It’s now been 10 months since the riots of Zhanaozen and Shetpe seared Kazakhstan’s Mangystau province, presenting the largest and most debilitating unrest the nation’s seen in 20 years of independence. We’ve seen authorities tried and jailed. We’ve seen governors ousted and resurrected. We’ve seen persecutions of both workers present and leaders abroad, and we’ve seen any nascent opposition to Nazarbayev cowed and imprisoned.
Ten months in, and the status quo remains, and strengthens.* Stability’s returned, on its face. Any opposition to Nazarbayev’s claque remains quiet and diffuse, struggling for a foothold, for an audience. Struggling for an opportunity to voice any of the dissension promised in the state’s constitution.
Struggling, now, to overcome the news of the death of Aleksandr Bozhenko.
You’ve likely not heard Bozhenko’s name before. I hadn’t, until this week, when his name started to crop in a few stories of murder in western Kazakhstan. According to the handful of reports now released, Bozhenko, who’d resided in Zhanaozen for the previous 20 years, was found beaten and bloodied on a dark street 10 days ago. He remained hospitalized and comatose for a handful of days, and passed away last Thursday. He was 23.
According to Guljan, Bozhenko was born and reared in an orphanage in town, eventually adopted by a local Kazakh family. Two days after the riot — it’s not clear what involvement Bozhenko had had on Dec. 16 — he was picked up by the police, questioned on his whereabouts and his actions and his acquaintances. While he was in police custody, Bozhenko, writes Miras Nurmukhanbetov, was “subjected to severe beatings and various tortures.”
They tried to break him. They tried what methods they could to whitewash him, or to terrify him into compliance. And they thought they had him, and were willing to send his confessions and testimonials public. But when called forth to testify in the trials that followed, Bozhenko bucked his role. Instead of bolstering the state’s case, or instead of merely remaining quiet, Bozhenko conveyed what had happened — not simply on the day of the riot, but in the days that followed. He described the hours and days spent in his interrogation cell. He detailed the torture. As EurasiaNet’s Joanna Lilllis reports,
Bozhenko, activist and trial monitor Galym Ageleuov told a press conference on October 15, was at one trial a prosecution witness who had incriminated civilians in the dock — but recanted his testimony in court and said it had been obtained under torture.
The man, it’d seem, had the temerity to not simply testify on behalf of the rioters and oil workers massacred by the security forces, but, alongside, to make his torture part of the public record. When asked about his testimony afterward, Bozhenko, a Muslim, was blunt:
I also stand before the Lord. … What will I tell him? … I promised God that I speak the truth! Bitter truth is better than sweet lies.
And so, Bozhenko lived with that testimony for nearly 10 months. He reportedly moved to a small hut outside the city, avoiding those who would wish him harm, knowing the risks carried by those who had stood in the state’s way in the days and weeks following. He wasn’t terribly vocal: He reportedly gave but one televised interview following the riots, with K-Plus. In that that interview, we see a man — a man whose face carries part concern, part ire; a man wearing an outfit that’d allow him to fit anonymously in any city across the region — discussing his experiences and his views publicly. We see a man whose life had shifted entirely since the events of a few months previous. We see a man recognizing that his life would be shadowed by his testimony, and shaded by the sights and experiences of the weeks following those riots in December. We see a man who’d be dead, just six months later.
As it is, the cause of Bozhenko’s death isn’t immediately clear. According to authorities, the 23-year-old’s brain hemorrhage was the result of a drunken encounter at one of the local magaziny. Bozhenko had apparently attempted to help a sloshed pair find an extra 50 tenge at a shop counter. The two reacted aversely to his charity, and a two-on-one brawl ensued. The pair of attackers left Bozhenko unconscious and hemorrhaged, and were later detained through the aid of a local taxi driver.
‘Pure hooliganism,’ said the police. Nothing to do with his testimony. Khooliganami. Could have happened anywhere. Could have happened to anyone.
But even if Bozhenko’s death wasn’t related to the riots, even if his passing isn’t linked to the testimony: it is. Or at least, the assumption is. The presumption will remain, that Bozhenko’s attackers were spurred and spawned by the boy’s bravery in recounting his tortures. Reports surround and buttress that connection: As Nurmukhanbetov wrote, authorities kept a ‘stubborn silence’ on Bozhenko’s death, and Azattyk’s correspondent couldn’t find a single Zhanaozen resident to ‘say anything definite’ on the matter. Plus, it’s not as if western Kazakhstan doesn’t already own a checkered record on dissident safety. Journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov, recent recipient of the Peter Mackler award, was nearly murdered last April, and the death last year of an 18-year-old girl can’t help but be tied to her father’s protestations prior to the riots.
So, no — no link’s emerged. And none likely will. But with that history — with Akhmedyarov; with the daughter; with Vladimir Kozlov — a proven link does not need to exist. The connection and the hearsay are sufficient, especially in a media landscape as increasingly oblique as Kazakhstan’s. Circumstance has become something more. And the opposition suffers, losing one of its most promising new voices. Losing one who’s known only independence, and Nazarbayev, and all the restriction and ramification his cortege creates. Losing one of a new generation of dissidence.
Bozhenko’s death may very well have come at the hands of a pair of hooligans, drunken and repugnant. But the state will take the rap. And that reputation that Nazarbayev had so skillfully crafted** over the past two decades continues to find itself pocked and punched, slipping further from his ideal. His image and his legacy continue to disintegrate, one dead dissident at a time.
Zhanaozen still reverberates, these 10 months on. Bozhenko’s death may not, technically, be the latest repercussion of the fallout from the riots, but it is yet another opportunity for us to revisit all the deadly, torturous missteps Astana’s taken since last December. It is, if nothing else, reason enough to keep Zhanaozen in the light. Bozhenko had relayed but a small slice of what had occurred in the riot’s aftermath. But his departure gives us a chance, once more, to reexamine those events, and to see all the bitter truths that remain.
*That shuffling? Window dressing. Notable, I suppose, for Nazarbayev’s continued awareness as to who among his circle may carry any weight — seems Aslan Musin’s presence had grown a bit cumbersome for Nazarbayev’s liking — but it’s merely yet another instance of the president keeping his élites on their toes.
**This announcement comes concurrent to a pair of welcome bits of information swirling Astana. Firstly, French President Francois Hollande has announced plans to head to Astana in 2013, his first visit to Central Asia since taking office. Secondly, as Lillis once more reports, Kashagan is finally entering its final stages of production. Both augment Kazakhstan’s international credibility within economic circles. But any gain will, or should, be offset by this further erosion of any form of democratic dissent. One step forward, one step more to revisit the events of December 2011.