- - Friday, November 18, 2011

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN — A spate of shootings and explosions has forced Kazakhstan’s long-suppressed debate on terror into the open, causing complications for the country’s autocratic ruler at home and abroad.

Last weekend, a suicide bomber in the southern city of Taraz shot dead seven people before blowing himself up.

“I am shocked,” said Kanat Beisekeev, 19, a student in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. “I didn’t expect this and I do worry, though I try not to show it. I hope the situation will be stabilized and our president won’t lose control over the country.”

On May 17, Kazakhs suffered their country’s first suicide bombing. Authorities initially said Rakhimzhan Makatov, 25, blew himself up in front state security service offices in the western city of Aktobe to avoid responsibility for his involvement in organized crime.

Since then, there has been a series of explosions, including suicide attacks and car bombings, as well as shootouts between police and terrorists.

“Previously, [President Nursultan] Nazarbayev had always claimed that Kazakhstan was a really stable environment, that it was basically free of the risk of terrorism,” said Louise Taggart, Eurasia intelligence analyst at AKE, a risk management company.

“He sold Kazakhstan to foreign investors as a sort of safe haven,” Ms. Taggart said. “But obviously you can’t carry on claiming that if there are suicide bombings and shootings going on.”

AKE increased the country’s security risk rating on Nov. 10 to “flashpoint” levels over concern about Kazakhstan’s security.

Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, said the country’s reliance on outside investment in the oil and gas sector has prompted its authorities to focus on security for some time.

“Foreign investors … realize that it will be a serious challenge for the Kazakh authorities to protect energy development and pipeline infrastructure should the Islamist groups decide to target the government by launching their bomb attacks on energy infrastructure,” Ms. Gevorgyan said.

Still, many doubt that the government is prepared for such a threat.

“In Kazakhstan, we haven’t had these actions before, especially on this scale, so it’s very new for us and the [authorities] are not prepared for this situation, unfortunately,” said Rustam Burnashev at the Institute of Political Solutions, a think tank in Almaty. “We have special forces working on this terrorist threat, but, for example, our police haven’t had special training for dealing with terrorist attacks.”

Beyond the impact of dubious security on foreign investment, analysts say the threat of terror also could have domestic implications if Kazakhs feel their autocratic ruler of the last 20 years is failing to protect them.

“There is sort of an unwritten contract between the people and Nazarbayev, whereby Nazarbayev is sort of taking away democratic rights in return for security, stability and economic prosperity,” Ms. Gevorgyan said. “If he’s failing to meet these criteria, then people might start questioning, ‘Well, the city is terrorized and where is the government? Why is it not doing anything?’ “

Ordinary citizens have expressed a sense of shock and confusion. Earlier this month, rumors of a terrorist attack in the city of Karaganda resulted in schools and universities sending students home. The fasle reports underscored the climate of fear taking root in the country.

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