By BAGILA BUKHARBAYEVA
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 16, 2006; 2:10 PM
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- They see themselves as patriots who shed blood for their freedom in a rebellion that foreshadowed the demise of the Soviet Union.
But the Kazakhs who took to the streets in mass protests in December 1986 were dismissed as drunkards and hooligans by the Communist authorities who crushed their uprising. Now, 20 years later, these middle-aged former rebels feel their sacrifice and struggle have never been recognized.
Instead, this weekend's anniversary of the revolt in Kazakhstan _ a nation that spans Central Asia's steppes from European Russia to the Chinese border _ is being kept low-key by a government with reason to tread cautiously.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan's no. 2 communist official when KGB forces were sent in to deal with the estimated 30,000 people who joined the protest of Dec. 17-18, 1986. Nazarbayev became the Communist Party chief in 1989, and has ruled the country as president since its independence in 1991.
Then there's neighboring Russia, still maneuvering to keep ex-Soviet satellites within its orbit and apt to use economic coercion, as it has shown in Ukraine and Georgia. Kazakh oil, the vast and arid nation's biggest export earner, flows through pipelines that cross Russia.
Moreover, about 30 percent of the population of 15 million is ethnic Russian, and may be antagonized by a lavish celebration of a resoundingly anti-Kremlin chapter of Kazakh history.
Memories of the protests run strong among Kazakhs, especially those from the generation of '86, who feel the whole truth of the country's 70 years under Soviet rule has not been told, nor any of its oppressors held to account.
The clash between public sentiment and the establishment was evident at one of the few low-profile events sanctioned by the state in memory of the uprising.
At a contest of poet-musicians, Rinat Shangayev sang that Almaty, the city swept by the 1986 rebellion, should be recognized as "the capital of freedom," and that "maybe we are not advancing as a country because truth isn't told openly."
The jury immediately asked him to stop, but the audience shouted "Go on!" and he did.
The 1986 protests, known simply as Zheltoksan (December), were triggered by Moscow's appointment of an ethnic Russian as Kazakhstan's Communist Party boss.
"We wanted to say that Kazakhs wanted to decide their fate by themselves," says Bakhytbek Imanqozha, one of the organizers of the protest who at the time was a 25-year-old arts student and today heads a public group called the Spirit of Zheltoksan.
Soldiers beat protesters with shovels and chased them with dogs; volunteers mobilized from factories in Almaty subdued protesters with iron rods and fire engines sprayed demonstrators with water in freezing temperatures.
Four years later, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Kazakh intellectuals convened a public commission that concluded that more than 1,700 protesters were injured, some 8,500 were detained, and dozens were jailed.
Mukhtar Shakhanov, the writer and lawmaker who headed the commission, said a KGB officer testified that 168 protesters were killed. But that figure remains unconfirmed, he said, as most material about Zheltoksan is in Moscow, locked in Communist Party and KGB archives.
That silence angers many Kazakhs. The opposition Svoboda Slova newspaper called last year for "our own Nuremberg trial" to define the role of Nazarbayev and other former Communist officials in putting down the uprising.
The state does not airbrush Zheltoksan out of history _ it recognizes the event as a struggle for independence. But Kazakh history textbooks devote only two paragraphs to it.
Highlighting the government's ambivalence, Kazakhstan only this year got a monument to the uprising, unveiled by Nazarbayev at a ceremony that was inconspicuous and was held in September _ well ahead of the anniversary.
Kazakh political analyst Eduard Poletayev says the government, which rules a flawed democracy and is accused of having authoritarian instincts, is wary of glorifying a movement that exercised the right of free speech and assembly.
"Recognizing leaders of a public protest as national heroes could be taken as encouragement of similar demonstrations against the present government," Poletayev said.