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Kazakhstan: Chechens Receive No Welcome

As Grozny comes under intense bombardment, some of the fleeing Chechens are trying to reach Kazakhstan, where many have relatives. But they are often finding that the land that once took them in is siding with Russia. Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service looks at the changing attitude toward Chechens in Kazakhstan.

Prague, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For the people of Chechnya, escape routes from the battlefields are few and sanctuaries fewer. Kazakhstan has been a sanctuary for Chechens in the past. When Stalin deported the Chechens en masse during World War Two, claiming they were Nazi collaborators, it was to Kazakhstan that they were relocated.

Back then, the Kazakhs took them in, and there is still a sizable Chechen community there. But now, as some Chechens try to return to the only place besides Chechnya where they can feel at home, the Kazakh government is less welcoming. The Muslim Chechens are feared as a vanguard of Islamic fundamentalism.

Last month, Kazakhstan expressed support for what it called Russia's "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya. And since then, newspapers and television reports in Kazakhstan have increasingly focused on the issue of terrorist threats.

A general rise in Islamic militancy in Central Asia, which gained international attention this fall with a hostage incident in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, has made the Kazakh government wary. The Chechen fighters who invaded Dagestan this past summer said they wanted to install an Islamic government.

Amanchi Gunashev is the Chechen government's official representative in Kazakhstan. He told RFE/RL that the Chechen refugees represent no threat to Kazakhstan. Gunashev spoke by telephone from Almaty.

"The number of Chechen immigrants coming to Kazakhstan is increasing. During the first war, in 1994 to '96, some 14,000 to 15,000 Chechens arrived in Kazakhstan. They returned home after the peace agreement was signed. Now again thousands of them are coming here to Kazakhstan -- but all of them are women, elderly people and children."

Yet Kazakh media are reporting extensively about those Kazakhs who have joined the Chechen rebels, implying that the Islamic militancy of the Caucasus could spread to Central Asia. Salman Shatoyev, a former Soviet Army colonel and an ethnic Chechen, told journalists a few weeks ago (November 30) that many Kazakh young men are being recruited by the Islamic militants in the Russian republic of Kalmykia.

Kazakhstan's newspapers are full of interviews with young citizens of Kazakhstan who used to be members of Chechen rebel military units. According to the newspaper "Karavan", the young men tell stories of being cheated by Chechen rebels who persuaded them to become "warriors of Islam" and then "used the young Kazakhs as human shields in their fight against Russian federal troops."

Last week, a Russian security official (Murad Gajimuradov) was shown on Kazakh television announcing the arrest of three ethnic Kazakhs in Dagestan. According to the official, the three intended to join the Chechen rebels when they were stopped by Russian troops and returned home. The three reportedly said they had been offered $100 per week to be "hired warriors of Islam." As is usual in such reports, the men involved did not speak in front of the camera.

Kazakh media also report that the western border of Kazakhstan and its Caspian Sea coast have been re-enforced. Authorities in the western Kazakh cities of Atyrau and Aqtau have canceled flights from Azerbaijan and Dagestan.

Still, hundreds of Chechen refugees have fled to Kazakhstan via the Caspian Sea. Kazakh news agencies report that almost every vessel arriving from Azerbaijan or Dagestan has at least four or five illegal Chechen immigrants. The reports always mention that some of them may be armed.

Reports such as these, in addition to the anti-Chechen Russian radio and television reports that are broadcast in Kazakhstan, are painting a negative image of Chechens. Kazakh journalists pepper their reports with phrases like "Chechen terrorists," "possible terrorist actions in Kazakhstan," "threat to ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan," and "illegal armed Chechen immigrants in Kazakhstan."

Many of Chechnya's current leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov, were born in Kazakhstan. The Chechen representative in Kazakhstan, Gunashev, says that Chechens will always be fond of Kazakhstan because of the kind treatment offered the Chechens when they were relocated there during World War Two.

"Any Chechen, no matter where he lives, considers Kazakhstan as his second motherland. I can assure you, no Chechen on Earth will do anything harmful to Kazakhstan or the Kazakh nation. What that nation did for us in the 1940s cannot be forgotten. Kazakhs saved the Chechen nation, sharing bread and shelter with the Chechens then."

Such feelings of camaraderie are not shared by Kazakhstan's government. Privately, some officials may be sympathetic toward the Chechen refugees, but Kazakhstan has held fast to its bonds with Russia. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev has publicly declared on numerous occasions that Russia is Kazakhstan's greatest friend.

For Chechen refugees now seeking to enter Kazakhstan, the only recourse is to sneak into the country.

(Bruce Pannier of RFE/RL contributed to this report.)