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Socio-Economic Tension Threatens Kazakhstan's Ethnic Harmony

A fatal clash between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens in a village in south-eastern Kazakhstan has raised questions about whether the country's much-touted ethnic harmony is under threat, and whether socio-economic tensions are endangering stability in this booming state.

The unrest began March 17 with a fight over a game of billiards and ended with an attack on the house of a Chechen family that left five dead. Eyewitnesses say violence broke out in the village of Malovodnoye, about 80 kilometers east of Almaty, when Takhir Makhmakhanov, an ethnic Chechen from the neighboring village of Kazatkom, refused to concede defeat to his rival, Baurzhan Salimbayev, an ethnic Kazakh. After the two came to blows, Salimbayev left the billiards hall, but was chased by Makhmakhanov, who ran into him in a jeep and broke his leg, then shot him in the other leg.

The following day, Salimbayev went to the Makhmakhanov family home in the neighboring village with a convoy of some 50 carloads of supporters that besieged the house. Eyewitnesses say shots were fired from inside. In the ensuing fracas, nine people were injured. Three died that day and two more subsequently died after being hospitalized. Three of the dead were brothers of Takhir Makhmakhanov, who is now on the run. The Makhmakhanov family disputes this version of events, saying the attack was long planned and their house was fired on from the crowd.

Some 50 people have been arrested and face charges ranging from premeditated murder to hooliganism and damage to property. The incident was followed by rallies in which participants demanded the family's removal from the village.

In response to the clashes, riot police were brought in from across Almaty Region to restore order. Approaches to both villages remain heavily guarded. In late March, police were patrolling approaches to Malovodnoye, which lies on a key artery linking Kazakhstan's commercial capital with China. In Kazatkom, some 10 kilometers across the open steppe, police were guarding the entrance to the village, where the charred remains of the Makhmakhanovs' home stand: the house was set on fire by the angry crowd. The family has been moved to an undisclosed, secure location.

"It's quiet on the streets -- you can see for yourself," a senior police officer, who declined to identify himself, told EurasiaNet as he stood guard at the emergency headquarters set up in Malovodnoye. Local authorities declined to comment.

News of five deaths over a game of billiards caused consternation in Kazakhstan, which prides itself on social stability and ethnic harmony. Home to over 130 ethnic groups, Kazakhstan cannot afford ethnic discord. Almaty Region's Enbek District, where the clash occurred, is home to large numbers of Turks, Chechens, Uighurs and Kurds, who, according to local MP Serik Abdrakhmanov, comprise more than half of the district's population. The presence of tens of thousands of Chechens in Kazakhstan today is linked to a decision made by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to deport the ethnic group en masse during World War II.

Some see Kazakhstan's diversity as a source of tension. "Relations [between ethnic communities] are bad," a woman out shopping in Malovodnoye told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.

A fellow villager, who also declined to identify himself, disagreed. "[Ethnicity] could be just coincidence. [The fight] was just a settling of scores," he said.

Both, however, pointed to discrepancies in living standards among villagers as a factor behind the incident. An income gap is readily evident: it is a common sight for large houses -- such as that belonging to the Makhmakhanov family in nearby Kazatkom -- to stand near the small, dilapidated houses of their less well-off neighbors.

The ethnicities of those involved in the clash have attracted media, yet the roots of the incident may lie elsewhere. As Kazakhstan's oil-rich economy booms -- growing at a roughly double-digit rate for the last six years -- the rich-poor and rural-urban divides have widened, leading to social discontent.

While Kazakhstan's elite and burgeoning middle class have been riding the oil boom, the poor have struggled to adapt to market conditions. Many have grown poorer, battling to reconcile rising prices with low wages. Sixteen percent of the population lives on less than 2 dollars per day, according to UNDP figures.

In a March 28 statement, Abdrakhmanov, the local MP, called for a sober evaluation of the underlying causes of the clash, which lie "beyond the boundaries of these villages." With local authorities understaffed, under-resourced and lacking real power in Kazakhstan's centralized system, people have little influence over "vital local issues: the sale of land plots, property, the use of water resources."

"Discontent is growing in the villages," Abdrakhmanov added.

"Rural relations are becoming more and more acute, especially near cities. Despite a reduction in the number of cattle, there is a lack of pasture and of land to make hay, because land is not always allocated fairly," the statement continued.

Land is a sensitive topic. As prices for land and housing rocket, the less well-off are coming under increasing economic stress. Land disputes on the outskirts of Almaty led to clashes between inhabitants and police last summer, as people accused of settling there illegally were evicted. Observers have pointed to a perception among ordinary people that the rich and powerful are protected by a system in which corruption is endemic. "Shadow business is flourishing in many areas under the

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.

Socio-Economic Tension Threatens Kazakhstan's Ethnic Harmony

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