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Kazakhstan: Protest By Anti-Turkish Kurds Causes Embarrassment

Prague, 15 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has been diplomatically embarrassed by the unexpected anti-Turkish protest staged by ethnic Kurds in the Kazakh capital Almaty.

The Turkish foreign ministry has sent an official protest note to the Kazakh government saying that such incidents cannot "be allowed to take place in a country which has fraternal relations with Turkey".

An RFE/RL correspondent in Almaty reports that the demonstration on March 31 and the diplomatic flurry it subsequently caused, represent the first difficulty in Turkish-Kazakh relations since Kazakhstan's independence in 1991.

Kazakh authorities are now investigating what happened and why, but they have not yet announced any findings.

The background to the event, as outlined to RFE/RL by Professor Nadir Nadirov, a leader of the ethnic Kurd community, is this: The professor says that it had been agreed with the appropriate authorities nearly three months in advance that the Kurds would have the use on March 31 of the Paluvan Sholaq sports palace in Almaty for a mass gathering. The purpose of the gathering was a celebration of the Nauruz holiday, the traditional festivity celebrated when the length of the day equals the length of the night.

The festivity brought together thousands of ethnic Kurds from Kazakhstan as well as visitors from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and as far afield as Moscow. There was no suggestion from the organizers that anything political was planned. But when the crowd began to gather at the sports palace on the appointed day, the gates were found to be locked, and the stadium administration gave no explanation.

Our correspondent reports that at this stage tempers began to heat, and some 3,000 people started a march which took them along one of the city's main thoroughfares, Abay's Prospect.

Without warning demonstrators raised banners featuring the name of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is fighting a bloody campaign for an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey. Pictures of PKK leaders also appeared. There were also chants for "free Kurdistan." Security forces blocked the way further, and the demonstration ended when authorities relented, allowing the festivity to go ahead at the sports palace after all.

It was the appearance of the banned PKK's name which so incensed Turkey, which is extremely sensitive to its international image on the Kurdish question. How did the banners and pictures appear so quickly at a gathering which was mean to celebrate an ancient feast? The rapidity suggests that militant young Kurds among the Almaty crowd had a political demonstration in mind from the first.

Some Kazakh officials say that agents of the special services had obtained information to this effect beforehand. As a result, the special services informed the Almaty mayor's office, which in turn decided to ban the gathering at the sports palace. That's why the gates were locked.

In doing that, the city authorities appear to have made a tactical mistake which allowed the incident to develop into a diplomatic embarrassment. They did not approach directly the organisers of the celebration, the Yakbun ("Flame") Cultural Centre of Kazakh Kurds, in order to gain assurances there would be no political manifestations. Instead the city chose the Soviet-style solution of simply informing the sports palace administration that the Kurds were to be denied entry.

The Almaty incident took place just one day after a Congress of Ethnic Kazakhs ended in Turkey. The week-long congress in Istanbul brought together hundreds of delegates, including 40-member team from Kazakhstan. During the congress the new building of the Ethnic Kazakhs Society of Turkey was opened in a ceremony attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller.

Our correspondent reports that many doubt the timing of the Almaty event was pure coincidence in view of the what was happening in Istanbul. And he says the Kurd demonstration was unique in Kazakhstan in that it was aimed exclusively at the international scene, rather than dealing with internal grievances.

It also shows that the issue of Anti-Turkish Kurd separatism could be gaining a foothold in the former USSR. The west has long been the scene of relentless demonstrations and attacks by Kurds on Turkish facilities. A further spread of anti-Turkish sentiments would be most unwelcome to Ankara.