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  June 16, 2000  

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Central Asia/Russia

Russian 'separatists' highlight ethnic tensions
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Allegations of a Russian conspiracy for separatism in Kazakhstan highlight hidden ethnic tensions in the Central Asian country, in the wake of this month's decision by a Kazakh court against supposed Russian-speaking conspirators.

On June 8, a court in the north-eastern industrial city of Ust-Kamenogorsk handed down long prison terms to 13 people accused of plotting to overthrow the local government and of illegal possession of weapons, including the group's alleged leader, Vladimir Kazimirchuk. Kazimirchuk got an 18-year prison sentence, while the others - 10 Russian and 2 Kazakh citizens - also received long jail terms.

In November, Kazakh officials announced that 22 people, including 12 Russian citizens, were arrested in Ust-Kamenogorsk for conspiring to overthrow the government. They were arrested by Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB. Kazakh security forces searched for the group after reading a report in a newspaper in the neighboring Russian region. The KNB alleged that arrested group leader, Kazimirchuk, had planned a terrorist campaign aimed at creating a predominantly Russian, independent enclave in eastern Kazakhstan.

As evidence, the KNB produced rifle cartridges and petrol bombs, which led to the June 8 sentence by the Ust-Kamenogorsk court. ''The alleged plotters were not sentenced for any concrete actions - their guilt was just their intentions,'' argued Alexander Shushannikov, member of Ust-Kamenogorsk municipal council and a Russian community activist. It was a ''show trial'' to send a message to all Russian-speakers, seeking closer ties with Russia, he told Russian NTV television channel.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had said the affair looked like a criminal incident, and not a political plot. He also promised that it was not going to affect relations with Russia.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin also dismissed the incident, when it first surfaced, as not serious. When the sentence was announced, Russian diplomats in Kazakhstan said they would appeal to Kazakh authorities to deport Russian citizens.

Russia has made no territorial claims on Kazakhstan - a vast tract of empty steppe which stretches from the Caspian Sea to China - since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, its officials vow to protect the rights of Russian-speakers living there.

However, despite the official pronouncements, the future of Kazakhstan's Slav population remains a divisive issue between two countries.

Kazakhstan still has a large Russian ethnic minority along a 7,000-kilometer border with southern Russia. Only the emigration of the Slav population, or Russian-speakers, estimated at hundreds of thousands since independence, has made the Kazakhs a marginal majority in their own country. Russians, once a majority in Kazakhstan, now account for roughly a third of the 17 million population.

In the years following Kazakh independence, Russians have been leaving largely because of a lack of economic opportunities, as well as education prospects for the younger generation. Despite the presence of some Slavs among Kazakhstan's high-ranking officials, Russian speakers feel under-represented as they feel the Kazakhs are de facto favorites in career advancement.

Several measures against some Slav activists were also a factor. A number of community leaders - notably Semirechensk Cossacks in eastern Kazakhstan - have been sued or detained in recent years on the grounds of charges like defamation, and which are seen as unjust by the Slavs.

Though open ethnic tensions have rarely surfaced, some Russian nationalists in Moscow have blamed Nazarbayev of discriminating against the Slav population and thus pushing them to emigrate. Russian nationalists argue that Kazakhstan never existed in its current borders and that the Kazakh northeastern regions are historically part of Russia.

Thus far, Nazarbayev has been careful to refrain from playing the nationalist card. He has stressed the stability Kazakhstan has enjoyed under his rule compared to the ethnic strife in some other new independent states that sprouted from the Soviet collapse in 1991.

In January 1999, Nazarbayev won another seven-year presidential mandate, though the bulk of the population is impatient with unpaid wages and pensions and have been largely bypassed by market reforms.

However, critics say Nazarbayev yielded to the temptation of high-profile nationalist gestures. In an apparent attempt to strengthen the Kazakhs' newly discovered national identity, Nazarbayev in December moved the country's capital to Astana, an obscure steppe town, some 1,000 kilometers northwest of Almaty, the former capital. The price tag for the move now is some $400 million - roughly equivalent to the Kazakh state budget deficit in 1999.

There are different explanations for the move: to relocate the capital away from the Chinese border, problems posed by Almaty's pollution, and the fact that the town of 1.5 million is earthquake-prone. Other cited reasons are to secure the Central Asian state's north, populated mostly by Slavs, some of whom would prefer closer ties to Russia. Still, critics argue the country, with gross domestic product of some $22 billion, could hardly afford a luxury of relocating the capital.

Russia has remained something of a big brother to many of the former Soviet republics, notably in Central Asia where Moscow controls access to Soviet-built pipelines to export oil and gas. Russia remains Kazakhstan's most important trade partner, accounting for roughly a third of merchandise trade. However, trade turnover between Russia and Kazakhstan fell from $3.2 billion in 1998 to around $2.5 billion last year, reflecting somewhat uneasy bilateral relations.

Moscow has also complained that its ''transparent'' border with Kazakhstan is virtually open to smugglers, like drug dealers. Some Russian regions have in fact dispatched local Cossack militia to guard the border. But Russia's deployment of Cossacks - descendants of a Slav warrior class - along their common frontier touched a raw nerve in Kazakhstan.

Memories of Cossack colonization of the Kazakh steppe, which violently moved the borders of the tsarist empire eastward, remain strong among the once nomadic Kazakhs.

(Inter Press Service)

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