Clashes in Kazakhstan Reveal Presence of “Foreigners”

Clashes in Kazakhstan Reveal Presence of “Foreigners”


The Kazakh village of Aukatty, where the ethnic group called the Dungans settled densely, looks like the war film shots: burnt-out houses and cars off the roads blackened by fire. Aukatty, Sortobe and Masanchi, mostly Dungan villages in southern Kazakhstan, suffered greatly from clashes on the night of February 7-8.

Domestic...Ethnic Conflict

According to sources, the situation in Astana is as follows. The south of Kazakhstan, where Dungan villages are located, is an economically depressed region. Therefore, the Kazakhstani authorities believe that the conflict has been extinguished and there will be no spreading of it to neighboring settlements. As for the evolving situation, sources predict that the top officials will "tighten the screws.”

In fact, the first dismissals of officials have already started. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev fired several officials and the senior officials of the Interior Ministry department for the Zhambyl region. Then Kazakh President dismissed Askar Myrzakhmetov, the mayor (or akim in Kazakh.)

According to the official storyline, domestic dispute began with trifles but then escalated into a full-blown ethnic conflict. Police tried to stop a car with a local in the Korday district of the Zhambyl region, where several villages are densely populated by ethnic Dungans.

The malefactor did not stop but the police caught up with him near his house in the village of Sortobe. The local residents beat up the policemen who were Kazakhs, and did not let them detain their countryman.

Meanwhile, the Dungans themselves are telling a different version of what happened. According to Hussei Daurov, chairman of the Dungan Association, that was not the case. In his telling, on February 5, there was a four-on-two brawl between the Kazakhs and the Dungans. Some blocked the road with a KAMAZ (a Russian brand of heavy-duty trucks), while others got out of the car and started to resent. One thing led to another, and they began fighting. During the scuffle, an elderly Kazakh man was pushed. Then in the evening, the Dungan elders met the Kazakh ones and reportedly settled the situation. However, the local authorities sent 15 cars of the traffic police, and the crew of one of the police patrols stopped two Dungans and allegedly demanded 100,000 Kazakhstani tenges from them.

Our Police Are Not Protecting us

Then the well-known version followed, which suggests that overnight to February 8, cohorts of Kazakhs attacked the Dungan villages. The groups of attackers shot at local residents, assaulted and beat them up, and set their houses and cars on fire. Hussei Daurov himself was also beaten, and his arm was broken. According to him, the attackers were armed with guns and fittings. Moreover, Daurov complains that the police were involved that mayhem, but they did not detain the attackers. As for the special forces units, they arrived only at 11p.m. on Friday, although the fight began at circa 5-6 p.m. on Friday and continued until 5a.m. on Saturday.

According to current estimates, the clash left 11 people dead, about 140 people were considered wounded, several dozens of houses and cars were smashed and burned, thousands of people, including women, old people and small children, rushed to escape across the border into Kyrgyzstan which borders Kazakhstan to the south.

For a long time, the Kazakh authorities have been creating an image of Kazakhstan as a peaceful and friendly country with no inter-ethnic discords (persecution of the ethnic Russians was ignored on either side of the Russian-Kazakh border). Despite the fact that Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic country, its former President Nursultan Nazarbayev managed to prevent resounding conflicts for about 30 years. To be fair, official Astana has spent all these years assimilating Russians and other nationalities, but somehow not at the same brutal pace as Ukraine is doing it today.

Indeed, Kazakhstan stood out against the background of other former Soviet republics. That is why reports of events like this mass conflict between Kazakhs and Dungans is a total shock.

However, violence in the Dungan villages in the south of the country has revealed that things are not that rosy in Kazakhstan.

Floating Population

According to public sources, Kazakhstan’s population of 18.6 mln people is rather patchy. A total of 67.98% are Kazakhs, 19.32% are Russians, 3.21% are Uzbeks, 1.47% Ukrainians and the same percentage of Uighurs, and 1.10% are Tatars.

