A Kazakh court recently handed down stiff prison sentences to 12 Russian citizens convicted of separatist activities. This week, Russian officials formally questioned the verdicts, which have both upset relations between the two countries and heightened tensions between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians inside Kazakhstan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the tangled case.
Prague, 15 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Foreign Ministry this week released an official statement complaining about verdicts handed down last week by a Kazakh court that sentenced 12 Russian citizens to long prison terms. The Russians -- along with a Kazakh and a Moldovan -- were found guilty of separatist activities, although many observers found the evidence against all of them slim.
This weekend, two days after the verdicts were announced, a public meeting was held to ease tensions between ethnic Russians and Kazakhs. But the attempt failed, and may even have made relations between the two ethnic communities worse.
The complicated affair began seven months ago, when Kazakh law-enforcement officials announced they had arrested 22 people on charges of separatism. The 22 were charged with plotting to create a new state in a part of northeastern Kazakhstan. Eight of them, mainly ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan, were later released.
The November announcement was somewhat surprising. Kazakhstan's political opposition has never before resorted to violence, but the alleged separatists were said to possess a small arsenal of weapons. In addition, according to Kazakh authorities, the group had planned to take over the industrial northeast regions of Kazakhstan and declare what was called a "Russian land republic."
Both before and during the trial -- which got under way two months ago in the northeastern city of Oskemen -- the state produced scant evidence to back these serious charges. What's more, relations with Russia soon began to turn sour. Vladimir Nestoyanov, the chief Russian diplomat in the new Kazakh capital, Astana, sought details of the alleged separatists' motives and preparations, but he was not allowed access to information turned up by the court's investigation. And Kazakhstan denied a request by the 12 Russian citizens to have a lawyer from Russia defend them.
The verdicts were finally announced last week. The convicted separatist ringleader, Viktor Kazimirchuk, received an 18-year jail sentence for having organized a criminal group and for seeking to violently overthrow the constitutional system. His two chief aides, Vladimir Chernyshev and Konstantin Sementsev, were each sentenced to 17 years.
And the Oskemen court issued a special censure of Russian diplomat Nestoyanov for what it called his "demonstrative contempt of the court and demands for special treatment."
In Moscow, officials strongly questioned the verdicts and called the sentences "severe." In Almaty, where the Russian Embassy in Kazakhstan is still located, press secretary Yuri Yuzhaninov defended Nestoyanov's actions before and during the trial:
"He simply sought to protect the interests of Russian citizens."
On Sunday, two days after the trial's end, Almaty Mayor Viktor Khrapunov organized a public meeting to ease growing interethnic tensions. He invited representatives of Kazakhstan's three major communities: ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute 51 percent of the country's 15 million population; ethnic Russians, who make up 36 percent; and the much smaller Russian Cossack community.
The idea of a Russian-language cultural center was raised, but it was rejected by Mayor Khrapunov, himself an ethnic Russian. Khrapunov's deputy, Adil Ibrayev, explained his chief's reasons for rejecting the idea:
"Mr. Khrapunov expressed a negative view on a Russian cultural center because 60 percent of the former capital's population are ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers, and all schools and universities use Russian far more than Kazakh. The situation for Kazakhs in Russia is much different. There are no schools, no newspapers."
The mood of the meeting was tense, and reconciliation among the different groups was not to be found. Yuri Bonnakov, the leader of an ethnic Russian organization, described the Oskemen court's verdict as "appalling." He asked the Almaty mayor to pass along the message that ethnic Russians want the investigation re-opened. Khrapunov declined to do so.
Khrapunov also took issue with the Cossacks' habit of wearing military uniforms -- replete with rank and insignia -- and carrying small whips in public. The Cossacks retorted that ethnic Kazakhs are allowed to wear traditional clothing. Cossack military uniforms, they said, constitute a long-honored tradition. To which Khrapunov responded tersely:
"Don't tell me any fairy tales!"
The three-and-a-half-hour meeting certainly brought the three communities no closer together. Still, nearly nine years of Kazakh independence have not brought them to blows, either.
The court verdicts will most likely figure in next week's scheduled talks in Moscow between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)