Kazakstan Closes Door on Chechens

Concern over relations with Moscow prompts Almaty to turn away Chechens fleeing Russian persecution.

Kazakstan Closes Door on Chechens

Concern over relations with Moscow prompts Almaty to turn away Chechens fleeing Russian persecution.

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

The asylum request, signed by 300 Chechen families now in refugee 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.

The petitioners claimed that Chechens living under Russian rule had become targets of an organised pogrom following the recent extremist attack on a Moscow theatre in which scores of people were killed.

"All over the territory of Russia persecution, illegal arrests and pogroms have begun," they wrote. "In this fateful hour, when the threat with of physical destruction hangs over the Chechen people, we have decided to turn to you as our final hope."

Implicitly rejecting the refugees' claims, Nazarbaev dismissed 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".

Nazarbaev made it clear he viewed Chechen immigration to Kazakstan as undesirable, adding that he hoped for a speedy return home of the 15,000 or so Chechens who have moved to the republic since 1994. "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.

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.

The Chechens regard Kazakstan as an attractive destination for historical reasons. Almost half a million were deported to Kazakstan in 1944 after Stalin abolished the autonomous Chechen-Ingush republic and accused the Chechens of collaboration with German occupation forces.

After 13 years of exile, Chechens were permitted to return home but many remained behind. More than 100,000 now live in Kazakstan and have Kazak citizenship. Many more moved there after war broke out in Chechnya in 1994, seeking refuge with their relatives. The authorities, however, denied them refugee status.

"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 an independent journalist in Kazakstan

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