Ethnic tensions break out again in southern Kazakhstan

Ethnic tensions break out again in southern Kazakhstan
A murder of an ethnic Kazakh by an ethnic Tajik in southern Kazakhstan in February 2015 led to attacks on ethnic Tajik property and the deployment of heavy security.
By Naubet Bisenov in Almaty February 18, 2016

The killing of a six-year-old ethnic Kazakh boy by a teenager of Turkish origin in the southern, densely-populated, ethnically-mixed Zhambyl Region has once again exposed the government's nervousness at any sign of inter-ethnic unrest. Authorities have reacted to the conflict by the deployment of the National Guard and other security forces, despite denying it was an inter-ethnic dispute, instead describing it as “domestic”.

The low price of oil and economic troubles in its major trading partners – China, Russia and the EU – threaten Kazakhstan with mounting social discontent as economic growth risks stagnating or even going negative.The last thing authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev needs now is ethnic conflicts in a country that is going to the parliamentary polls in a month amid the worst economic crisis the country has experienced since the late 1990s. 

“The situation has normalised… We have the National Guard which has been put on heightened security,” Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov commented on the situation in the village of Buryl where the killing took place. “This is a domestic murder and the culprit admits it.” “It has been established that the crime was accompanied by a robbery of the slain boy’s family which bears a domestic nature,” the local police investigating the murder explained.

On February 16 ethnic Kazakh residents of the village held a rally outside the suspect’s home, calling for the expulsion of his family from the village after the teenager killed the boy, who had witnessed his attempt to rob his house the day earlier, local media reported. Police, prosecutors and National Security Committee forces dispersed the crowd the same day.

The local ethnic Turkish community offered apologies to the family of the slain boy and pledged financial assistance to prepare the funeral. It also decided to hand over the house vacated by the suspect’s family to the family of the victim. At the beginning of 2015, ethnic Turks numbered over 8,300, accounting for 9% of the total population in Bayzakov District where the murder took place.

Kazakh authorities claim credit for the on-the-surface stability in inter-ethnic relations in the country, a home to some 120 ethnic groups, though this was achieved largely thanks to an oil-fuelled economic boom in the decade to 2008. They refuse to recognise such disputes as interethnic, branding them as “domestic”, despite deploying heavily-armed security forces when they break out.

In February 2015, a murder of an ethnic Kazakh by an ethnic Tajik, also in the south, during a row over money, led to inter-communal riots in the village. In response to attacks and arsons on ethnic Tajik property, authorities deployed heavily-armed security personnel and cut off mobile and internet communications in the area.

Relative economic freedoms and the booming economy had offered the local population of any ethnic origin an opportunity to become relatively well-off in recent years. However, social problems and the growing rich-poor divide, combined with the rapidly falling living standards, have resulted in public outbursts of anger because the public perceives that corrupt government authorities, police, prosecutors and courts often allow rich offenders to evade justice in crimes involving ethnic minorities.