Kazakhstan’s Nervous Censors Block Reports on Ethnic Clash
Kazakhstan is blocking reports of an ethnic clash in the south, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.
Reports highlighting the ethnic angle of the unrest in the village of Bostandyk on February 5 – which pitted local Kazakhs against Tajiks after a row over a greenhouse ended in murder – have mostly become unavailable inside the country, while reports that covered the unrest without stressing the ethnic component are largely available.
Individual reports have been blocked on Kazakhstani sites such as Today.kz and in international media such as EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL (some of whose reports were blocked while others were not).
Blocking individual reports rather than whole sites is a tactic increasingly used by the authorities to restrict access to information Astana deems sensitive. Legislative changes last year gave prosecutors power to block information without a court order. Since last fall law-enforcement agencies have blocked 703 websites and 198 individual reports, general-prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev said last month, mostly on grounds of extremism.
The ethnic Tajik man suspected of committing the murder that sparked the clash in southern Kazakhstan has been arrested over the border in Uzbekistan and immediately returned to Kazakhstan in a rapid-fire extradition, the Nur.kz news site reported on February 7.
That may go some way toward calming tensions, which clearly remain high: Police said that on February 6 they had thwarted bids by “individual groups” from Bostandyk (home of the murder suspect) to enter the neighboring village of Yntymak (home of the murder victim)—presumably with the intention of carrying out attacks in revenge for the attack by Kazakhs on their village.
The situation in the area is “under control,” police HQ for South Kazakhstan Region reported on February 7.
Keen to play down the ethnic angle, they described the murder as a “domestic” incident.
Yet the blocking of media reports reveals how sensitive Astana is to frictions between communities in multi-ethnic Kazakhstan. These sensitivities have been sharpened by the conflict in Ukraine, given the implications of the Kremlin’s self-appointed right to intervene in foreign countries to protect the interests of Russian speakers abroad.
Ethnic Russians form Kazakhstan’s largest minority, at 21 percent of the population nationwide, but living in far greater numbers in northern Kazakhstan along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia. Their mood tends to be staunchly pro-Russian.
Kazakhstan’s 140 ethnic groups generally rub along smoothly and ethnic-based clashes are rare, but the incident in southern Kazakhstan reveals how local arguments can spiral out of control and split along ethnic lines.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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