Unrest in the Kazakh city of Aktau: the truth behind the veil of conflicting reports
Residents of Aktau maintain that the riots that began there on August 20 are not over even now. Conflicting reports coming from this city on the Caspian coast leave the impression that the local authorities have concentrated on attempts to filter information rather than to try and stabilize the situation.
Most observers dismissed as insignificant the first reports that an unsanctioned rally of Mangistaumunaigaz was taking place in Yntymak Square in central Aktau. The city administration made it sound like it was but 10-15 people demanding higher salaries.
The following day it was reported that between 200 and 300 locals had amassed in the square the night before. To quote city fathers, "attempts to loot were made by small groups of participants of the rally, mostly youths." Other sources nevertheless reported clashes with the police and said between 17 and 25 protesters had been grabbed.
According to Channel 31 TV station, the protesters were demanding dismissal of the city akim or mayor - no less. The municipal administration pressed official charges against two Channel 31 journalists that day claiming that they had been drunk and sparked the unrest. Journalists in the meantime said that one of them had been dealt a blow with a baton and had had his camera smashed by the police. TV station's lawyers are drafting a complaint against law enforcement agencies and city administration.
There is no saying at this point exactly what happened in Aktau on Monday night. Even activists of one and same human rights organization are split on the matter. One of them claims that up to 1,000 protesters amassed in the square, worked themselves into rage against the local diaspora from the Caucasus, and eventually set out to raid and loot the cafes and stores owned by Lezgines, Chechens, and Azerbaijanis. This eyewitness maintains that people from the Caucasus are not safe even now and that they are still being assaulted and battered.
According to another activist, the protesters numbered 400 people at best and their demands concerned social problems and the akim. This eyewitness admits that he too heard some chauvinist slogans when the rally was drawing to its end.
Aktau municipal authorities denounce all reports on rioting and looting and claim that "preventive measures have been successful."
There are, however, some other points that have never been clarified. That the protest action would take place was common knowledge a month in advance when the police began finding flyers in Aktau and nearby settlements. It makes the rally anything but spontaneous. It could even be an attempt to displace the local authorities arranged by the powers-that-be.
It should also be added that Mangyshlak, the peninsula where Aktau is situated, has already been a site of ethnic conflicts. The best known of them took place in the town of Novy Uzen (Janaozen now) between the locals on the one hand and Lezgines and Chechens on the other in summer 1989. Conflicts between the indigenous Kazakhs and diasporas from the Caucasus are reported in Mangyshlak settlements every now and then. They are usually sparked by some crime committed in the settlement. A fight between the locals in Atyrau and Turkish construction workers in 2005 involved more than 500 people on both sides.
It goes without saying that the authorities, both local and central, do not want reports on riots in Aktau, much less riots with ethnic undertones, to spread beyond the conflict area. At the very least, it may cost Kazakhstan the carefully cultivated image of a country of "ethnic harmony". Hence all these attempts to spread only some of the truth or patently false information. Hence the clumsy attempts to blame journalists as inciters...