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The Rocky Road to Independence

Kazakhstan both reflected and played a part in the events which culminated in the break-up of the Soviet Union and its own independence.

From the moment Mikhail Gorbachev took over as Secretary of the Soviet Communist party - on March 11, 1985 - he knew that the USSR could not continue as it had for the previous nearly seven decades.

Yes he intended it to survive. Perestroika - reconstruction - was inescapable. But the manner of reconstruction was to prove indefinable. It was to involve devolution, yes, and a wider measure of consent; it was also to admit glasnost - 'openness' - which is to say the transparency of authority and a (relative) freedom of popular expression. But the combination of those two forces were not envisaged as being incompatible with the centralised imperium of Moscow, political and economic.

The people of the Soviet Union knew differently, albeit instinctively. Gorbachev's placeman in Almaty, Gennady Kolbin, was appointed to introduce the new liberality: his regime was born in the teeth of mass, mid-winter demonstrations in the capital, on December 16, 1986, which provoked a characteristically Soviet-style response. Many scores of those prominent in the essentially spontaneous popular protest in Brezhnev Square (as the plaza overlooked by the Central Committee's building was known) were arrested; several (to this day the number is imprecise) were made to disappear, two were killed on the streets and some two hundred injured by snow shovels and truncheons wielded by those in uniform. Dozens were imprisoned, and some two thousand may have been otherwise punished or dismissed from their jobs.

But the seeds of a specifically Kazakh self-determination and democracy had been sown. And in the summer of 1989, the 49-year-old chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Soviet Republic, Nursultan Nazarbayev, took over the top job - as Party leader.

Soon enough (by April 1990) the leaders of all the constituent Republics had become their countries' nominal Presidents. Yet the momentum was far from spent. The conversion from a centralised to a free- market economy was proving far too cumbersome and universally damaging, with rocketing prices in the shops and a dearth of staple consumer items. Already, five years to the day after Gorbachev's accession to power - on March 11, 1990 - Lithuania had announced its independence, to be followed by Latvia and Estonia, in spite of the activity of Soviet tanks and a final scattering of martyrdoms in the cause of nationhood in the streets of their capitals. The previous year, the Soviet satellites of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Balkan States had abandoned their subservience to Moscow, whether as democracie tyrannies. The centre longer holding.

In Moscow, the former party chief of the city, Boris Yeltsin, had emerged as the overwhelmingly popular and defiant champion of a speeded-up dismentling of the economic apparatus of the State and the acquisition of democratic freedoms. Under the constitutional reforms of 1990, he had become become President of Russia. Meanwhile, in September 1990, the Kazakh Parliament drafted a declaration of sovereignty, asserting the authority of its own laws over those of Moscow.

Gorbachev, as President of the Soviet Union, vacillated. A reformer at heart, he nonetheless recoiled at what he saw as impending chaos. Early in 1991 - again in March - he attempted to ban the Moscow rally called by Yeltsin. The entire apparatus of the State was now aware that jobs were at risk. That June, the Union treaty with the Republics was scheduled to be rewritten, vastly diminishing Moscow's formal authority. Gorbachev was warned of a reactionary conspiracy, but disregarded the warning. In the high summer, he took his wife Raisa on holiday at the presidential dacha at Foros, in the Crimea. It was August, 1991.

On August 17, a Saturday, Yeltsin had flown to Almaty for discussions with Nazarbayev. On Sunday, the plotters in Moscow, bent on the restoration of Soviet authority throughout Russia and the empire, made their move in secrecy and silence. In the Crimea, Gorbachev discovered that all five telephone lines at his disposal had been cut off when his chief of staff, Valery Boldin, entered his room unexpectedly to tell him that he, Gorbachev, was to sign a decree declaring a State of Emergency giving power to an Emergency Committee, headed by Gennady Yanayev, the Union's Vice-President. Gorbachev refused. He and his wife were under virtual arrest: anything could happen.

That evening, in Almaty, Nazarbayev and Yeltsin were oblivious of these events. Yeltsin was due to return for the three-hour flight to Moscow leaving Almaty at five p.m. The flight path traversed the skies above the Soviet Army's base at Aktobe, where a special detachment had been instructed to shoot down the aircraft passing overhead at the anticipated hour of six p.m. Kazakh hospitality providentially delayed the Russian President's departure until eight p.m.; and when at last the aircraft overflew Aktobe at nine p.m., the would-be gunners had been stood down.

At 6.30 a.m. Moscow time the next morning, the plotters announced the takeover by the 'Emergency Committee' on the grounds of Gorbachev's incapacity through 'sickness'. Back in Almaty, Nazarbayev and his wife heard the news on a radio bulletin from Moscow. Within half an hour, Nazarbayev was on the telephone to Yeltsin, who was not yet detained. The Russian said, 'I will try to go down to the White House [the site of Parliament], We should take a stand together against this State of Emergency Committee.' Yeltsin indeed made it to the precincts of Parliament, where a vast crowd had begun to assemble. He clambered atop a tank to address them. Ex-soldiers, students, the common people from priests to pensioners, responded to his call to besiege the White House from where the plotters presumed to exercise their Union-wide authority.

That afternoon, Yanayev's group of eight appeared on state television, claiming State of Emergency authority but manifestly nervous. That same evening Nazarbayev went on state television in Kazakhstan to denounce the coup.

At Yeltsin's request, he had telephoned both the Deputy Defence Minister of the Union and the head of the KGB to give his own views and those of his fellow Republican leaders whom he had already consulted by telephone - views to the effect that support for the plotters against the people would not be accepted or indeed tolerated by the Republics.

By now, the people of Moscow were swarming the streets. The Emergency Committee curfew that night was disregarded. The military were visibly beginning to turn. By the Wednesday, Yeltsin announced that the coup leaders were on the run. One of them, Boris Pugo, the Union's Interior Minister, shot himself. The others were arrested. Yeltsin sent to fetch Gorbachev from the Crimea. Gorbachev, reconnected with the outside world, had already telephoned Nazarbayev, who has recalled that 'when the long awaited call came through from Foros, my joy knew no bounds. I find it difficult to reconstruct that conversation, so powerful were the emotions that I felt at that moment.' Gorbachev had asked Nazarbayev to thank the people ot Kazakhstan for their loyalty to the principles of freedom and democracy and to their lawfully elected representatives.

The Soviet leader was to remain in formal office for another sixteen weeks, but essentially powerless. By the end of August, Yeltsin had signed the decree 'suspending' the activities of the Russian Communist party. The failed coup had effectively overtaken the impending revision of the Union treaty.

Those ensuing weeks were filled with intense activity for Kazakhstan and its leadership in the dismantling of empire and the establishment of its own true governmental autonomy. Yet once again events - and Boris Yeltsin - were to upstage a relatively orderly process leading to sovereignty for the twelve remaining republics of the Union. As late as the second week ol December, it was widely expected - including in Almaty - that the Union would remain as some sort of entity. Yet on December S, arriving in Moscow, Nazarbayev was to receive a telephone call from Yeltsin, then in Belarus. 'Come over and join us' said the Russian President, referring to himself and Leonid Kravchuk of Belarus. 'We have just created the Commonwealth of Independent States.' With characteristic impetuosity Yeltsin urged Nazarbayev to fly in and countersign a document ot total devolution there and then, virtually unread. Yet kev issues - the army, citizenship, and not least nuclear weapons - had been scarcely addressed.