There’s never a good time to be the victim of a terrorist attack, but two mysterious bombings last month in Kazakhstan hit the country at a particularly awkward moment.
The bombings come as the country moves forward with a plan to send peacekeepers to join the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Kazakh government, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has in the past argued that the deployment to Afghanistan would contribute to, not diminish, Kazakhstan’s security, making last month’s two strikes particularly difficult to stomach.
The first of the two bombs struck the western city of Aktobe on May 17. The bombing had the additional dubious distinction of being Kazakhstan’s first ever suicide attack. The target was a facility belonging to the Committee of National Security, the Kazakhstani version of the KGB. The alleged bomber, Rakhymzhan Orynbasarovich Makhatov, proved to be the only fatality, though three bystanders were injured.
Mahatov’s family blames his shift to radicalism on his wife, who was detained by police following the bombing. Mahatov, if official versions of his story are to be believed, was a failed musician of sorts, and after marrying a devout woman is said to have become more religious himself.
There’s no doubt that Islam is far more seductive in Western Kazakhstan than other parts of the country, and mosques in the region tend to be fuller than those elsewhere in the country. Western Kazakhstan is also close to the Russian controlled North Caucasus, where traditional Islam has been flourishing. Indeed, some Kazakhs have in recent years joined the anti-Russian insurgency in the region.
On May 25, the Imam of Aktobe was removed from his post by the Religious Board of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, a move Aktobe locals say was linked to the May 17 suicide bombing. But although Mahatov appears to have avoided attending mosques, the Kazakh government is concerned that ‘underground mosques’ in the form of informal prayer rooms – the kind Mahatov is said to have frequented – foster extremist ideologies.
As government authorities rushed to downplay the Mahatov bombing, a second, even more mysterious, car bombing hit Astana on May 23. Two bodies were found at the blast site in the capital, which took place close to an internal security facility. Local authorities have been slow to label either incident as terrorism. Mahatov, they said, was a common criminal, and the bombing in Astana was a mere accident. But it’s unusual for automobiles and individuals to ‘spontaneously combust,’ even in authoritarian countries.
The two bombings could not come at a more awkward time for the 70-year-old president.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1987, surprised many when he announced that Kazakhstan would join the ISAF force in Afghanistan (although for now, just four military specialists will make up the deployment). Nazarbayev has long relied on international affairs to support his domestic legitimacy, with perhaps the most dramatic example of this being the lavish attention the Kazakh government paid to hosting the December 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. The meeting was the first OSCE summit in more than a decade, and Nazarbayev rigorously promoted the event domestically. Kazakh language media, for example, featured stories on new-borns named ‘Summit,’ and observers noted that promotional material for the event could even be found on milk cartons.
At the Summit, the Kazakh delegation reiterated that stability in Afghanistan is vital to greater stability to Central Asia. But the international community was far less thrilled by Kazakhstan’s presidential election earlier this year. The snap poll is widely seen as having failed to meet international democratic standards, with Nazarbayev winning a million more votes than during his 2005 effort.
The snap poll was designed to head off discontent in the country, and followed a failed effort to extend his rule without an election. Stability is frequently on the minds of Central Asia's despots these days, with fears growing that an ‘Arab Spring’ could become an endless summer.
Nazarbayev hopes that sending soldiers to the war in Afghanistan will improve his standing abroad and thus contribute to overall regime stability, despite some muted domestic opposition. Some Kazakh veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan have already voiced their opposition to the move, while the Afghan Taliban has, predictably, responded to the announcement by threatening Kazakhstan.
Ironically, it was Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s own 2008 peace plan that called for more Muslim peacekeepers in the country. Kazakhstan will become the eighth Muslim majority country to join the ISAF mission. And, while Taliban threats carry more weight following last month’s bombings, the group must also know that Kazakhstan – far from the international spotlight – would make a poor target for a terrorist operation. Indeed, videos of Kazakh-speaking al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan suggest there could be more Kazakhs fighting against the ISAF presence than with it.
Ultimately, though, Kazakhstan’s continued logistical support to ISAF is far more important to the mission than a few military specialists in Kabul. For centuries, the yurt (a mobile tent dwelling) has been a symbol of the Kazakh way of life – so much so that the modern Kazakh Army often brings a ceremonial yurt along on military operations.
Nazarbayev knows that planting a Kazakh yurt in Afghanistan might not help improve Kazakhstan’s relationship with the West. But it certainly won’t hurt, either.
Joseph Hammond is a Cairo-based correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.