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Kazakstan Closes Door on Chechens

Concern over relations with Moscow prompts the Kazak authorities to turn away Chechens asking to return to a former place of exile
By Alexander Zakharov

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev has rejected an asylum plea from hundreds of Chechen refugees to keep relations with Russia on even keel.

The asylum request, signed by more than 1000 Chechen refugees now in camps in Ingushetia, and issued by the Russian human rights movement information centre and the Forum of Immigrant Organisations, was carried by Moscow news agencies on November 11.

It strikes a bitterly ironic note, as Kazakstan once had associations for Chechens as a place of exile, as almost 400,000 of them were deported to the Central Asian republic by Stalin in 1944.

Now the Chechen refugees living under Russian rule in Ingushetia say they have become targets of organized violent intimidation following the recent extremist attack on a Moscow theatre in which scores of people were killed.

"In this difficult hour historical memory prompts us to turn to the whole Kazak people, as represented by you with a request for help," the letter says. "Today Russia is infringing on the basic inalienable rights of refugees who, escaping the Russian military, have settled in open fields, taking shelter from the cold and the heat in old tents."

One of the organizers of the petition, Sulumbek Tashtamirov, said that on the night of November 11 federal soldiers, dug in near camps on the Chechen-Ingush border, had fired continuous salvoes of gunfire into the night sky, terrifying the refugees.

However President Nazarbayev implicitly rejected the Chechens' claims, dismissing the matter as an internal Russian affair, four days after the request was filed. Speaking at the opening of the Assembly of Peoples in the capital Astana, the president noted that the appeal had not even been filed to the Kazak leadership. In the event of a sudden influx of refugees, he added, "our authorities will make a decision only in consultation with Russia".

In a further bid to deter the refugees, government ministers have stressed that Kazakstan can't afford to support them. "There simply isn't enough money in the budget," said Ivan Otto, deputy interior minister.

After the Moscow attack led to an upsurge in Russian military activity in Chechnya, the government introduced measures, such as increasing the number of border patrols and frontier guards, to limit refugees attempting to reach Kazakstan.

More than 100,000 Chechens still live in Kazakstan and have Kazak citizenship.

Some of the petitioners in Ingushetia also have a strong case to make. Akmed Ismailov, for example, spent most of his life in Kazakstan. In 1957 he passed up the chance to return from exile to Chechnya, when the Chechens were pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev and allowed to go home. He finally returned in 1992, after Chechnya's unilateral declaration of independence.

Now, he lives in the Satsita refugee camp in Ingushetia and is among those facing an uphill struggle to get to Central Asia. "If you can call Chechnya our mother, then Ingushetia is a wicked stepmother," he said. "And Kazakstan is a kind wet-nurse."

Thousands of Chechens moved to Kazakstan after war broke out in Chechnya in 1994, seeking refuge with their relatives. The authorities, however, denied them refugee status and

Nazarbaev said he hoped for a speedy return home of the 15,000 or so Chechens who still remain from that time. "They are not Kazak citizens, they live in the hope that they will be able to return home and we will also hope for this," he said.

"Chechens cannot be considered refugees because Chechnya is part of Russia - they are not oppressed there or driven out," said Umerbai Musaev of the interior ministry's immigration department.

Otto said there was no obvious solution to the problem beyond permitting Chechen refugees to remain in the country on temporary permits. "They can extend their residence here every six months," he said. "Kazakstan cannot solve this problem in any other way, and Russian representatives refuse to discuss the topic."

The Chechens' uncertain legal status means few can find work or send their children to school in Kazkstan. Many have problems with the police over their lack of registration papers. "There are unjustified arrests of Chechens and searches of the places where they live," said Akkhmet Muradov, of Vainakh, a group set up to help Chechens in Kazakstan.

But police officials are unapologetic, saying their actions are needed to combat the threat posed by extremists. Vladimir Jumakanov, head of the government's anti-terror department, said illegal immigration endangered national security. "This process may be used by terrorist organisations to move their people to places where they plan outrages," he said.

Naturally, the Chechens resent these claims. "Most refugees are unlucky people who are forced to abandon their homes," said trader Shamil Makhmakhanov. And some local Kazaks seem to agree. According to conflict analyst Oleg Sidorov, "The presence of Chechens in the country does not worry local residents - only the officials."

Alexander Zakharov is a freelance journalist in Kazakstan. Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist working in Ingushetia.

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