In Kazakhstan, a New Year’s tragedy continues to echo far beyond its borders

Fights on New Year’s Eve are all too common. But a brawl in Karaganda, Kazakhstan has stirred up public opinion both inside and outside the country.

Maxim Alexeyev
4 March 2019

As New Year’s Eve 2018 passed in Karaganda, this mid-size Kazakh city witnessed an incident that quickly escalated into a mass brawl.

As Karaganda’s Ancient Rome restaurant closed for the evening, a group of nine patrons refused to leave. The waiting staff, who included relatives of the restaurant’s owner, decided to forcibly eject the unruly diners into the street. The patrons called for back-up, and three cars arrived shortly after.

Judging by CCTV footage, the conflict rapidly evolved into a 30-person brawl, complete with metal bars and sticks. One of the restaurant’s patrons, 23-year-old Rakhymzhan Zhanseit, died from injuries suffered during the fight, and another two patrons were injured.

As it turned out, the clientele were ethnic Kazakhs, and those running the restaurant were ethnic Armenians. Police officers detained three suspects, and another, Armenian citizen Narek Gururyan, fled the scene.

Kazakh media did not pay particular attention to this tragic incident at the time. It passed as one of many New Years Eve scuffles. But it has continued to reverberate both inside Kazakhstan and beyond.

Demands for justice

A day later, on 2 January, a group of Kazakh men gathered outside Ancient Rome — they demanded that the restaurant should be closed, and that those guilty for the murder of Rakhymzhan Zhanseit be found.

According to Karaganda civic activist Aitkozhi Fazylova, unknown persons broke the windows of an office at a city bus garage owned by an ethnic Armenian that same day. Karaganda resident Andrey Kim reported on Facebook that other buildings had also been damaged: “Based on WhatsApp group messages, the Alania, King Tigran, My Tbilisi and Arista cafes have also been targeted. Police and diaspora elders recommend that people from the Caucasus don’t leave their homes or open their businesses.”

The first official reaction came only on 3 January. “Individuals are trying to destabilise the atmosphere,” the Karaganda Prosecutor’s Office stated. “Speculating on this story, they are provoking citizens and their families to take illegal action. They are spreading highly false information about this interethnic conflict, which is designed to manipulate public opinion.”

In this context, a statement by Kazakhstan’s deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Zhanat Suleimenov was unexpected. According to Suleimenov, in the week after New Year’s Eve, more than 5,000 rights violations were registered in Kazakhstan, including 39 murders and 46 instances of grievous bodily harm. But only the murder in Karaganda shocked society, bringing issues of nationality policy to the fore. The only reason for this is the fact that Ancient Rome’s clientele that night was majority Kazakh, and their opponents were Armenians and one Kazakh.

“What are you, cowards?”

From year to year Kazakhstan witnesses violent incidents connected to race or workers from other countries. In 1989, for example, a conflict emerged between Kazakhs and Chechens in Novyi Uzen (Zhanaozen), the first and bloodiest of its kind in Kazakhstan’s recent history. Indeed, there were conflicts with Chechens in the east of the country in 1992, and then in Almaty region in 2007; Uighurs (2006), Kurds (2011) in Almaty region; Tajiks (2016) and Kurds (2007) in the south of the country. There were mass brawls with Turkish workers in 2006, Chinese workers in 2010 and 2015, as well as Indian workers in 2017. Several of these incidents ended in the loss of life and injuries.

In 2019, Kazakh sections of social media, particularly Facebook, discussed events in Karaganda, with many users openly expressing dismay at the behaviour of representatives of the Armenian diaspora.

Most likely, the information about the incident made its way online via the police. At least, the format of the initial message was similar to a police report, including surnames, nationalities of participants and their home addresses. Initially, the report also included the names of two men, brothers from Azerbaijan, who later turned out to have no relation to the fight.

Anar Akkozy, a blogger and businessperson from Almaty, was one of many who didn’t hide their emotions on Facebook:

“Why can’t you stand up for yourself. Even if there are less of you than the enemy?! Why are you permitting deaths in peace time??? What are you, cowards??? […] It’s the end for you. I’d like our nation to survive among its enemies in its historic Motherland.”

According to different sources, on 6 January, more than 300 people gathered in the centre of Karaganda and marched to the regional administration building, demanding “a just investigation”. According to Aitkozha Fazylov, the protesters presented their demands to the head of the regional administration, where they asked that the Armenian diaspora “apologise, transfer the bus garage to the state, and sack the owner Artur Manukyan from his position.” Other sources suggested that the requests went further, including banning Armenian businessmen from participating in tenders for road repair, and give all cafe and restaurants belonging to Caucasus people Kazakh names, and limit their opening hours to 11pm.

Interestingly, unsanctioned protests usually end in arrests and ensuing court sessions for organisers and participants in Kazakhstan, but on this occasion, the police only cordoned off the area where the protest was taking place. Aitkozha Fazylov, who witnessed the protest and was present at the meeting with the regional leadership, says “If they’d started detaining people, the situation would have got out of control.”

On the other hand, many people in society believe that the events in the aftermath of the fight at the Ancient Rome restaurant developed with someone’s approval. Sergey Duvanov, a journalist, wrote the following on Facebook:

“Observing the situation with the ‘interethnic’ conflict in Karaganda, I increasingly believe that the dismay was the result of focused actions by certain forces interested in creating tension in Kazakh society. One version is that this xenophobic brawl didn’t happen by itself, but was sanctioned by the Akorda [the presidential administration]. The aim was to remind people who the main guarantor of social stability and inter-ethnic harmony is in Kazakhstan.”

