An Atmosphere of Fear and 10,000 Phantom Hooligans Descend on the Kazakh Elections

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Since I’ve been giving some attention to the Presidential election in Kazakhstan, I decided to enlist my friend, “Predsedatel’ Mike” for his impression of things in Almaty. “Mike” was kind enough to write something to post on this blog. The following is his thoughts. “Mike” is a scholar who has been in Kazakhstan for several months researching his dissertation. His view from the street gives a much needed picture of the situation concerning the Nazarbayev government’s use of paranoia and intimidation to influence the electorate as well as the status of the opposition, and the expat community’s inability to understand Kazakhstan without Western colored glasses. — Sean

“An atmosphere of intense fear, and 10,000 phantom hooligans: A report on the Kazakh elections, from a foreign scholar on the ground”
by “
Predsedatel’ Mike”

Almaty. Saturday night, December 3rd. The Night before the elections. I was called by a friend, a local, who cancelled our plans to go out to a club. Apparently, there was a curfew in effect. I couldn’t believe that news of this curfew had hit me so late – I hadn’t seen it posted anywhere, I hadn’t seen anything on television, and no one told me. I immediately phoned up my landlord. He “strongly advised” me not to go out that night, and not to go out the next day. There was going to be trouble surrounding the elections. Even if I didn’t confront hooligans and revolutionaries, there were so many police, army and special forces out on patrol, with itchy trigger-fingers, that they might target me, he said. “We could be facing disorder on the level of ‘ the December Events’ ” (In 1986, mass riots surrounding the replacement of a Kazakh party secretary with a Russian one, which resulted in a massacre of over 1000 people). “Just…don’t go out, okay?”. I was scared shitless. So I stayed in.

The next morning, I watched election news. The media outlet Khabar (owned by one of the Nazarbayevs – his daughter, I think) was interviewing people on the street in the lead-up to the elections. “Will you let these disturbances keep you from participating in the election?” “Can anyone stop this election – what do you think of these hooligans, will they succeed?” – Hmm, such pointed questions. I got into a taxi, and went to the expat pub for a quick bite and some darts. The streets were completely deserted. Not a soul. I had never seen it like this, particularly on Sunday, which is such a popular shopping day. I asked my driver why. “People are afraid, because of the hooligans. You know that the opposition has bused in tens of thousands of mambety (rural Kazakhs, typically seen as a dark, drunken, violent force from the countryside – the equivalent of ‘redneck’, or ‘yokel’) to do their evil work, and destroy our democracy”.

Rumors flew around town about these tens of thousands of hooligans – knuckle-dragging apes from the countryside, ready to rape and pillage. To disrupt the elections. To stage a color revolution. Even the opposition spoke of them, claiming that Nazarbayev himself had purchased this lumpenproletariat-for-hire, in order to make them look bad, and to justify further repression. The scary thing is, no one doubted their existence. Somewhere in the city, perhaps hiding in an abandoned factory, there were tens of thousands of barbarians waiting to be unleashed, by one side or the other. People were afraid. Too afraid to go out.

I met up with some friends at the Pub – marines, who hadn’t heard of the curfew. They had gone out the night before, and when the marines ‘go out’, let me tell you, that they go out all night, and all over the city. And they had seen nothing. No one had. Not one smashed window, not one broken bottle. The only violence I saw that night was between an Australian and an Irishman over Rugby.

Suddenly, all was becoming clearer. The regime was cultivating this atmosphere of fear among the population, in an attempt to get more votes cast for the party of order, the OTAN party, the incumbent President Nazarbayev. They spread rumors of hooligans, of curfews (officially, it turns out, there wasn’t one), of dark forces plotting the overthrow of stability. The regime had even gone so far as to air a television special in the weeks preceding the elections – a documentary on the brutality of revolutions, and how they do nothing but destroy families, peoples’ lives, and entire nations… The fact is, none of this fear is necessary to the stability of this regime – it is the result of a typically Soviet paranoia.

