Ethnic clashes dent Kazakhstan's utopian image

By bne IntelliNews February 13, 2015

Naubet Bisenov in Yntymak, South Kazakhstan Region -


A murder does not usually merit much attention in Kazakhstan, but when an ethnic Tajik killed an ethnic Kazakh during a row over money in the country's densely-populated, ethnically-mixed south in February, the crime made headlines due to the resulting inter-communal riot – an occurrence which so far has been extremely rare in post-independence Kazakhstan.

As ethnic Tajik property was attacked and set on fire on the night of February 5, the Kazakh authorities scrambled to control the situation, deploying heavily armed security personnel and cutting off mobile and internet communications in the area. Embarrassingly, all this took place on a day that President Nursultan Nazarbayev had celebrated "the unity of our people and accord in our multi-ethnic society".

The incident took place in the village of Yntymak (which ironically translates from Kazakh as "unity" or "solidarity"), when protests by a group of ethnic Kazakh men culminated in an angry raid on Tajik neighbourhoods. Although no physical harm was inflicted on any ethnic Tajiks – who hastily organised self-defence groups – the rioters broke windows and burnt several cars and lorries, as well as a number of houses belonging to Tajiks. Although some Kazakh houses were hit in reprisals, the material damage in the village seemed to be selective.

Some local Kazakhs said the violence was intended as a warning to Tajiks and other minorities. "People's anger has been building up for years and this murder was just a pretext to warn Tajiks that they have become too audacious," a local Kazakh who gave his name as Ospan told bne IntelliNews. "This will also serve as a lesson to other ethnic groups to behave."

Such talk belies President Nazarbayev's cultivated message of ethnic harmony. Since independence in 1991, the Kazakh president has portrayed the country as an island of political, economic and inter-ethnic stability in a sea of inter-communal strife elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The relative stability of Kazakhstan, a home to some 120 ethnic groups, was achieved largely thanks to an oil-fuelled economic boom in the decade to 2008. "Kazakhstan is one land, one people, one future," Nazarbayev declared on February 6, citing a popular slogan trumpeting unity.

Nazarbayev was speaking at a session of the Assembly of Kazakhstan's People, a pro-government body of ethnic groups set up 20 years ago, designating this year as the “Year of the Assembly of Kazakhstan's People”. "Our Kazakh path is a path of peace, accord and development," he said ingratiatingly.

Yet many ordinary Kazakhs are growing increasingly sceptical of the government's assertion that the many ethnic groups in Kazakh society live together in a tatu-tatti manner (which translates from Kazakh approximately as "lovey-dovey"). If this is true, people mutter, why do inter-ethnic conflicts occasionally erupt in different parts of the country?


Ethnic Tajiks, who number 9,000 in Saryagash District's 310,000-strong population, told bne IntelliNews that they did not see the raid coming following the personal dispute over the money for leasing greenhouses. They expressed anger at being singled out for collective punishment for the crime of one man, who is now under arrest.

Some speculated that the raid was carried out by outsiders, by Kazakhs not from the area – a view indicative of the lack of reliable information that surrounds such events, due to the government’s kneejerk clampdown on the press and social media, which inevitably gives rise to wild rumours and assumptions. Ethnic Tajik villagers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the local authorities, who imposed a blockade on the village in all but name. Tajiks said the raid was a deliberate and planned provocation. In support of their suspicions, they said mobile networks had gone down a few hours before the violence started – a claim bne IntelliNews could not independently confirm.

Four days after the night-time incident, Yntymak still remained cut off from the internet, while mobile telephones supported only limited 2G services. By shutting down the internet and 3G services in the entire South Kazakh Region, the authorities hoped to prevent videos of the riot from leaking onto YouTube and other video-sharing websites, and stop trouble spreading to other parts of the country. According to a statement handed to bne IntelliNews on February 9 at the police headquarters set up to investigate the murder, the situation in the area "has been fully stabilised" and "all services are operating in a routine mode". The police refused to admit the conflict was inter-ethnic, maintaining it was "domestic".

Zaure Khamzayeva, head of the Saryagash District internal policy department, also denied to bne IntelliNews that the conflict was inter-ethnic and said it was a "domestic conflict between two former friends". Asked why there were so many heavily armed security officers if the conflict was purely domestic, Khamzayeva replied: "In order to maintain accord between people."