Kazakh authorities often use hate speech legislation — and as a rule, a careless post or share online is enough to wind up under investigation. But in the Karaganda incident, the Prosecutor’s Office has reported that it is investigating only one case of hate speech on the social network VKontakte, while there were dozens of unfriendly posts and calls for action online at the time.

A further echo of the events in Karaganda was a visit by a group of men, ethnic Kazakhs, to an Azerbaijani cafe in Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) in eastern Kazakhstan. These men expressed their anger at the fact that cafe displayed an Azerbaijani flag in its entrance, and one of them said that “there will be blood”. The guests, perhaps, did not quite understand the subtleties of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.

An international conflict

According to Kazakhstan’s 1999 census, there are 15,000 Armenians living in the country — a small number for its 18 million population, where Kazakhs make up 65% of the population.

But still, both “sides” reacted to events. On 7 January, Armenian MP Edmon Marukyan, leader of Bright Armenia, commented on the Karaganda events (“Initial observations show that Azeris managed to turn this interpersonal conflict into an anti-Armenian action”), and called for the Kazakh ambassador to Armenia to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain the situation. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan opted for restraint, expressing his condolences to the family of Rakhymzhan Zhanseit, and stating that the “incident cannot have an interethnic character. The conflicting sides were not monoethnic.” Indeed, both groups outside the Ancient Rome restaurant had people from different nationalities: a Kazakh in the Armenian group, and a Russian among the Kazakh group.

Meanwhile, tensions began to fade in Kazakhstan after leaders of the Armenian Cultural Centre in Karaganda apologised on behalf of the diaspora, expressing their condolences to the family. But most importantly, suspect Narik Gururyan handed himself over to Russian law enforcement. He is now expected to be transferred to Kazakh custody.

Still, the Karaganda events and calls for changing the country’s nationality policy have dominated online discussion in Kazakhstan. In “Turkish” groups online, many users from Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed sympathy for their “brotherly people” in Kazakhstan, though not without focusing on Armenians. “These people think they can threaten Turks in Turkish republics! I am not calling for anything, not at all. But [Armenians] need to be put in their place,” concluded one YouTube account called “Turkish National Socialists”. By mid-February, this video had reached 134,000 views.

An article published on 7 January, on the website ArmenianReport.com, once again stirred up anti-Armenian feeling online. The article in question (“Everyday Kazakh nationalism: in Kazakhstan, they are calling for Armenian blood”) was full of insults to Kazakhs. But this website most likely has no relationship to Armenia, and could have been created by people wishing to whip up anti-Armenian feeling, reported Samvel Martirosyan, an expert on information security.

The final instance of the international resonance of the Karaganda events was provided by News Front, a Russian site based in Crimea, who interviewed two representatives of Kazakhstan’s “anti-fascist movement” in a live broadcast called “Fascism has raised its head in Kazakhstan”.

The two interviewees, Bakhytzhan Kopbayev and Anna Nevskaya, claimed that they warned the local security services of a coming mobilisation by Kazakh nationalists, and apparently handed over a list of names of “radicals” in the Karaganda region.

Kopbayev, a businessmen and civic figure, and Nevskaya, director of an art studio, position themselves as leaders of the “anti-fascist movement” in Kazakhstan. Though this is the first time this “movement” has been mentioned in the press, Kopbayev has previously expressed his intention to create an “International Party”, provoking discussions online: does fascism exist in Kazakhstan? And is the “anti-fascist” movement a project of the Kremlin?

A laboratory of the friendship of peoples

As soon as the situation began to calm down, discussions online reached a new level.

For example, Arekanzi Batayevsky, an Almaty blogger, began to speak openly about Kazakh nationalism. “This is what I’ll say: Kazakh nationalism existed before and it will continue to do so while the nation is alive! And it will gain momentum until we build an ethnic state from Altay to Atyrau!” Another Facebook user, Ruslan Tusupbekov, a specialist in international law living in Moscow, said: “You need to understand that until the problems of an everyday Kazakh are solved, there won’t be any development. All the other ethnic groups have solved their problems - housing, land, they have businesses. But Kazakhs are still second-rate citizens in their own state.”

Mukhtar Taizhan, an Almaty businessmen and charity leader, expressed a softer version of these sentiments — more palatable to the public. He proposed to solve the issue of the dominance of Russian language, as well as introducing the concept of the “state-forming nation”. “Ideology should reflect the spirit of the time, account for geopolitical realities and internal processes. This dissatisfaction of the Kazakh nation will not end well, my friends.” It should be noted that Taizhan often acts in line with Kazakh national patriots, bringing up sensitive topics for the public — from the lease of the Baikonur space complex to Russia or the attempt at land reform in 2016.

Narek Gurunyan states he is ready to hand himself over to Kazakh police, 7 January 2019.

Zhemis Turmagambetov, director of the Charter for Human Rights organisation, took a different point of view. “Kazakhstan is no longer a planet of a hundred languages, a laboratory of the friendship of peoples, as it used to be called. This conflict has been brewing for a long time in society. We need to work with the police: they need to understand what careless words can lead to. The situation in Novyi Uzen in the 1990s, when people called for all Chechens to be deported, has not taught us anything.”

Indeed, representatives of the Armenian Cultural Centre in Karaganda remember recent history all too well. “Certain issues have not been solved, but the authorities are working well, keeping everything under control. There’s no danger now, but people are still scared. All normal people in Kazakhstan think that this has nothing to do with race,” commented Artur Navasardyan, chairman of the centre.

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