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Kazaks Flee South in Droves

Whether fearing poverty or the spread of Islamic militancy, thousands are fleeing from southern regions
By Bakhytjamal Bekturganova

Thousands are migrating from their homes in the southern provinces to the country's safer and more prosperous cities. The influx has prompted fears of social, economic and political strife.

Moving to Almaty can mean encountering house prices twenty to hundred times higher than the homes they leave behind. Without money, jobs or prospects many are reduced to vagrancy, panhandling their way through city streets.

The authorities are keen to keep the true number of migrants under wraps. Official figures for the movement of people is low, but anyone in Astana, Almaty or Ust-Kamenogorsk will tell you it's a huge problem.

One of the main reasons for the government wanting to hide the scale of the exodus is that a significant proportion of the migrants are probably fleeing because of the threat posed by Islamic fighters, who, in recent years, have launched numerous raids into neighbouring Kyryzstan and Uzbekistan. The authorities are reluctant to admit to this because it might spread further panic in border areas.

"It's not clear yet whether the Wahabbis will come," said Petr Svoik, an analyst at the weekly Megapolis magazine, referring to the Islamic fighters. "Nevertheless, the worry that they might is enough for people to take to their heels."

Military expert Asker Bakaev believes the army faces a formidable challenge in the south and believes events will be shaped by what happens between the Taliban and opposition forces in the north of Afghanistan. He believes that if the former capture the region, completing their conquest of the country, then Juma Namangani and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, who sought refuge in Taliban-controlled territory, will be better placed to launch incursions into neighbouring Central Asian states.

Bakaev says the Kazak military are ill-equipped to deal with the IMU's guerrilla tactics. And he understands why people are frightened. "If Namangani's followers turn up, then the first ones to suffer will be those who do not practice the Muslim religion," he said.

This is why, he says, Russians and Slavs are leaving en masse. But he warns that Kazaks too have reason to be fearful. "Kazaks will not be spared by the terrorists because many do not follow the rules of the Sharia, pray five times a day, or wear Islamic clothes."

Dinara Abenova's mother moved both her and her sister to Almaty, anxious, like many Taraz residents, about the large army presence in the town. "Only those who can afford to leave at any time are calm," she said. Abenova says people talk of nothing else but the possible appearance of "the mujahideen" and the fact they have no faith in the army to protect them.

While fear of incursions ranks high on people's motivation to up stakes and migrate north, there are other factors to be taken into consideration. "One mustn't discount the catastrophic social situation in the south as well," said Seidakhmet Kuttykadam, an opposition political leader. He lists problems such as the high birth-rate, lack of jobs, destroyed infrastructure and lack of water. Add all these together, he says, "then you'll get a clear idea of the causes of migration".

And frictions are growing as people in the north begin to resent the growing tide of migrants. "I feel like the whole of Taraz and Shymkent has moved to Almaty," said Liudmila Korzh, an unemployed Almaty resident. She argues that jobs are being taken by southerners at the expense of locals.

Kojabai, a taxi-driver, who works in Kokshetau believes that frictions are intensifying. He tells the story of how a high-ranking tax official reported as having been killed during a violent argument over a traffic accident. Kojabai says that this is the official version and that most people believe that he was beaten to death by traffic cops because he was a southerner.

Southern Kazakstan may not yet have become a centre of public unrest and the threat of military conflict may just be a peripheral concern for people elsewhere in the republic where the daily struggle to make ends meet takes precedence. Nevertheless, migration from south to north is in full swing and could well have serious repercussions.

Bakytjamal Bekturganova is president of the Association of Sociologists and PoliticalAnalysts