Add to it some very small ethnic groups like the Dungans. The Dungans (or Hueizu as they call themselves) are the Chinese professing Islam.

In the 19th century, the Hueizu rebelled against the Qing Dynasty. The Dungan uprising spread to Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The rebellion, which was very rampant from 1862 to 1869, claimed the lives of 8 to 15 million people. In 1877, the last regiment of 5,000 Dungans under the command of Bai Yanhu left for the Russian Empire.

After the defeat, the rebellious Hueizu moved to the territory of the Russian Empire and Mongolia. Therefore, after the collapse of the USSR, the Dungans turned up in the territories of modern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Today, only about 30,000 to 40,000 Dungans live in Kazakhstan (in comparison, according to the estimates of 2007, there were 36,000 Dungans). They have preserved most of their culture and traditions. This was due to the fact that after resettlement they tried to live in isolated communities with their own self-government. Each community chose their head, and the authorities allowed them to unite in small self-governing administrative districts. Since the Dungans are Moslems, imams and other members of the Muslim clergy had a great influence there.

So, the conflict in the south of Kazakhstan showed that in reality, the country is not so peaceful. It was not a solitary instance of the mass clashes of this kind between Kazakhs and Dungans. Basically, if external actors prioritize the so-called divide-and-conquer strategy then incitement of ethnic hatred is a first thought that crosses mind. And in the first turn, multinational countries like Kazakhstan and Ukraine are in the "risk group".

In Daurov’s story, the behavior of Kazakhstani policemen -- ethnic Kazakhs – is very remarkable. Moreover, despite the version about a "domestic conflict", the authorities of Kazakhstan cannot explain why in order to stop the "petty quarrel" it was highly necessary to use riot police units. And only after the special forces, military and National Guard units came to the villages where Dungans live, the mayhem was stopped.

Therefore, despite the official version of the "local conflict", there are a number of questions with no answers. For example, who are the unknown provocateurs who promptly turned a domestic quarrel into a nationalist conflict? Who organized and armed those people? It is obvious that a detachment of several hundred people needs leadership. So the question arises, who led them? Finally, the events on the night of February 7 to February 8 look like an armed assault, not just a "mass fight," as the media reported.

Without answers to all these and other questions, the picture of the conflict between Kazakhs and Dungans is incomplete.

Bakhytzhan Kopbayev, political scientist and co-chairman of the Kazakhstan Society of Internationalists All-Republic Public Association (Kazakhstan)

Today, in modern Kazakhstan, interethnic issues are the weakest link -- and these anti-Dungan events showed it once again. One of the features of information policy is that the government conveys one information to the Kazakh-speaking audience and completely different information for the Russian-speaking one.

For example, recently, the Presidential National Council of Public Trust was established. It comprises friends of a person, who is in the inner circle of the president. With such an approach, the real problems that people are worrying about are likely to remain outside the sphere of interests of the authorities.

Today, the National Council of Public Trust consists almost entirely of nationalists, except for a couple of “mandatory whites”, and most of these nationalists make no secret of their radical views.

We have many a time identified neo-Nazi and ultra-right organizations that called themselves fascist. We have revealed to the authorities their calls for violence against other nationalities but they do not pay attention to this.

I believe that all these attacks on ethnic minorities are just a rehearsal before attacking the Russians, Uzbeks and others.

However, experts warn in advance that the attack on millions of Russians, Uzbeks and people of other nationalities will lead to very deplorable results for Kazakhstan, up to a split of the country.

Unfortunately, mass clashes between Kazakhs and Dungans have demonstrated that if this continues, inter-ethnic conflicts are inevitable. Essentially, it is just a matter of time.

Moreover, this situation is also aggravated by the specifics of the social system in Kazakhstan. First of all, the decline in living standards, the GDP of Kazakhstan fell from $240 billion to $ 156 billion tenges, and all residents of the country felt it first-hand.

