Staunton, December 17 – Yesterday, Nursultan Nazarbayev commemorated the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence (centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1481876040), but today is an even more important anniversary: the 30th of the bloody suppression of protests following Moscow’s replacement of an ethnic Kazakh with an ethnic Russian as party secretary there.
On December 17, 1986, thousands of residents of Kazakhstan’s largest cities, including both ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians, came into the streets to protest the sacking of longtime republic CPSU first secretary Dinmukhamed Kunayev and the installation of an ethnic Russian Gennady Kolbin who had earlier been a Russian second secretary in the Georgian SSR.
Moscow dispatched forces to suppress the demonstrators and reportedly more than 200 were killed as a result. And that event more than any other suggested to many around the world that the USSR was truly “the evil empire” US President Ronald Reagan had described it as four years earlier and that as an empire, it was fated to fall apart.
But more than that, the events in Kazakhstan’s cities 30 years ago showed three reasons why that collapse was likely to happen sooner rather than later and thus simultaneously energized movements in other Soviet republics and the occupied Baltic countries and ensured that “the nationality question” would no longer be treated as something marginal in the West.
First, these events demonstrated that Mikhail Gorbachev did not understand the nature of USSR over which he ruled and was ready to violate the rules of the game that had emerged over the previous decades. Under Brezhnev, the non-Russian republics had gotten used to the idea that the leader of their lands should be a member of the titular nationality even if real power resided with a Russian number two.
Gorbachev claimed at the time that he had to install Kolbin as party leader because there were no qualified Kazakhs for the job, an insult that he made worse by immediately having an ethnic Kazakh named as second secretary. If that individual deserved that post, why, many asked there and elsewhere, couldn’t he have the top job?
Some in the West and in Moscow celebrated Gorbachev’s “nationality blind” approach as a step forward toward a situation in which ethnicity would play a lesser role and the much ballyhooed “Soviet people” would take on more content; but Gorbachev’s clumsiness in this and other cases vitiated any possibility of a positive outcome.
Second, as few in the West were prepared to acknowledge at the time but as ever more evidence has piled up since that time, the clashes in Kazakhstan’s cities were not simply between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians but between members of both groups who had enjoyed preferences under Kunayev and those who thought they’d be better off under someone else.
That may sound like a small thing, but in fact it was vitally important for the future of Kazakhstan and of the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it showed that the elites in the republics had succeeded in forming a political base that was larger than ethnicity, something critical in places like Kazakhstan, where the titular nationality was outnumbered by ethnic Russians.
And on the other, the formation of such unions meant that the ground had been laid for ethnic Russians to join the titular nationalities in the republics in pressing for greater powers and ultimately independence. Had the nationality question in Gorbachev’s time simply been between ethnic Russians and non-Russians, 1991 would likely have been very different and more bloody.
Finally, third, the events of December 17th 30 years ago, call attention to one of the most serious problems in understanding what happened in the Soviet Union and what is happening in the Russian Federation: the tendency in Moscow and the West to pay attention to a problem only when it sparks violence.
Had Moscow and the West 30 years ago been paying broader attention to the nationality issues in the USSR and were they paying broader attention to similar issues now, they would have seen and would see now that the violence they attend to highlights problems and may accelerate the process but is not necessarily the most important thing going on.
Except where Moscow either encouraged violence as in Armenia and Azerbaijan or used it so many other places, most Soviet republics moved toward independence without it as those who did keep track of such things were aware. And today, although violence in the North Caucasus and its suppression gets the most attention, arguably there are other places that matter more for fate of the Russian Federation.
Among them are the republics of the Middle Volga, Tuva, Buryatia, and what may surprise people most, predominantly ethnic Russian regions whose populations are also being driven away by Moscow’s arrogance and disdain just as rapidly as any non-Russian nation or republic.
That is the real lesson of December 17, 1986, even if it is one that still needs to be learned in the Russian capital and the West.