- - 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.

“Streets were empty, people were frightened,” said Aidana Maksutova, 20, an economics student in Karaganda. “Toward evening, it became clear that they were simply rumors. But there were still doubts … And what happened in Taraz has confirmed that rumors didn’t come from nowhere.”

Ms. Maksutova added that fear of Islamism is playing out badly for the country’s more visibly devout Muslims. “It is insulting for the real Muslims,” she said. “They are avoided. For example, if the girl comes into the bus in a yashmak [a veil that covers most of the face], half of bus gets off at the next stop.”

Kazakhstan has a population of 15.5 million people, of whom about 47 percent are Muslim.

Laws requiring official registration of religious groups and banning state employees from praying at work were enacted last month. A group calling itself Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) released a video threatening violence if the legislation was not repealed and later claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the western city of Atyrau on Oct. 31.

While many view the new laws as a trigger for recent attacks, underlying reasons for the violence remain murky.

In the western part of the country, where most of the terror attacks occurred, oil workers since May have been striking against what they see as a discrepancy between their wages and those of foreign workers. Some analysts draw a link between Islamist extremism and wider feelings of discontent among Kazakhs.

“There is growing discontent with Nazarbayev, and I think people are becoming slightly more willing to express that, which really hasn’t happened previously,” Ms. Taggart said. “I think that this terrorism is linked to a broader feeling that people are slightly more able to express their anger with the authorities.”

Writing on the opposition Alga party’s website, politician Marat Zhanuzakov put it more bluntly: “The government is confused today and doesn’t know what to do about the terrorist threat, which is a natural result of a long-term policy of current regime. Terrorism appears when government doesn’t listen to its people.”



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