, his shots reverberated far beyond the leafy boulevards of Kazakhstan’s southern capital. This shooting is the second violent episode perpetrated across Kazakhstan in the past six weeks: on 5 June, a series of coordinated attacks left 19 people dead (including 12 gunmen) and 37 injured on the streets of Aktobe, the administrative centre of one of Kazakhstan’s western regions. 

Exchanges of gunfire in Almaty and Aktobe have further fractured one of the most infrangible certainties promoted by Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime in recent years: the myth of Kazakhstan’s stability. This can hardly be a welcome development for the country’s struggling elite, which is already facing the uncertainty intrinsic to ageing leadership and the severe repercussions of a protracted economic crisis.

The complexities underpinning the two separate attacks are numerous and difficult to unpick. But one key difference appears to be related to the extremist connotation of the Aktobe shooting: after an initial and rather embarrassing silence, the regime — interior minister Kalmuhanbet Kasymov, in particular — revealed the attackers’ links to Syria-based extremist organisations. The official anti-terrorist rhetoric has escalated, with Nazarbayev calling for the Aktobe terrorists to be punished with the death penalty — a corrective measure that has not been imposed in the country since 2003. 

The perpetrator of the Almaty attack Ruslan Kulikbayev had, on the other hand, no tangible links to Daesh. Initial rumours of Kulikbayev’s rapid radicalisation proved to be unfounded. Kazakhstan’s government has adamantly challenged any alternative interpretation that connected Kulikbayev to Daesh-inspired or -directed terrorist cells: interior minister Kasymov himself threatened legal action against the media operators who claimed that the gunman had shouted in Arabic during his killing spree.

Kulikbayev’s non-religious agenda has not, however, prevented the regime from intensifying its anti-extremism campaign — proposals to strip Kazakhstan’s jihadis of their citizenship have been reportedly discussed in the immediate aftermath of the Almaty attack.

An uneasy nexus 

It is a profound unease with the instability wave currently permeating Kazakhstani society that explains the regime’s fundamentally different responses to two essentially identical developments, namely the violent deaths of police officers and civilians in urban contexts. The uneasy nexus between government rhetoric, socio-economic instability and terrorist violence appear to be at the core of this dysfunctional reaction. 

Kazakhstan’s relatively short history of terrorist violence began in 2011, when a series of attacks in different cities — Aktobe, Astana, Atyrau and Taraz — led to at least 30 casualties. The regime responded in confused fashion to this particular wave of violence: attempts to downplay the extremist agendas pursued in a number of attacks – including the first suicide bombing ever reported in Kazakhstan (Aktobe, 17 May 2011) – went hand in hand with repeated declarations warning the wider population about the risky implications of religious radicalisation and, most importantly, the eventual implementation of restrictive legislation regulating media and religious freedoms. 

The uneasy nexus between government rhetoric, socio-economic instability and terrorist violence appear to be at the core of this dysfunctional reaction

The parallels between the 2011 attacks and the current terrorist wave are thus striking: hyping up the Islamic threat served the regime in its authoritarian purposes; toning down Kazakhstan’s radicalisation prospects strengthened the image of stability Nazarbayev and his associates have usually promoted Kazakhstan on the international scene. In this sense, crisis management has to be seen as the issue where the regime’s soft and hard authoritarian methods have converged more visibly.

Media control, particularly in relation to the obliteration of public knowledge controversies surrounding the raison d’être of both terrorist violence and less hostile manifestations of dissent, remains to my mind a central concern in the crisis management strategies that have crystallised in Kazakhstan since 2011

As an elite pursuing a soft (at least in comparison to Central Asia’s regional standards) authoritarian agenda, the Nazarbayev regime is obsessed with controlling the way in which its citizens, as well as the international community, are informed about crises in Kazakhstan. Information control held the key to the management of recent crises, as confirmed by two developments connected to the Almaty shootings.

Obsessive control

As news of the Almaty attack began to spread on 18 July, several of Kazakhstan’s TV channels deliberately interrupted their broadcasts. 

At a time when the country was experiencing a dramatic day, the self-imposed blackout of some of Kazakhstan’s most popular media outlets might be regarded as a puzzling development. The imperative to comply with the government’s strict regulations on reporting in emergency situations was, however, behind broadcast interruption on TV stations across Kazakhstan. Rather than correcting the “destabilising” information that became ubiquitous on social media while the attack was developing, the regime’s information management strategy adopted a purely repressive outlook — it proceeded to silence broadcast media until the government had perfected a convenient line to explain developments in Almaty. 

Such obsessive control of information dissemination lasted beyond the attack’s immediate aftermath. On 22 July, Kazakhstan’s media reported that officials in Almaty had proceeded to arrest two young Kazakhstan citizens who had allegedly spread unfounded rumours about the nature and magnitude of the attack

By focusing on socio-economic marginalisation, rather than fixing its oppressive attention on information control, the Nazarbayev regime might manage the many crises to come more effectively

Different intensities, but an ultimately similar resolve characterised Kazakhstan’s crisis management in the post-2011 years, during which the Nazarbayev regime has systematically endeavoured to obliterate alternative accounts of the various emergencies erupting across the country. It is in rare – but very telling – instances that the regime has opted for protracted silence: the government in Astana issued no official declaration in the 24 hours that followed the 2016 Aktobe attacks. 

At other times, information control led to total communication blackouts: after the brutal repression of workers’ protests in Zhanaozen (December 2011), the Kazakhstani government imposed a total Internet and phone line block over a 65-km radius around Zhanaozen city centre.

More often, the regime’s obsession with its information dissemination mechanisms has meant to avoid further instability, as confirmed by the periodic bans arbitrarily imposed on messaging software WhatsApp after the anti-devaluation protests of February 2014. Recently, information outlets came to act as public persuasion tools: in May 2016, government media pushed the official line in the public knowledge controversy that surrounded the anti-land lease demonstrations — the event that revealed the fragility of the Nazarbayev regime in full. 

The medium-term sustainability of these strategies remains profoundly questionable. Kazakhstan might not have a terrorism problem, but it is certainly facing endemic socio-economic instability. The regime has so far avoided the proliferation of public debates on the causes of this instability by presenting ordinary criminal activity or foreign influences as the key drivers behind the spread of violence in Kazakhstan. 

The population’s social and economic grievances, which are generally expressed through non-violent forms of dissent, have been, on the other hand, largely ignored. Kazakhstan’s economic performance is declining as Nazarbayev enters his political twilight. This could present the more extreme segments of Kazakhstan’s opposition with opportunities to destabilise the regime through the use of violence.

By focusing on socio-economic marginalisation, rather than fixing its oppressive attention on information control, the Nazarbayev regime might manage the many crises to come more effectively.

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