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Kazakstan: Ethnic Clash a Worrying Sign

Recurring conflicts suggest officials should be keeping a close watch on ethnic tensions.
By IWPR Central Asia
Sporadic clashes involving different ethnic groups in Kazakstan suggest that the authorities are failing to manage intercommunal tensions and work towards better integration, say analysts.

Over the last two years, a number of incidents that initially had no ethnic dimension have blown up into broader clashes between people divided along ethnic lines.

In the most recent case, rioting broke out in the village of Mayatas in the South Kazakstan region, after a 16-year-old Kurdish male was accused of sexually assaulting a four-year-old Kazak boy. After the child’s father reported the alleged attack to police on October 28, local Kurds suffered arson attacks which continued for three days.

According to local news agencies, the majority of Kurds fled the village.

Hanush Usenov, the grandfather of the teenager accused of the crime, said his family members were unable to leave because when they tried to do so, they were set upon.

“First they threw stones at our windows, and then they jumped over the fence, poured petrol on a hut and a truck full of things, and set fire to them. We tried to resist, but we couldn’t stop them. My son was hospitalised because they beat him up,” he said.

Usenov alleged that the police failed to provide security to Kurdish villagers when the violence erupted, “The police saw it, but did nothing. They were here but they did not protect us. These ‘guardians’ simply stood to one side and watched.”

The homes of many other Kurdish families were also attacked.

Myrza Afendiev, whose house was razed to the ground, described the attack to IWPR, “They brought some straw, put it on our house and poured petrol on it. I begged them not to. I said, “Children, don’t burn me out! I’m old - where will I go? I am guilty of nothing!’

“They punched me and I fell over. And then they wouldn’t let me put the fire out. They waited for a couple of hours until everything had burned to ashes.”

Although police report that the attacks on property began on October 31, local people say the violence started on October 28, when the alleged sexual assault was first reported to the police.

In a press release, the Kazak interior ministry reported seven incidents in which one house and several outbuildings, cars and haystacks were burned to the ground. The press release also said that two local citizens of unspecified ethnicity were beaten up and three policemen suffered injuries while attempting to restore order.

Police were drafted in to patrol the streets of Mayatas.

On November 15, the regional prosecutor’s office reported that a 16-year-old suspect of Kurdish ethnicity had been charged with rape, and 18 people suspected of involvement in attacks on property in Mayatas had been detained.

Interviewed by local journalists on November 6, the head of the Association of Kurds of Kazakstan, Nadir Nadirov, accused local government officials of failing to prevent a localised incident from triggering broader conflict between Kazaks and Kurds.

“When there’s a crime, it shouldn’t [be allowed to] grow into interethnic hostility,” he said.

While the South Kazakstan regional police department says there has been no further trouble since the incident in Mayatas, Nadirov told the internet news service that ethnic Kurds in other villages were still being targeted in arson attacks.

“After the lootings of houses in Mayatas, the wave of arson spilled over to other villages and other regions including Shymkent and Jambyl,” he said in the interview, published on November 19.

“I’ve met people in villages where there was trouble. They told me their houses were burned, their children were attacked, and they themselves were threatened and told to leave their villages immediately.”

Observers say the case of Mayatas reflects a worrying trend where crimes or personal disputes rapidly escalate into fighting between members of different communities. In an ethnically diverse country that has managed to maintain a good deal of harmony since independence in 1991, local and national officials may have taken their eye off the ball.

In March, a billiard-room brawl between two villagers in the Almaty region – one an ethnic Kazak and the other a Chechen – grew into a street fight involving 200 people from the two communities. Shots were fired and three people died. (See Kazakstan: Village Brawl Reverberates in Halls of Power, RCA No. 487, 23-Mar-07.)

In October 2006, a fight broke out between hundreds of Turkish expatriates and local workers at an oil facility belonging to the Tengizchevroil company in the Atyrau region of western Kazakstan. At least 100 people were taken to hospital in rioting which, according to local reports, began when a Kazak worker tried to push into a queue for lunch.

Two months later, a brawl in a café in Chilik, a town in Almaty region in the east, triggered clashes between Kazaks and Uighurs.

Political scientist Eduard Poletaev, the chief editor of the Mir Yevrasii journal, said that recurring outbreaks of ethnic violence posed a “serious challenge” to the authorities and raised questions about the performance of officials responsible for security and stability.

Poletaev argued that the authorities have only made superficial attempts to integrate its ethnic minorities.

“The problem is that everything is kept at a declarative level. The organisations responsible for ensuring ethnic harmony concern themselves mainly with arranging performances in national costume on holidays,” he said.

He believes some of the current conflicts can be traced all the way back to the forced displacement of several ethnic groups by Joseph Stalin.

“Ethnic groups who were moved to an alien environment were forced to acquire lucrative jobs and trade on the black market. This sparked a negative reaction from [the rest of] society,” he explained.

As well as deporting the Chechens, Germans, Crimean Tatars and other groups wholesale to Central Asia, Stalin also sent thousands of Kurds there from Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1937 and from Georgia in 1944. Paranoid about minorities he considered of suspect loyalty, he seems to have been worried that the Kurds might collaborate with Turkey.

According to the official statistics, there are now some 46,000 ethnic Kurds in Kazakstan, of whom an estimated 7,000 live in the South Kazakstan region.

Political scientist Maxim Kaznacheev agrees that recent violent incidents suggest that the government is not working hard enough to defuse ethnic tensions.

“There’s no point in talking about a [government] strategy to resolve interethnic conflicts – it simply doesn’t exist,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has to be said that ethnic conflicts are going to recur with increasing frequency…. Our government has not able to offer society alternative ways to express protest.”

Sociologist Gaziz Nasyrov said the frequency of such clashes leads him to suspect that some politicians would prefer ethnic unrest to organised anti-government protests.

“Residents of rural areas, where life is harder than in the towns, are probably being allowed to blow off steam by directing their protest in a manner that, in certain people’s opinion, is the safest way.”

According to people in Mayatas, the recent unrest has left the village divided along ethnic lines, something they say was never the case before.

“I’ve lived here for 54 years and nothing like this has ever happened before,” said villager Gandal Maksieva. “Look around - the village looks as if it’s completely dead. We all used to live peacefully, amicably and happily.”

Another villager, an elderly Russian lady, said the attacks had instilled fear.

“People here were friendly and we used to visit each other. For instance, recently there was a wedding where the whole village came; there were Kurds and Kazaks. And now we’re all afraid.”

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