Kazakhstan is marking its 20th anniversary of independence on December 16-17 with great fanfare. At the same time, it’s commemorating another anniversary, albeit more somberly: a quarter-century ago the Zheltoksan (December) uprising left a profound imprint on the national psyche.
It was on December, 17, 1986, that thousands of demonstrators – predominantly young, ethnic Kazakhs – took to the streets of the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata (now Almaty). They demanded a stake in the political process, while protesting against their perceived status as second-class citizens in their own country.
Buoyed by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s slogans about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), they assailed Moscow’s appointment of a new party leader for Kazakhstan, Gennadiy Kolbin, objecting on the grounds that he was an ethnic Russian from outside the republic. The protest lasted several days and spread to other towns before being suppressed by Soviet security forces in what was dubbed Operation Snowstorm.
Observers say Kolbin's appointment was simply a trigger for pent-up emotion. “This was the last straw, you see,” Dos Kushim, then a lecturer who attended the demonstrations and now a prominent Kazakh nationalist leader, told EurasiaNet.org. “For years this discontent had been accumulating inside us that we had become second-rate.”
Kazakhstan in 1986 was a far different place, in terms of demographics, than it is today. Kazakhs back then did not constitute a majority of the population. Slavic immigration had pushed the titular nation to the fringes, as relatively few Kazakhs held positions of importance in the republic. Russian had likewise squeezed the Kazakh language out of the public discourse – a controversial topic that still reverberates in Kazakhstan today.
Nowadays, the Zheltoksan (Kazakh for “December”) protest is seen in Kazakhstan as a harbinger of the demise of the Soviet Union. It remains a source of pride for many Kazakhs that they were the first to rattle the Soviet cage.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev put it when unveiling a monument to Zheltoksan in 2006; “our young people gathered here to express their resolute protest at the abuse and hypocritical policy of the totalitarian system.”
The words have an ironic ring. Political pluralism flowered briefly in Kazakhstan after independence, but there has since been a steady clampdown on political freedoms. In addition, Nazarbayev guards his power jealously, amassing vast privileges over two decades of rule.
Zheltoksan is a source of pride and symbol of nationhood, but is feted with ambiguity. The incumbent leadership may not wish to delve too deeply into the past, in part because the government vigorously promotes ethnic harmony and also because Nazarbayev occupied a powerful position in Soviet Kazakhstan’s hierarchy at the time when the protest was violently suppressed. “The people who imprisoned and tried us are still in power,” Kushim said.
In 1986, Nazarbayev was a rising political star, serving as the republic’s prime minister. He seems to have changed his view of Zheltoksan over the years: in 1990, he described it as “hooliganism,” dismissing it with the remark “what tragic events?” By 1991 he was claiming, in a remarkable about-face in his memoirs, to have been “at the head of the column” of protestors.
Nazarbayev was among the indigenous leaders passed over for promotion in 1986, when Gorbachev tapped Kolbin to replace Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh who had been party first secretary of Kazakhstan since 1964.
When news spread of Kolbin’s appointment, indignant students gathered on Brezhnev (today Republic) Square. As the protest swelled to an estimated 5,000 people, authorities struggled to contain it. “We didn’t go out against the Russians; there were no slogans against the Russians,” Kushim said. “We were simply showing, I think, our attitude to society, to the Soviet Union, to the totalitarian regime.”
Workers – mainly ethnic Russians – were brought from factories to confront the protestors; security forces were also brought in from across the Soviet Union. The demonstrators were treated harshly. Some received long prison sentences; others suffered ruined careers amid political repression. The official death toll of three (one Kazakh student, two Russians) is viewed with suspicion in Kazakhstan. One unconfirmed estimate suggests 168 were killed (155 of them demonstrators); rumors of secret graves abound.
There were other suspicious deaths: two girls reportedly hurled themselves from windows after KGB interrogations, and in 1988 20-year-old Kayrat Ryskulbekov – who had been given a death sentence later commuted to 20 years imprisonment – was found hanged in his cell. His death was originally classified as a suicide, but is now acknowledged as murder. “To break the spirit of the Kazakh people they killed him in prison,” his brother Talgat Ryskulbekov told EurasiaNet.org. Nazarbayev posthumously awarded Kayrat Ryskulbekov the People’s Hero medal in 1996.
Debate has long raged over whether Nazarbayev and other leaders in Kazakhstan could have done more to prevent the repression. Today, some believe that officials have taken steps to obscure the paper trail that might lead to the truth, speaking of documents destroyed and investigation attempts stifled – even after Kazakhstan declared its independence. Others contend that Kazakhstan’s leaders back then worked behind the scenes to mitigate Moscow’s reaction.
Ryskulbekov says Nazarbayev “must be given his due,” recalling him as the only one of Kazakhstan’s leaders – who had gathered to appeal for calm – to descend from their tribune on Brezhnev Square to talk directly to demonstrators. Nazarbayev said they should disperse because “I fear they may use force against you,”
While many suffered from post-Zheltoksan repression, Nazarbayev continued on his upward trajectory. In 1989, he replaced Kolbin as Soviet Kazakhstan’s first party secretary, so the Zheltoksan protestors eventually got their wish – a local leader.
Nazarbayev was positioned to take the helm of independent Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union collapsed. Two decades later, he remains firmly in power.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.