During my time here, I have challenged embassy workers, scholars, and other expats, for their criticism of the Kazakhstani government and Nazarbayev. In making their analyses, they impose so much of the west, so much of what we think democracy is, how a society should be run, and what every decent human being should want, that they look everywhere for real, liberal democratic opposition to the Nazarbayev regime. And they find it everywhere – in the countryside, in poetry competitions, in competing clans, and in murdered ‘opposition’ leaders. Nurkadilov, who was taken out weeks ago, was part of Nazarbayev’s regime until very recently. He was the former mayor of Almaty, and the governor of several oblasts, during his career – all positions which are appointed and important, and which indicate a degree of trust and closeness to Nazarbayev. Their falling out had more to do with the fact that Nurkadilov was more visibly and openly corrupt and brutal than others in the establishment, and was thus harming the public image of the OTAN party. This man was no western liberal democrat reformer, and neither are the rest of the goons that surround him.

The problem is, these expat academic types and government officials talk to the wrong people. They talk to other academics, journalists, and dissidents. But they don’t talk to anyone else. When I say that I think Nazarbayev is truly popular, they look at me with mouths dropped wide open. No. He can’t be. No one would want to live under a democratic facade. Everyone is simply scared.

They’re partially right. Everyone is scared. But, much like the Soviet people living under Stalin, it isn’t all about fear. I consider my informal taxi-driver and shopkeeper political surveys more accurate than the very limited elite that the rest of the expats are talking to. According to my survey, even if the elections were not rigged, the opposition not suppressed, the atmosphere of fear lifted, Nazarbayev would still easily win by a large margin. Because he is truly loved. Sure, people grumble. They complain. Even the staunchest supporters will talk about corruption, and note that Nazarbayev is directly involved. However, he has the following going for him: He is the founder of the state. He moves deftly in international politics, balancing the influence of America, Russia and China, and always emerges with a good deal for Kazakhstan (66% of oil revenue extracted by foreign companies, for example). His encouragement of foreign investment brings Kazakhstan real economic development – this ‘stan is an economic tiger, and the jewel of Central Asia amidst the collapsing, dilapidated states surrounding it. He balances nationalities policy between advancing a Kazakhstani civic identity, while very gradually encouraging “Kazakhization” in schools and government – with a very fair target of completing the transition to Kazakh in government and public affairs by 2030 – even the Russians think this is acceptable (compared to the situation in Estonia, for example), and are beginning to send their children to Kazakh schools in droves. But most of all, Nursultan Nazarbayev gives the people hope – hope in the future of this country on the world scene. People are proud of this country, and the man at the helm. In a free and fair election, he would easily win somewhere between 70-80% of the vote. Once confronted my assessment, the other expats begrudgingly admit that I’m right.

That being said, Nazarbayev is paranoid, in a frighteningly Soviet way. It seems he can only feel secure with an overwhelming mandate, of 90-95% of the vote. And so, he stages forced rallies of students, workers, the army, etc. He bullies the opposition. And sometimes, people disappear. Nazarbayev is insecure. He doesn’t believe in the genuine love of his people. He considers it fickle, the people stupid, disloyal and easily swayed. And so he terrorizes them as well.

The day that Nurkadilov was killed, everyone spoke in hushed tones. “Did you hear? THEY killed Nurkadilov…”; “THEY murdered him, and threw him in a ditch”. And even the staunchest supporters of Nazarbayev fell silent in some sort of strange mourning. For they genuinely loved their father. But he didn’t need to scare them all into loving him. His irrational outbursts frightened the children, so they crawled into a corner, rocked back and forth, cried, and hugged each other, sharing in their inability to comprehend how father could be so cruel, and attempting to reconcile their love and their fear. With one eye, of course, peering into the darkness under their beds, waiting for ten thousand bogeyman to jump out.