Reform and Nationalist Conflict
The 1980s brought glimmers of political independence, as well
as conflict, as the central government's hold progressively weakened.
In this period, Kazakstan was ruled by a succession of three Communist
Party officials; the third of those men, Nursultan Nazarbayev,
continued as president of the Republic of Kazakstan when independence
was proclaimed in 1991.
In December 1986, Soviet premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office
1985-91) forced the resignation of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, an ethnic
Kazak who had led the republic as first secretary of the CPK from
1959 to 1962, and again starting in 1964. During 1985, Kunayev
had been under official attack for cronyism, mismanagement, and
malfeasance; thus, his departure was not a surprise. However,
his replacement, Gennadiy Kolbin, an ethnic Russian with no previous
ties to Kazakstan, was unexpected. Kolbin was a typical administrator
of the early Gorbachev era--enthusiastic about economic and administrative
reforms but hardly mindful of their consequences or viability.
The announcement of Kolbin's appointment provoked spontaneous
street demonstrations by Kazaks, to which Soviet authorities responded
with force. Demonstrators, many of them students, rioted. Two
days of disorder followed, and at least 200 people died or were
summarily executed soon after. Some accounts estimate casualties
at more than 1,000.
Kunayev had been ousted largely because the economy was failing.
Although Kazakstan had the third-largest gross domestic product
(GDP--see Glossary) in the Soviet Union, trailing only Russia
and Ukraine, by 1987 labor productivity had decreased 12 percent,
and per capita income had fallen by 24 percent of the national
norm. By that time, Kazakstan was underproducing steel at an annual
rate of more than a million tons. Agricultural output also was
While Kolbin was promoting a series of unrealistic, Moscow-directed
campaigns of social reform, expressions of Kazak nationalism were
prompting Gorbachev to address some of the non-Russians' complaints
about cultural self-determination. One consequence was a new tolerance
of bilingualism in the non-Russian regions. Kolbin made a strong
commitment to promoting the local language and in 1987 suggested
that Kazak become the republic's official language. However, none
of his initiatives went beyond empty public-relations ploys. In
fact, the campaign in favor of bilingualism was transformed into
a campaign to improve the teaching of Russian.
While attempting to conciliate the Kazak population with promises,
Kolbin also conducted a wholesale purge of pro-Kunayev members
of the CPK, replacing hundreds of republic-level and local officials.
Although officially "nationality-blind," Kolbin's policies seemed
to be directed mostly against Kazaks. The downfall of Kolbin,
however, was the continued deterioration of the republic's economy
during his tenure. Agricultural output had fallen so low by 1989
that Kolbin proposed to fulfill meat quotas by slaughtering the
millions of wild ducks that migrate through Kazakstan. The republic's
industrial sector had begun to recover slightly in 1989, but credit
for this progress was given largely to Nursultan Nazarbayev, an
ethnic Kazak who had become chairman of Kazakstan's Council of
Ministers in 1984.
As nationalist protests became more violent across the Soviet
Union in 1989, Gorbachev began calling for the creation of popularly
elected legislatures and for the loosening of central political
controls to make such elections possible. These measures made
it increasingly plain in Kazakstan that Kolbin and his associates
soon would be replaced by a new generation of Kazak leaders.
Rather than reinvigorate the Soviet people to meet national
tasks, Gorbachev's encouragement of voluntary local organi-zations
only stimulated the formation of informal political groups, many
of which had overtly nationalist agendas. For the Kazaks, such
agendas were presented forcefully on national television at the
first Congress of People's Deputies, which was convened in Moscow
in June 1989. By that time, Kolbin was already scheduled for rotation
back to Moscow, but his departure probably was hastened by riots
in June 1989 in Novyy Uzen, an impoverished western Kazakstan
town that produced natural gas. That rioting lasted nearly a week
and claimed at least four lives.
Data as of March 1996