30 september 2020

Central Asia news

Ethnic conflicts are a taboo for Kazakh media outlets

20.12.2006 12:22 msk

Bahtijar Gajanov (Alma-Ata)

Analytics Kazakhstan

Independence Day celebrated in Kazakhstan on December 15 was spoiled for the villagers of Druzhba, a settlement in Alma-Ata outskirts, by the rumors of impending pogroms of the local Uigur community. The pogroms never took place, fortunately, but the local population fears that they might occur the way they did in Shelek, a township 100 kilometers from the former capital of Kazakhstan.

Only one Kazakh newspaper reported ethnic clashes in Shelek in late November. The rest of the republican media outlets failed to summon the courage, they chose not to make reports on the issue that affects one of the principal parameters of stability in the country - ethnic harmony.

"Mobs could be seen all over Shelek on December 19, the day following the mass fight. Groups of young Kazakh wrecked three cafes frequented by youths [Uigur youths - author] from the Gaiduk settlement. Some Kazakhs youths walked down Oktyabrskaya Street beating everyone they met. The worst fight took place on the crossroads of Jibek Joly and Ismail Tairov streets. More than 300 people participated in it, policemen keeping their distance aware of their helplessness. The bloodshed was stopped only when elders from both diasporas interfered, and the wounded were taken to their respective homes," the newspaper Svoboda Slova reported.

Author of the report pinned the blame on the Uigurs. He gave a vivid description of how young Uigurs had provoked conflicts in cafes and assaulted the Kazakhs. "The finale was particularly gory. The Uigurs cut a young Kazakh's ear and began pissing on the body when he fainted..." Even the title of the article was revealing, "Shelek Uigurs: Your Country - Our Land".

Author of the article in Svoboda Slova maintains that the local Uigurs have always been dedicated nationalists, keeping their distance from other ethnic groups in Shelek with its numerous diasporas. "The Gaiduks [that is how Uigur youths living in the settlement] grew restless, reviving the ideas dormant in the period of economic instability. Not even external influence could be ruled out..."

A curfew was invoked in Shelek following the fight. "All of the town became listless in the dark, with only police patrols keeping an eye on infrequent pedestrians," eyewitness said. City fathers, representatives of law enforcement agencies, and elders met every day. It apparently helped because the promised "decisive battle" never took place.

All of that resembles the events in the Russian town of Kondopoga: two ethnic groups at odds with each other; conflict in a diner; no instigators identified; silence on the part of the local authorities.

31st Channel dispatched a camera crew to the site of the incident and the latter came up with two episodes. In one, the local authorities extoll international friendship, report some functions intended to clinch ethnic harmony, and present the latest developments as an ordinary melee. In the other, the locals hiding their faces admit that the fight had ethnic motives.

One may accuse the author of the article in Svoboda Slova of inflammation of ethnic hatred. After all, the picture he painted is clearly biased. On the other hand, information vacuum cannot help generating rumors and speculations that may result in even worse consequences. That was what stirred Kazakh parliamentarians who demanded explanations from law enforcement agencies.

2006 set a record in the number of political, social, and ethnic conflicts in Kazakhstan. Ethnic conflicts are something the Kazakhs last encountered a decade ago. In 2006, however, there was a pogrom in Atyrau where men from the Caucasus were assaulted, a fight between Kazakh and Turkish workers in the oil field near Aktau (and not the first fight at that), and finally the Shelek episode.

Reaction of the authorities never varies. Since ethnic problems are a taboo i.e. do not exist in Kazakhstan, fault is found with anything and anyone but not the actual cause. It was 31st Channel correspondents who were blamed for the disturbances in Atyrau. The clash in Aktau was reported as caused by a technological mess even though it was actually sparked by a quarrel in the diner. In Shelek, the blame was pinned on "reckless" youths. Whatever hypotheses are suggested, the state is never to be blamed. In the meantime, it is precisely the state that has never tried to promote ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan. Its efforts in this sensitive sphere come down to shows and the so called International Friendship Days.

Kazakhstan is presenting itself to the international community as an island of stability in Central Asia. Reasons to question this stability in the meantime appear more and more frequently. Assassination of opposition leaders, deliberate demolition of the village of Krishna followers, adoption of draconian amendments to the law on religion, clashes in Shanyrak and Bakai (residential areas in Alma-Ata) prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Kazakhstan experiences serious problems with political, religious, and social tolerance. Ethnic harmony seemed to be the only straw to cling to until now...

In the long run, all of that may provide an additional impetus to immigration from the country (first and foremost, immigration of Russian-speakers) that has been somewhat forgotten about of late. The president's thoroughly unpopular decisions like transition to the Latin alphabet or ban of autos with right-hand steering gear became catalysts. Moreover, another wave of rearrangement of assets is under way. Major businesses already in their hands, state officials are now after medium businesses very many of which belong to representatives of other ethnic groups.

There are even the rumors that local power structures in the northern regions of the country even offer help to whoever decided to heed President Vladimir Putin's call to the Russians to come back to Russia. They are rumors only. They are not confirmed but neither are they denounced.

"Shelek Uigurs... " ends with the following passage, "What happened in Shelek shows how fragile everything is in the sphere of ethnic relations the state proclaims as harmonious. A small spark caused a major fire. Why? There must be something wrong with society. And if there is something wrong with it, then the officials who are supposed to be responsible for this particular sphere must have been underperforming."

That's right. Unfortunately, the subject in question is a taboo for the Kazakh media. The state of affairs being what it is, a broad and open dialogue between society and the powers-that-be is therefore precluded.

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Ferghana.Ru news agency, December 20, 2006