The widespread fighting between Chechens and Kazakhs that erupted in Almaty’s Enbekshiqazaq district on March 18 were the latest in a long string of ethnic-based conflicts upsetting the densely populated southern regions of Kazakhstan. The melee caused several deaths and dozens of serious injuries.
According to various sources, the fight broke out on March 17, following an ordinary row between a Kazakh and a Chechen in a pool hall located in the small village of Malovodnoye, near Almaty. Reportedly, in the heat of the argument, Tahir Makhmakhanov, an ethnic Chechen, shot a plastic bullet, wounding his opponent, Salimbayev, in the leg. The next day, an angry crowd of around 70 villagers armed with stones and iron rods marched to the neighboring Chechen-populated village of Kazatom to take vengeance on Makhmakhanov. But as they approached Makhmakhanov’s home, someone fired a rifle at the procession, killing two Kazakhs. Supporters and friends of Salimbayev responded with a violent rampage, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at Chechen-owned cars and yards, beating everyone in sight. The crowd stabbed one Chechen to death; two other Chechens and four Kazakhs were hospitalized in critical condition (Sayasat, March 20).
It took police several hours to disperse the incensed crowd and restore a temporary calm. The suspected instigators of the brawl, including five Chechens, were brought to detention centers in Almaty. Interior Ministry sources said Makhmakhanov faces charges on at least three accounts, the most serious indictment against him being the use of firearms. Local authorities did their best to restore peace and order in the area, cordoning off the Chechen village of Kazatom and preventing non-residents from entering it.
Officials resorted to an old tactic for settling interethnic conflicts and set up a council composed of both Kazakh and Chechen elders to reconcile the opposing sides. Nevertheless, Kazakhs insisted on the extradition of Makhmakhanov and other Chechen families from the district within 24 hours. The council of elders decided that the Chechens should be given at least two months to leave the district. However, Kazakh residents remained adamant in their demands and crowds of people blocked traffic on the highway linking Almaty with Zharkent on the Chinese border. The Almaty branch of the Interior Ministry brought in extra police units and within ten minutes cleared the highway. The crowd was finally persuaded to disperse, but authorities fear the possible recurrence of violence. The Makhmakhanov family was taken to a safe location under police protection (Kazakhstan Today, March 19).
Curiously, the government-controlled media largely ignored the incident in Enbekshiqazaq district and the conflict between Chechens and Kazakhs, which ironically occurred on the eve of the Nauryz festivities, an important political event symbolizing the unity of the peoples of Kazakhstan. At the same time, Russian newspapers devoted large spaces to ponder the political implications of the brawl, which officials in Astana dismissed as an act of drunken rowdies. Some Russian analysts went as far as to state that the fight in Almaty region was a reaction by ethnic Chechens in Kazakhstan to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to Moscow on March 18-19 (Kommersant.ru, March 21).
Such arguments, however, ring hollow. The estimated number of Chechens in Kazakhstan does not exceed 30,000, making it an ethnic minority not numerous enough to influence the foreign policy of Kazakhstan to a palpable degree. Second, the leader of ethnic Chechens of Kazakhstan, Akhmed Muradov, has always stressed the Chechen communities’ positive attitude regarding the development of Kazakh-Russian relations and demonstrated the commitment of ethnic Chechens to the cause of political stability in Kazakhstan. Immediately after the incident in Enbekshiqazaq district, Muradov reiterated that ethnic Chechens are citizens of Kazakhstan who enjoy equal civic rights with other minorities and insisted that Chechens will stay in Kazakhstan (Kommersant, March 21).
It is hard to pinpoint the true causes of the clash between ethnic Chechens and Kazakhs, but it is an alarming sign that demands serious attention from the government. Similar conflicts between Kazakhs and Uighurs in Shelek district of Almaty region show that this densely populated part of Kazakhstan, with high unemployment rates and poverty, is becoming a source of constant interethnic tension. Unfortunately, some pro-Russian media sources tend to depict the Chechen population as criminal elements, pointing their fingers at Caucasians whenever a crime takes place.
The Chechens deported to Kazakhstan from Caucasus during World War II were largely assimilated with Kazakhs, adopting their language and cultural values. Their shared religion has long contributed to interethnic harmony. But the war in Caucasus, the growing exodus of Chechens from the conflict zone in the North Caucasus, and a flawed immigration policy has aggravated social problems in Kazakhstan and bred suspicion and animosity toward ethnic minorities.