All important spheres of business in Kazakhstan are divided between several oligarchs and their groupings, so no “stranger" to engage in gas, oil or any other subsoil-related businesses.

Limited opportunities resulted in a surge of tensions -- that is why radical nationalists like predators try to eat up those who are weaker. 

For me personally, these confrontations confirmed the following conclusion: it is possible to call people to arms for killing other people just in a few seconds.

Since domestic nationalism has always existed and people have always hurtled with each other at the grassroots level, part of the population conceals their grievances against other nationalities on a subconscious level.

Today we see terrible comments, when women with many children, who are supposed to say smart things, write with regret in social networks that "how sad it is that the Dungans ran away. And we should have driven them to schools and burned them with their children."

Frankly speaking, I am overwhelmed with medieval horror when I see the comments of this kind, watch videos of radicals walking in the streets and shooting at residents of Dungan villages, choosing victims purely on the basis of nationality.

If the policy of the country’s authorities aimed at fanning Russophobia, Sinophobia, xenophobia as such will not change, then I assume that we will not avoid bloody collision in the future, and by 2030-2040 the state of Kazakhstan may simply cease to exist in its present form.

Olzhas Kozhahmet, publicist and a member of the Resentiment Club (Kazakhstan)

Now that the first shock of the tragic events has passed, attempts are being made to find a rational explanation for what happened with the help of an almost conspiracy theory approach. The authorities accuse some provocateurs of the incident; the residents of the villages themselves say that it's not the first time they've seen many thugs; anonymous Telegram channels explain for the clashes by intrigues inside the law enforcement agencies (they say it's connected with the struggle for money from smuggling and drug trafficking and the Dungan are involved in these processes).

It is quite possible that some or even all of these factors do exist, but there is no doubt that the main reason of interethnic clashes in the Zhambyl region, as well as the rapid reaction of Kazakhstani society is extremely tensed social and religious atmosphere in the country. There were many statements in the manner of diehard chauvinism and xenophobia in social networks, especially in their Kazakh-language sector.

The social and economic issues of recent years, as well as the fundamental cultural shifts that are taking place in our society, are strikingly shaping the electorate. There are a lot of ultra-right ideas in the spirit not even of nationalism but of tribal hatred towards strangers or other different people. The fact that the Dungans profess Sunni Islam of the Hanafi Maskhab like Kazakhs has no influence on the agitated people.

Completely crazy Sinophobia promoted in Kazakhstan in recent years (its causes and authors are a separate story), is delivering the goods, but it's not just about this particular event.

Earlier, similar waves of violence occurred have targeted the Turks (local and migrant workers), Arabs, Chechens and Uighurs. Unfortunately, this trend is picking up steam, and there are no positive political alternatives -- either in the government or in the opposition.

Islam Kuraev, political scientist (Kazakhstan)

In fact, there were problems in the region; they were ignored and they piled up. In this specific case, a social explosion occurred. People were largely stimulated towards the conflict by the condonation on the part of law enforcement agencies. There were the offenders -- and they were to be detained. The lack of actions regulated by law led to fierce ethnic clashes. Although this is an everyday occurrence, and in fact, such cases are rife in Kazakhstan.

However, all of us see the consequences.

The ethnic policy of the authorities has several problems, too. I believe that this problem of ethno-politics is the legacy of the Soviet era. When we study history, we understand that this was done intentionally on order to create future trouble spots. Today, everybody is experiencing it: someone is overcoming it more gently, and some others are finding it harder.

We need a new approach to create a united society. According to the concepts of the Soviet era, everyone believes that living in one country, they can be representatives of a different nation. Although a nation is a sign of the state of residence, in the ethnic terms you can be anything you like. But if you are in Kazakhstan, you are a Kazakhstani, you are Turkish in Turkey, and you are American in the United States. It is a regular international practice. The authorities thought about this fact at the dawn of independence, but then something went wrong. Today, the reasons for that are different. However, I believe that a referendum or other methods of polling of people would help find the golden mean.