Prague, 17 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Ten years ago this week, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kazakhstan's capital Almaty in a spontaneous uprising which many analysts later came to see as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
Five years later, the USSR fell apart and the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic became an independent state. But it is only now that the events of December 1986 are being fully examined, and only now that their pivotal significance is being fully appreciated.
Up to 30,000 people thronged the streets of Almaty December 17-18, 1986 to protest Moscow's sudden decision to replace Kazakhstan's long-time Communist Party leader, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, with an unknown Party boss from another region, Gennady Kolbin. The state-run media immediately tried to portray the protesters as nationalist trouble-makers. Kunayev was an ethnic-Kazakh, and Kolbin an ethnic-Russian. But participants and witnesses say the protest was not mainly driven by nationalist fervor, but rather by anger at Moscow's arbitrary control over local politics. What enraged protesters was not so much the fact that the Kremlin's new appointee was an ethnic-Russian, but the fact that he was from Russia. There was no greater demonstration of Moscow's colonial arrogance than its dispatching of a Party bureaucrat with no knowledge of Kazakhstan to rule from Almaty.
As the U.S.-based human rights organization Helsinki Watch later wrote in its report on the incident, "The December events" ushered in a new chapter of unrest in Soviet history, marked by a mixture of political, economic and nationalist grievances.
December 18, KGB troops and police with shovels, dogs and water cannons were dispatched to break up the demonstration. They arrested more than 2,000 people, beat hundreds of others and killed at least three. A number of demonstrators were driven out of the city, stripped, and forced to walk back to town in sub-zero temperatures. An official report, whose findings were made public in 1992, estimated that as many as 100 of these people froze to death.
It was not until three years later, in 1989, that a Kazkah deputy to the newly elected Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow, called for the truth to be revealed. Kazakh poet and politician Mukhtar Shakhanov created a special commission, which began to uncover the real extent of police brutality and the subsequent repression of protesters, hundreds of whom were imprisoned or lost jobs. The Shakhanov commission disproved the Kremlin's assertion that the demonstration had been just a nationalist outburst.
Eventually, the commission was discouraged from probing further. By then, anti-Moscow autonomy movements were growing in the Caucasus, the Baltics and Ukraine. When the Russian Republic, led by Boris Yeltsin, finally rejected the Kremlin's authority, the Soviet Union collapsed. The curtain came down in Moscow, but the first act had opened in Almaty.
This week, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Nation to Kayrat Ryskulbekov, a participant in the December, 1986 demonstration. Ryskulbekov was arrested by the authorities and later found hanged in his jail cell. Former demonstrators have now united into an organization called "Jeltoqsan," or "December." And Kazakh movie maker Qaldybay Abenov has just released a film devoted to the topic.
Nevertheless, many of those who came out to protest on those December days ten years ago, say justice has still not been done. Not a single official has been charged in connection with the violent crushing of the demonstration. Indeed, many of those in office at the time continue to remain in government, including President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself.