Threat of Inter-Ethnic Violence Emerges in Kazakhstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 18

Law enforcement patrols Masanchi following inter-ethnic violence that erupted on February 7-8 (Source: AKIpress)

On the night of February 7–8, in the city of Masanchi, in eastern Kazakhstan near the border with Kyrgyzstan, several hundred ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans clashed. They exchanged gunfire and, as a result, at least eight people died and dozens more were hospitalized. Numerous cars and buildings were burned in the district center. And an unknown but large number of Dungans fled to Kyrgyzstan before Bishkek closed the border, lest the violence spread to that republic (AKIpress, February 10).

Kazakhstani authorities insisted the incident was simply a mass fight brought about as a result of local day-to-day problems. But experts argue the violence reflects more than just simmering ethnic tensions or the disparities in poverty rates between Kazakhs versus the relatively wealthier Dungans. The simmering tensions have also exploded into the open as a result of uncertainties related to the transition from Nursultan Nazarbayev to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as president of Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the clashes may have been stoked, at least in part, by the political opposition in Kazakhstan or even the Chinese. The latter are pleased to point to any violence carried out by the Dungans, a 40,000-strong Muslim group that fled China at various points during the last two centuries, in order to justify Beijing’s own brutal crackdown on Islamic populations in Xinjiang.

Last week’s deadly confrontation in Masanchi was reportedly triggered when a police officer stopped an ethnic-Dungan driver and mistreated him. That led some of the roughly 10,000 Dungans in the district—they form 90 percent of the population of a city surrounded by ethnic-Kazakh areas—to publicly assemble (AKIpress, February 8). In response, local Kazakhs, who learned about this growing crowd via social media, responded by coming out into the streets and attacking the gathered Dungans. The Kazakhstani authorities, including President Tokayev, quickly denounced the clashes as “simple hooliganism” and promised to restore order and create a commission to examine the situation (, February 8).

However, there are almost too many causes and, therefore, potentially guilty parties behind what has occurred to say now which is primary. First of all, there are the tensions inevitable in a poor area between the indigenous nationality and arrivals from outside who, in this case as in many others, are doing better economically and are also known to be involved in cross-border smuggling. Second, there is growing Kazakh nationalism now that ethnic Kazakhs form a sizeable majority in their country. Third, confusion over Kazakhstan’s ongoing presidential transition (see EDM, May 16, 2019, June 12, 2019, February 3, 2020) has meant that, in many places, new officials are uncertain of how to behave and inclined to allow the population more latitude to do what it wants. (Rumors are circling in this case that the Masanchi police simply stayed away from the conflict until it spiraled out of control.) Fourth, suspicions abound that some opponents of the new regime want such conflicts to arise to embarrass President Tokayev and open the way for themselves to take power. And fifth, there are also concerns that outsiders—possibly Kyrgyzstanis or even the Chinese—may have sparked this fight one way or another in order to benefit themselves and weaken Kazakhstan (AKIpress,,, Vzglyad, February 8; [1], [2], [3], [4], February 9–10).

It is critically important to understand just what occurred in eastern Kazakhstan three days ago. Only a clear definition of what happened and why can indicate whether this tragedy will be a one-off situation not to be repeated or, on the contrary, whether it represents a new challenge to the Kazakhstani authorities. And if the evidence does suggest a growing new threat to the country’s internal stability, a clear understanding of last week’s developments will be crucial to assessing whether the authorities have mishandled the incident. If it turns out Central Asia’s largest country is now witnessing the eruption of pogrom-like violence, this may simultaneously undermine the government as well as encourage the kinds of repressive actions that would block any moves toward further democratization or even open the way to chaos and revolutionary change.

Arguably the most thoughtful discussion of this issue so far comes from Siberian historian Dmitry Verkhoturov who argued that Tokayev’s dismissal of the Masanchi clashes as “a mass fight” “disinforms society.” Instead, he told Regnum that what occurred was a “pogrom”—the kind of violence Russia know from a century ago, when Russians and others periodically attacked Jewish communities in quasi-organized bouts of violence. Verkhoturov asserted that there are three reasons for his conclusion: the number of people involved and the organized character of the attacks, the use of the media, this time electronic rather than print, to bring people together, and the fact that those engaged in violence chose to attack property more often than to go after people, thereby allowing the attackers to express their rage at another group with less risk of retribution by officials (Regnum, February 10).

Pogroms, past and present, the historian continued, are always “an attack on the weakest, on those who cannot defend themselves” or find protectors in positions of power. They, therefore, typically arise with the support—direct or otherwise—from the powers that be. And they are intended to show that the dominant nation is so powerful that minorities cannot risk challenging it. But that is precisely why such spasms of violence are a problem for the authorities: once pogroms begin, they can spiral completely out of control and undermine the incumbent regime if they suddenly become useful for another political faction. That happened with the Black Hundreds more than a century ago in tsarist Russia, and it may happen now in Kazakhstan, Verkhoturov suggested.

That places a premium on how the Kazakhstani authorities react. If their response is quick and forceful, it may nip this threat in the bud, especially if combined with an effort to improve the socio-economic situation of both Kazakhs and Dungans, Verkhoturov suggested. But if officials and law enforcement drag their feet or if they simply use repression without addressing any of the underlying problems, the government is likely to face more such “pogroms” in the future and all the problems they can bring.