Kazakstan: Village Brawl Reverberates in Halls of Power

After three people are killed in a fight involving Chechens and Kazaks, the authorities are quick to downplay the ethnic angle.

Kazakstan: Village Brawl Reverberates in Halls of Power

After three people are killed in a fight involving Chechens and Kazaks, the authorities are quick to downplay the ethnic angle.

Wednesday, 28 March, 2007
An outbreak of violence involving Chechens and Kazaks has sent shockwaves through a country which prides itself on maintaining harmonious relations among its different ethnic groups.

Police are investigating an incident which took place in the village of Malovodnoye, not far from the former capital Almaty on March 18, in which a fight between two local men escalated into street battles between their respective communities, leaving three people dead and five more seriously injured.

Riot police units cordoned off the area once order had been restored, and village elders were asked to look into the causes of the unrest as the police launched more formal enquiries.

Meanwhile, the authorities moved quickly to contain the political damage, dismissing suggestions that ethnic differences had played a major role in fanning a minor brawl into an ugly confrontation involving about 200 people.

Analysts and others interviewed by IWPR differed on whether the clash highlighted unresolved issues about communities and representation, or whether it just showed how unruly people have become since Soviet rule came to an end in 1991.

Bagdat Kojakhmetov, a spokesman for Kazakstan’s interior ministry, told reporters that the area involved was one where Kazaks and Chechens live in close proximity.

But he insisted that those responsible for the violence should be characterised by their behaviour, not their ethnicity.

“It was hooliganism - a disagreement between two individuals which escalated into a confrontation,” he said.

Kojakhmetov also issued a warning to the media, reminding them that reporting which portrayed an event of this kind as the result of ethnic animosity could itself be considered a form of incitement, and therefore punishable under Kazak law.

The violence began on March 17, when a fight broke out between two local men in a billiard hall in Malovodnoye, and one of them was shot in the leg.

An eyewitness who is not a resident but is a frequent visitor to both Malovodnoye and KazAtKom, a neighbouring village where some of those involved in the fighting came from, told IWPR that “initially, the conflict had nothing to do with ethnicity”.

“Two guys had a fight, and one beat the other up. But then the one who’d been beaten up chased after the other one in a car and drove into him, and then shot him in the leg,” said the eyewitness.

The next day, the wounded man discharged himself from hospital, gathered dozens of supporters and went to the neighbouring village of KazAtKom where his assailant lived. As the crowd arrived, shots were fired and two people were killed, while a third person – a relative of the man they had come to get – also died.

In the heat of the confrontation, it did not help that the wounded man seeking vengeance and his allies were Kazaks, while the other man and his family happened to be Chechens.

Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia during the Second World War. They were allowed to return to the North Caucasus after Stalin died, and most did so, but some remained behind – preserving a distinct cultural identity even though like the Central Asian Kazaks, they are Muslim.

The eyewitness said the billiard-room brawl has ignited all sorts of old prejudices and resentments. “Now the Kazaks don’t remember that it all started with a brawl. They remember all the crimes ever committed by Chechens – as if Kazaks don’t commit crime as well,” he said.

Akhmed Muratov of the Chechen-Ingush National Cultural Centre, which articulates Chechen community interests in Kazakstan, insists that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions about the causes of the violence.

“It’s important not to listen to provocations but to investigate the reasons for this incident so as to stop it happening ever again,” he said.

An officer with the Almaty regional police department, who requested anonymity, suggested that cultural factors provide a clue as to why a minor incident escalated so quickly. Both Chechens and Kazaks tend to live in communities made up of extended family, he said, and in a crisis they will naturally rally to the support of their kin.

But the police officer said the aggressive behaviour seen in the incident needs to be understood in the context of broader social changes that have affected society in Kazakstan. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a kind of free-for-all replaced the old deference to institutions, and people lost confidence both in the rule of law and in the police who are supposed to uphold it.

“When the laws no longer function, people start living by the law of the jungle,” he said.

He noted that there had been some calls to evict the whole Chechen community from the area, but he insisted these were emotional outbursts made in the heat of the moment rather than a reflection of deep-seated racism.

As evidence of this, the policeman pointed out that KazAtKom has plenty of Chechen residents, yet the crowd which descended on the village “did not target anyone else” – they were after one man.

Political analyst Eduard Poletaev agrees that distrust of the police could have played a role.

“People’s trust in the law-enforcement agencies is being drastically eroded. This is particularly apparent in the smaller towns and villages, where many problems are solved through negotiations,” he said. “None of those involved in the fight thought about going to the police. Instead of that, they chose to escalate the conflict by taking the law into their own hands.”

However, Yevgeny Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, warns that there are latent tensions among various ethnic communities in Kazakstan, and that these should not be left to fester just because they represent an uncomfortable truth.

“Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, this was a mass conflict of an inter-ethnic nature. If people go round setting fire to someone’s house after a fistfight, there has to be a deep-rooted reason for it,” he said.

He says that if social problems cannot be discussed in an open and balanced manner, then radical views could garner mainstream support.

According to Zhovtis, the majority of people in Kazakstan are tolerant of ethnic and religious differences. “But you can’t take that for granted. It is not enough to set up cultural centres and have folk-dancing on national holidays,” he said.

“You have to afford people equal opportunities to be involved in government and business, and tackle social problems.”

He added, “These issues get discussed among ethnic minority circles, but they don’t get an airing at the government level.”

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan

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