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Kazakhstan: Deadly Melee Leaves Unanswered Questions

(RFE/RL) April 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It has been two weeks since a pool-hall brawl in southeastern Kazakhstan erupted into deadly violence pitting ethnic Chechens against mostly ethnic Kazakhs. Security troops are still patrolling two villages to avert new violence, and Kazakhstan's president has vowed to bring the perpetrators on both sides to justice. But the violence has led to soul-searching in a republic that was held up in Soviet days as a model of ethnic and national harmony.

The death toll has risen to five from the ethnically charged violence that followed the pool-hall fisticuffs.

The ensuing melee involved mainly members of Kazakhstan's ethnic Chechen community and ethnic Kazakhs in the villages of Malovodnoye and Kazatkom -- both of which remain under tight police watch.

It has led to mutual recriminations and evidence of negligence and corruption on the part of Kazakhstan's authorities.

Details of the initial fight remained unclear days after the incident, as authorities had sealed off the area. Investigators suggest that a fight broke out between an ethnic Kazakh and an ethnic Chechen at a billiard hall on the night of March 17. But the violence did not end with an exchange of punches.

The young Chechen reportedly waited outside the pool hall after the fighting and struck the other man with his vehicle, then shot the Kazakh before spitting on him.

Reports say a large group of ethnic Kazakhs marched to the Chechen man's home the next day and demanded that he come outside. Instead, they met with gunfire from inside the home. Once the shooting died down, the angry crowd apparently burned the house to the ground. In the end, the Chechen youth had escaped but three relatives and two ethnic Kazakhs were dead.

The mother of the Chechen man suffered a heart attack and was reported to be in critical condition.

Ethnically Diverse

It is quite a blow for a country that the Soviets referred to as a "laboratory of nationalities friendship" and home to more than 100 sizable ethnic groups.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has vowed to maintain order and pledged to track down around 50 people suspected of crimes ranging from manslaughter to illegal weapons possession and destruction of property.

Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, took up the issue on March 29.

Lawmaker Bekbolat Tluekhanov expressed alarm at the escalation that followed simple fistfight.

"Traditionally we respect peace, [but] look at what happened," Tluekhanov said. "There was a fight between two people, [and then] the losing party used his car to extract revenge [and] used a gun and spat on an opponent. This is not our mentality. The question is how on earth do these people have so much ammunition in this home. I demand that the Interior Minister answer this question in front of parliament."

Legislator Serik Abdurakhmanov -- whose constituency includes the scene of the violence -- blamed local law enforcement. He hinted at smoldering passions compounded by distrust of local police.

"The main reason for the bloodshed in Malovodnoye and Kazatkom is criminality among the local police -- in their being completely corrupt," Abdurakhmanov said. "There have been several clashes in the region in the last several years. Both sides told me that they had asked for justice, but none of their appeals were satisfied or brought to conclusion. This has led to a situation in which young, healthy men who lost faith in the authorities sought justice on their own."

Parliamentarian Rauan Shaikin cited a melee in October between Kazakhs and Turks at an oil field in western Kazakhstan, and between Kazakhs and Uyghurs near Almaty in December and wondered aloud whether those incidents were part of a trend.

"Haven't we too often distanced ourselves from these things in the last three years?" Shaikin asked. "It happened with the Turks, with the Uyghurs, and in this case with Chechens. And, by the way, there were not only Kazakhs on the one side -- there were Russians and (Mekhetian) Turks."

Fanning Flames?

There are officially about 30,000 ethnic Chechens in Kazakhstan, although unofficial estimates are significantly higher. Most are the result of Stalin-era deportations from the North Caucasus.

Ahmad Muradov, the leader of the Chechen community in Kazakhstan, has alleged that the recent violence is a result of a plot to foment ethnic conflict in Kazakhstan.

"There are forces that have been preparing this [conflict] for a while now," Muradov said. "When they heard about the incident between the Kazakhs and the Chechens, they seized the opportunity to fan the fire. Actually, they are still busy fomenting the conflict. In view of the scale of the crime, I am beginning to suspect that those forces are trying to destabilize the country. Fifty-one criminal cases are currently being considered. The investigation team includes more than 100 people. The country's deputy interior minister and deputy prosecutor-general are in charge of the investigation. The president receives reports about its progress. The investigation will hopefully expose the culprits and show who was innocent. And then the court will have its say."

Others are warning of the danger of unfounded accusations that could undermine Kazakhstan's history of ethnic peace.

Lawmaker Nurtay Sabilyanov accused leaders like Muradov of making the situation worse.

"The person who is adding fuel to the fire -- the leader of the Chechen Diaspora, Ahmed Muradov -- openly accuses the entire Kazakh nation of everything to protect the other (Chechen) side," Sabilyanov said. "This kind of person should act responsibly."

Ruslan Makhmakhanov, a member of the Chechen family at the heart of the violence two weeks ago, claims that since his brother fled after the fighting, the media in Kazakhstan have disseminated biased and incorrect information -- including about brother Amir, who was killed in the fighting.

"Some newspapers began to vilify our family," Makhmakhanov said. "No one in our family even smokes, let alone drinks alcohol. The newspapers say we spent our time in restaurants. They also say Amir was a womanizer. But he lived for the past five years in England and never left it. I have a feeling that the press is deliberately inflaming the situation."

Rebuilding Trust

There are some who are trying to mend the rift between the two communities in the areas around Kazatkom and Malovodnoye. About half the families in Malovodnoye are said to be ethnic Chechens.

And reports say that members of the Chechen community have gone to the homes of Kazakh families whose relatives were killed in the altercation to express their condolences.

The mother of the one of the dead Kazakhs told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that what is needed is forgiveness.

"I was not there. What I know is what I heard from my neighbors," the mother said. "My son went [to the Chechens' home]. They told me that when my son raised his hands and called to them to come out and talk, he was shot on the spot. Representatives of the Chechen nation: We cannot blame the whole piece of butter because there is one rotten pea in it. I am not angry with anyone; I cannot say who is guilty. Maybe it is God's will. The only thing I'm sad about is that it is very unlikely that details of this will reach the president's ears. If it does not reach his ears, nothing will happen."

The police presence continues in Kazatkom and Malovodnoye, where no new violence has been reported. But the question that lingers is whether the central government -- or indeed any outsiders -- can restore mutual trust in the wake of the five deaths that have sent shock waves throughout Kazakhstan.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and North Caucasus Services contributed to this report.)

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