SOCIO-ECONOMIC TENSION THREATENS KAZAKHSTAN'S ETHNIC HARMONY
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Apr 5 14:17:37 UTC 2007
SOCIO-ECONOMIC TENSION THREATENS KAZAKHSTAN'S ETHNIC HARMONY
Joanna Lillis: 4/03/07
A fatal clash between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens in a village in
south-eastern Kazakhstan has raised questions about whether the countrys
much-touted ethnic harmony is under threat, and whether socio-economic
tensions are endangering stability in this booming state. The unrest began
March 17 with a fight over a game of billiards and ended with an attack on
the house of a Chechen family that left five dead. Eyewitnesses say
violence broke out in the village of Malovodnoye, about 80 kilometers east
of Almaty, when Takhir Makhmakhanov, an ethnic Chechen from the
neighboring village of Kazatkom, refused to concede defeat to his rival,
Baurzhan Salimbayev, an ethnic Kazakh. After the two came to blows,
Salimbayev left the billiards hall, but was chased by Makhmakhanov, who
ran into him in a jeep and broke his leg, then shot him in the other leg.
The following day, Salimbayev went to the Makhmakhanov family home in the
neighboring village with a convoy of some 50 carloads of supporters that
besieged the house. Eyewitnesses say shots were fired from inside. In the
ensuing fracas, nine people were injured. Three died that day and two more
subsequently died after being hospitalized. Three of the dead were
brothers of Takhir Makhmakhanov, who is now on the run. The Makhmakhanov
family disputes this version of events, saying the attack was long planned
and their house was fired on from the crowd. Some 50 people have been
arrested and face charges ranging from premeditated murder to hooliganism
and damage to property. The incident was followed by rallies in which
participants demanded the familys removal from the village.
In response to the clashes, riot police were brought in from across Almaty
Region to restore order. Approaches to both villages remain heavily
guarded. In late March, police were patrolling approaches to Malovodnoye,
which lies on a key artery linking Kazakhstans commercial capital with
China. In Kazatkom, some 10 kilometers across the open steppe, police were
guarding the entrance to the village, where the charred remains of the
Makhmakhanovs home stand: the house was set on fire by the angry crowd.
The family has been moved to an undisclosed, secure location. Its quiet on
the streets -- you can see for yourself, a senior police officer, who
declined to identify himself, told EurasiaNet as he stood guard at the
emergency headquarters set up in Malovodnoye. Local authorities declined
News of five deaths over a game of billiards caused consternation in
Kazakhstan, which prides itself on social stability and ethnic harmony.
Home to over 130 ethnic groups, Kazakhstan cannot afford ethnic discord.
Almaty Regions Enbek District, where the clash occurred, is home to large
numbers of Turks, Chechens, Uighurs and Kurds, who, according to local MP
Serik Abdrakhmanov, comprise more than half of the districts population.
The presence of tens of thousands of Chechens in Kazakhstan today is
linked to a decision made by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to deport the
ethnic group en masse during World War II. Some see Kazakhstans diversity
as a source of tension. Relations [between ethnic communities] are bad, a
woman out shopping in Malovodnoye told EurasiaNet on condition of
anonymity. A fellow villager, who also declined to identify himself,
disagreed. [Ethnicity] could be just coincidence. [The fight] was just a
settling of scores, he said.
Both, however, pointed to discrepancies in living standards among
villagers as a factor behind the incident. An income gap is readily
evident: it is a common sight for large houses -- such as that belonging
to the Makhmakhanov family in nearby Kazatkom -- to stand near the small,
dilapidated houses of their less well-off neighbors. The ethnicities of
those involved in the clash have attracted media, yet the roots of the
incident may lie elsewhere. As Kazakhstans oil-rich economy booms --
growing at a roughly double-digit rate for the last six years -- the
rich-poor and rural-urban divides have widened, leading to social
While Kazakhstans elite and burgeoning middle class have been riding the
oil boom, the poor have struggled to adapt to market conditions. Many have
grown poorer, battling to reconcile rising prices with low wages. Sixteen
percent of the population lives on less than 2 dollars per day, according
to UNDP figures. In a March 28 statement, Abdrakhmanov, the local MP,
called for a sober evaluation of the underlying causes of the clash, which
lie beyond the boundaries of these villages. With local authorities
understaffed, under-resourced and lacking real power in Kazakhstans
centralized system, people have little influence over vital local issues:
the sale of land plots, property, the use of water resources.
Discontent is growing in the villages, Abdrakhmanov added. Rural relations
are becoming more and more acute, especially near cities. Despite a
reduction in the number of cattle, there is a lack of pasture and of land
to make hay, because land is not always allocated fairly, the statement
continued. Land is a sensitive topic. As prices for land and housing
rocket, the less well-off are coming under increasing economic stress.
Land disputes on the outskirts of Almaty led to clashes between
inhabitants and police last summer, as people accused of settling there
illegally were evicted. Observers have pointed to a perception among
ordinary people that the rich and powerful are protected by a system in
which corruption is endemic. Shadow business is flourishing in many areas
under the protection of law-enforcement structures, Abdrakhmanov alleged.
Talgat Ryskulbekov, the deputy head of the Spirit of December nationalist
movement who visited the troubled villages to mediate, agrees that
inhabitants have a perception that the rich can operate under impunity.
For the local authorities and the police, money talks, Ryskulbekov told
Ryskulbekov ruled out an ethnic motive: Some people want to say it was
something ethnic. Nothing of the sort! Chechen community leader Akhmed
Muradov has condemned police inaction over rumors that had been
circulating of trouble between the communities, and accused forces which
oppose stability of being behind events. Dos Kushim, leader of the Fate of
the Nation nationalist movement, points to historical inequities as the
root of conflict. I think the whole problem lies in the social and -- no
less important -- moral suppression of the Kazakhs that has emerged
historically, he said in remarks carried on the Zonakz.net website. Under
the Soviet Union, the Kazakhs language, culture and self-identification
were given no expression, and after the fall of the USSR and with the
gaining of independence a mass of problems remain unresolved.
This latest bout of unrest is the third in six months. In October 2006,
discontent at labor conditions in the western oilfields led to a mass
brawl between Kazakh and Turkish workers at Tengiz, which saw over 200
injured. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In November,
fighting erupted between up to 300 ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Uighurs in
the village of Shelek, 20 kilometers from Malovodnoye. As such clashes
become more frequent, the government needs to address the root causes to
preserve the ethnic harmony it prides itself on.
Editors Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in
Central Asian affairs.
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