Something rotten in Denmark

A map of Kazakhstan showing Almaty, Aktobe and Shymkent, near Taraz

There have been two major events in the last couple weeks that have unsettled both the ex-pat community in Kazakhstan and, to the extent that I can judge, the population at large. First, there was a “terrorist” attack in the southern city of Taraz, and second, the Peace Corps has decided to close its program in Kazakhstan. I have been unsure about whether to blog about these topics – they are controversial and have been sufficiently reported by news outlets – but I have ultimately decided to do so because though neither event relates to me directly, both have had major indirect effects on my life here and my understanding of the country, and that’s what this blog is nominally about.

I’m unsure how many Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) there have been each year in Kazakhstan, but PCVs make up a significant portion of the young Americans here. Moreover, Peace Corps service appears to be one of the primary ways by which Americans discover Kazakhstan; corollary to this, a hefty percentage of Americans in Almaty are former PCVs who have returned to contribute to Kazakhstan in other capacities: public health, educational development, even working at hedge-funds.

Therefore, last week’s announcement (following several days of rumors) that Peace Corps would be shutting down came as a shock to the whole ex-pat community. The decision came after a series of alleged terrorist attacks (more about which below), which provided the primary public justification for the withdrawal. However, it is my understanding that the last 18 months have seen a rise in the frequency and severity of sexual assaults (including two rapes) committed against female PCVs in the more remote and less developed areas of the country. This comes at a time when the Peace Corps is already facing scrutiny over the support it offers volunteers who have been sexually assaulted.

But the worsening security situation for volunteers is only part of the problem. According to word-of-mouth reports, the Peace Corps has found itself in the middle of opaque political in-fighting. Apparently, certain ministries in the Kazakh government do not want PCVs running all over the country and having access to schools and students. Therefore, several months ago PCVs were removed from specific provinces in which those ministries were powerful; in other provinces, however, the pro-Peace Corps factions within the government protected the program. Evidently those forces have now lost out on the national level.

Oddly, this now means that Kyrgyzstan is the only country between Pakistan and Finland (if one moves north through the Central Asian corridor between China on one side and Iran and the Caspian on the other) in which the Peace Corps is operational. My sympathies also go out to the locals employed by the Peace Corps who are now out of jobs.

The second major event of recent weeks was a shooting in the southern Taraz (near the larger city of Shymkent) that killed 8: 5 state security personnel, 2 bystanders and the gunman himself. This is the most recent in a string of attacks almost exclusively targeting the state power structures (police, state security, etc.). The previously unknown Islamist group Jund al-Kalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) have claimed responsibility for some of these. What makes the Taraz shooting notable is that it is the first such event in southern Kazakhstan, and no Islamist group has yet come forward (to my knowledge).

This raises questions that have become standard fare for conversations between expats, between foreigners and Kazakh nationals, and, reportedly, amongst Kazakhs themselves. The most important of these questions, to my mind, is: Are all these events really [Islamist] “terrorist” attacks? After the first incidences of similar violence, which actually happened some years ago, the government was quick to deny that the perpetrators were Islamists, denying the existence of religious extremism on Kazakhstan’s soil and preferring to blame drug mafias and criminals. A small handful of Kazakhs with whom I’ve spoken believe that even this is an overstatement of the security situation, believing instead that the acts are in fact either 1,  funded by factions within the government to one or another unfathomable political aim; or 2, that they are the acts of desperate people who feel they are not receiving sufficient support from the state (as would have been provided under the Soviet Union).

Recently, however, the government apparently completed a reversal of its hear-no-terrorists, see-no-terrorists policy, now branding all violent attacks on Islamists. Thus a shooting of two policemen in Almaty in October, around the time of a suicide bombing in western Kazakhstan that killed only the bomber, was labeled a terrorist act even though it sounded to my [inexpert] ears more like a gang crime. The reasons for this about-face is unclear. Being seen as a country confronting a domestic terrorist threat has both advantages and disadvantages, and I guess the government has recalculated how best to turn lemons into lemonade.

Besides becoming the topic of constant conversation, the direct impact this has had upon life in Almaty is that security has been visibly ramped up: the state has adopted controversial new controls on religion and, unlike even a few short months ago, policemen (and apparent paramilitary forces) stand in groups of four at many of the major intersections. I do not believe that I am in any immediate danger in Almaty. First, none of the attacks have targeted foreigners in any sense, and second, the “terrorist-style” violence (if you will allow me this shorthand distinction) has occurred far away from Almaty (the map above demonstrates this). However, all this does make one a little bit nervous.

In sum, as a result of both these recent events, I have the overwhelming and ominous sense that things are happening in this country, both in society and within the government, that I do not understand and, moreover, that many Kazakhs (at least in Almaty) do not understand. Is terrorism on the rise or deep social discontent? Both would be significant. What are the government’s objectives in all of this? What are the factions within the government, and what are their respective aims? My inability to answer these questions is to be expected – not only did I only come here recently, but it is difficult to describe social phenomena as we live them. The upshot, however, is that now is certainly as interesting a time to be in Kazakhstan as any, and that I will remain safe and vigilant. Dad – don’t worry about me too much!

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