The local authorities in South Kazakhstan Region, the country's most populous region with the highest share of a minority population apart from ethnic Russians – ethnic Uzbeks constitute nearly 17% of its total population – play down the ethnic factor in the conflict, fearing it will cast doubt on the government's claim that Kazakhstan is a land of inter-ethnic harmony. Yet this is not the first time that the region has been shaken by a dispute involving minorities. In 2007, a Kazakh mob attacked ethnic Kurdish families over suspected sexual abuse against a four-year-old Kazakh boy by a 16-year-old Kurdish adolescent. In order to ensure the security of the Kurdish families whose houses were burnt down, the authorities had to relocate them to a safer place.

With the aim of pacifying angry Kazakhs in this latest event, the authorities announced the detention of the suspected killer and his extradition from Uzbekistan, where he had fled to after the murder (Saryagash District borders Uzbekistan) within three days. It is not yet clear where and when he will be tried, but one police officer told bne IntelliNews on condition of anonymity that the trial would likely be soon, in order to show that justice can be delivered. This would go some way to appeasing locals who complain that corrupt police, prosecutors and courts often allow rich offenders to evade justice.

Greenhouse effect

There is some evidence this latest ethnic flare-up is the result of social problems and the growing rich-poor divide in the region. "You won't find a Tajik who doesn't drive a good car," lamented one Kazakh man who declined to give his name.

South Kazakhstan Region had the highest share of the population living below the poverty line at 6.9% versus the nationwide level of 2.9% in the third quarter of 2014, which grew to 8.9% in rural areas (4.6% nationwide). Yet ethnic Tajiks appear relatively well-off, as evidenced by the bigger houses in their neighbourhoods.

Tajiks themselves explain their relative wealth by hard work as crop farmers. Weather conditions allow locals to grow tomatoes in a myriad of greenhouses dotted around the Saryagash District – one of which became the catalyst for the conflict, sparked by the Tajik lessee's debt to the Kazakh lessor.

Tajik farmers complained that they can't now reach their plots because of the police presence, and as well as now fearing for their security they have to find money to repair their trashed houses. A middle-aged Tajik woman told bne IntelliNews that her plans for tomato greenhouses had been crushed by the attack: a mob tried to set her house ablaze and burnt a new car she had recently bought with two years' worth of savings. While her holding is not big – only 1,200 square metres – it generated enough revenue for her family of three children and four grandchildren to live off. She said she had hoped to make around $8,000 this year by growing tomatoes like in previous years, but the loss of the car and uncertainty over her family's personal safety would make it difficult to grow a good harvest. "Our car was burnt down and our house was damaged. Will we be compensated for that?" she asked rhetorically.

Not just farmers but other businesses are also suffering from the aftermath of the riot. Since the authorities blocked communications networks in the district, people have complained about temporary problems with buying car insurance or dealing with their pension accounts, as insurance and pension agents could not access online databases. Even the local Tajik-language school, whose glass entrance was broken by a stone thrown by the attackers, was temporarily shut for security reasons.

Not so lovey-dovey

In the aftermath of any riot, the big question is what impact this will have on community relations elsewhere in the country – something this Kazakh government is fixated on to the point of obsession. President Nazarbayev styles himself as the guarantor of the constitution and stability in society, and this latest inter-ethnic conflict will be hugely concerning for the elites in Astana, not least because it could hurt the country's image abroad. That image was already tested by the violent suppression of striking oil workers in Kazakhstan's western Mangystau Province in December 2011, which left at least 14 protestors dead in the oil town of Zhanaozen.

Ethnic clashes, like the latest one in South Kazakhstan Region or the one between Kurds and Kazakhs in 2007, raise questions about how stable inter-ethnic relations really are in Kazakhstan. Given it is hard for the authorities to admit the presence of ethnic tensions as it would imply a failure of Nazarbayev's policy, the true picture cannot be discerned or discussed in an open and transparent way until it is too late and the situation boils over.

More worrying is what might happen if a "domestic" conflict arose between Kazakhs and ethnic Russians, especially in the northern border areas where the latter make up between 30% and 50% of the local population. Such an event could be used as an excuse by Moscow to grab swathes of Kazakh land under the pretext of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, just as it’s doing in Ukraine right now . Some analysts argue the Kremlin would eagerly seize such an opportunity to bolster public support at home and divert people's attention from economic troubles.

With the aging Nazarbayev looking warily at a belligerent and aggressive Russia over the border to the north, it’s little wonder he wants to maintain the appearance of inter-ethnic harmony in the country.

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