Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Officials Quiet on Uzbek Unrest

The violence in Andijan has received a muted response in neighbouring Kazakstan, which has focused on protecting its borders.
By Eduard Poletaev

Although Kazakstan’s reaction to the violence in neighbouring Uzbekistan has so far been measured, the authorities are keeping a close watch on the country’s borders as Uzbeks try to escape the troubles at home.


A border source said over 300 people were arrested last week attempting to enter Kazakstan illegally, compared with the five or six usually detained each day.


Uzbekistan has closed its frontier with Kazakstan, which quickly placed its law enforcement authorities on alert following the violence in Andijan.


This has led to a boom for those who arrange illegal crossings.


“You get the feeling that everyone has decided to make money out of events in Andijan. The prices for crossing the border illegally have soared. They now ask double what they used to,” said one Uzbek citizen.


Andrei Chebotarev, coordinator of the National Research Institute, expects illicit migration into Kazakstan will increase as a result of the events in Andijan, “creating a certain tension both on the border and within the republic”.


Even those with legitimate reasons for going to Uzbekistan are being turned away. Businessman Bakhyt tried to drive to Tashkent on company business, but was not allowed through despite showing documents proving that he worked with Uzbek colleagues.


“The Kazakstan border guards would not let me through, saying they’d had orders from their superiors,” said Bakhyt. “I have been visiting Tashkent frequently for many years. This is the first time I have encountered this situation.”


Despite the tension on the border, Kazakstan has so far opted for a restrained approach in dealing with a possible influx.


“The measures taken by the law-enforcement bodies of Kazakstan are quite timely and effective. I do not believe that is any need yet for fresh actions by our state,” said the deputy secretary of Kazakstan’s Security Council, Saidmurat Tanibergen.


Security officials are taking their cue from President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who made no public mention of Uzbekistan in meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on May 17, and with Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko the following day.


With a few exceptions, response to the Uzbek uprising among opposition politicians and civil society organisations has been generally low-key.


One strong statement came from the opposition Alga DCK, which demanded that the Kazak president and government “issue an official protest to the authorities in Uzbekistan against the mass murders of citizens, and demand that they stop repression, and hold an investigation and an open trial to punish those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people”.


On May 18, around 30 young people handed over several dozen paper birds at the Uzbek embassy in Almaty, in a gesture of support for those who died in Andijan.


Three days earlier, the previously unknown Almaty Youth Independent Coordinating Council criticised the Uzbek president and expressed solidarity with the people of Uzbekistan.


“We call on the citizens of Central Asia to express their lack of confidence in President Islam Karimov and urge the international community to remind him that wherever he may be, he is personally responsible for the acts committed in Andijan,” said the council’s statement.


Ethnic Uzbeks in Kazakstan, meanwhile, think the people of Andijan were hostages to a hopeless situation.


“To overthrow a regime hated by the people, Uzbek provincial residents are prepared to support anyone – Islamists, the secular opposition, even punk rockers – as long as there is a change of power in Tashkent,” said Shymkent resident Bahadyr Abdullaev, who often visits family in Uzbekistan.


Businessman Nemat Mirzahojaev, another Uzbek living in Shymkent, understands the protesters’ motives and is just glad his home is in Kazakstan.


“Not only does the population of Uzbekistan live in poverty, they are subject to the lawless actions of bureaucrats and policemen. Any nation is going to rise up against the authorities in circumstances like that,” he said.


“We Uzbeks of Kazakstan are of course suffering heart and soul for our brothers. But we won’t interfere in the affairs of another country and we don’t have the right to do so. Our home is Kazakstan.”


Maksut Sarsenov of the Association of Political Scientists and Sociologists of Kazakstan, said tension between the two countries – traditionally focused on Kazakstan’s response to the presence of Islamic radicals on its territory – could now take a different turn.


“While the criticism used to be that Astana did not do enough to fight terrorism in the region, now we may expect criticism relating to the [very] presence of Muslim believers in Kazakstan,” said Sarsenov.


Despite pressure from Karimov to crack down, Sarsenov believes that Kazakstan will not increase pressure on religious groups and will maintain its current position, which by regional standards counts as relatively liberal.


“It is unlikely that Astana will indulge Tashkent on this matter,” he said.


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR country director for Kazakstan. Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game