killed in a fight involving Chechens and Kazaks, the authorities are quick to 
downplay the ethnic angle.  By Daur Dosybiev in Almaty

KAZAKSTAN’S BELEAGUERED MEDIA MINISTER  Journalists turn the tables on a 
minister they say is behind repressive broadcasting and press laws.  By Gaziza 
Baituova in Taraz

RED TAPE MARKS KYRGYZ-UZBEK BORDER  Travellers complain that bribery and 
harassment continues unchecked on the frontier, whatever regulations are 
supposed to be in place.  By IWPR staff in Kyrgyzstan


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After three people are killed in a fight involving Chechens and Kazaks, the 
authorities are quick to downplay the ethnic angle.

By Daur Dosybiev in Almaty

An outbreak of violence involving Chechens and Kazaks has sent shockwaves 
through a country which prides itself on maintaining harmonious relations among 
its different ethnic groups.

Police are investigating an incident which took place in the village of 
Malovodnoye, not far from the former capital Almaty on March 18, in which a 
fight between two local men escalated into street battles between their 
respective communities, leaving three people dead and five more seriously 

Riot police units cordoned off the area once order had been restored, and 
village elders were asked to look into the causes of the unrest as the police 
launched more formal enquiries.

Meanwhile, the authorities moved quickly to contain the political damage, 
dismissing suggestions that ethnic differences had played a major role in 
fanning a minor brawl into an ugly confrontation involving about 200 people.

Analysts and others interviewed by IWPR differed on whether the clash 
highlighted unresolved issues about communities and representation, or whether 
it just showed how unruly people have become since Soviet rule came to an end 
in 1991. 

Bagdat Kojakhmetov, a spokesman for Kazakstan’s interior ministry, told 
reporters that the area involved was one where Kazaks and Chechens live in 
close proximity.

But he insisted that those responsible for the violence should be characterised 
by their behaviour, not their ethnicity. 

“It was hooliganism - a disagreement between two individuals which escalated 
into a confrontation,” he said.

Kojakhmetov also issued a warning to the media, reminding them that reporting 
which portrayed an event of this kind as the result of ethnic animosity could 
itself be considered a form of incitement, and therefore punishable under Kazak 

The violence began on March 17, when a fight broke out between two local men in 
a billiard hall in Malovodnoye, and one of them was shot in the leg. 

An eyewitness who is not a resident but is a frequent visitor to both 
Malovodnoye and KazAtKom, a neighbouring village where some of those involved 
in the fighting came from, told IWPR that “initially, the conflict had nothing 
to do with ethnicity”.

“Two guys had a fight, and one beat the other up. But then the one who’d been 
beaten up chased after the other one in a car and drove into him, and then shot 
him in the leg,” said the eyewitness.

The next day, the wounded man discharged himself from hospital, gathered dozens 
of supporters and went to the neighbouring village of KazAtKom where his 
assailant lived. As the crowd arrived, shots were fired and two people were 
killed, while a third person – a relative of the man they had come to get – 
also died. 

In the heat of the confrontation, it did not help that the wounded man seeking 
vengeance and his allies were Kazaks, while the other man and his family 
happened to be Chechens. 

Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia during the Second 
World War. They were allowed to return to the North Caucasus after Stalin died, 
and most did so, but some remained behind – preserving a distinct cultural 
identity even though like the Central Asian Kazaks, they are Muslim.

The eyewitness said the billiard-room brawl has ignited all sorts of old 
prejudices and resentments. “Now the Kazaks don’t remember that it all started 
with a brawl. They remember all the crimes ever committed by Chechens – as if 
Kazaks don’t commit crime as well,” he said.

Akhmed Muratov of the Chechen-Ingush National Cultural Centre, which 
articulates Chechen community interests in Kazakstan, insists that it would be 
wrong to jump to conclusions about the causes of the violence. 

“It’s important not to listen to provocations but to investigate the reasons 
for this incident so as to stop it happening ever again,” he said.

An officer with the Almaty regional police department, who requested anonymity, 
suggested that cultural factors provide a clue as to why a minor incident 
escalated so quickly. Both Chechens and Kazaks tend to live in communities made 
up of extended family, he said, and in a crisis they will naturally rally to 
the support of their kin. 

But the police officer said the aggressive behaviour seen in the incident needs 
to be understood in the context of broader social changes that have affected 
society in Kazakstan. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a kind of 
free-for-all replaced the old deference to institutions, and people lost 
confidence both in the rule of law and in the police who are supposed to uphold 

“When the laws no longer function, people start living by the law of the 
jungle,” he said.

He noted that there had been some calls to evict the whole Chechen community 
from the area, but he insisted these were emotional outbursts made in the heat 
of the moment rather than a reflection of deep-seated racism.

As evidence of this, the policeman pointed out that KazAtKom has plenty of 
Chechen residents, yet the crowd which descended on the village “did not target 
anyone else” – they were after one man.

Political analyst Eduard Poletaev agrees that distrust of the police could have 
played a role. 

“People’s trust in the law-enforcement agencies is being drastically eroded. 
This is particularly apparent in the smaller towns and villages, where many 
problems are solved through negotiations,” he said. “None of those involved in 
the fight thought about going to the police. Instead of that, they chose to 
escalate the conflict by taking the law into their own hands.”

However, Yevgeny Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights 
and Rule of Law, warns that there are latent tensions among various ethnic 
communities in Kazakstan, and that these should not be left to fester just 
because they represent an uncomfortable truth. 

“Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, this was a mass conflict of an 
inter-ethnic nature. If people go round setting fire to someone’s house after a 
fistfight, there has to be a deep-rooted reason for it,” he said.

He says that if social problems cannot be discussed in an open and balanced 
manner, then radical views could garner mainstream support.

According to Zhovtis, the majority of people in Kazakstan are tolerant of 
ethnic and religious differences. “But you can’t take that for granted. It is 
not enough to set up cultural centres and have folk-dancing on national 
holidays,” he said.

“You have to afford people equal opportunities to be involved in government and 
business, and tackle social problems.” 

He added, “These issues get discussed among ethnic minority circles, but they 
don’t get an airing at the government level.” 

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.


Journalists turn the tables on a minister they say is behind repressive 
broadcasting and press laws.

By Gaziza Baituova in Taraz

A feud between the Kazak media and a government official they accuse of 
restricting their liberty has led to the minister in question, Yermukhamet 
Yertysbaev, apologising live on television.

It is unusual for a cabinet minister in Kazakstan to come off worst in an 
encounter with journalists and non-government groups. It is usually the other 
way round - the government has often come under fire from international 
watchdogs for curbing media freedom. However, the lines are less clear-cut in 
this latest dispute, 

The culture and information minister – whose portfolio includes wide-ranging 
controls over the press and broadcasters - had been under mounting pressure 
from media associations in Kazakstan, culminating in a letter they sent to 
President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 13 seeking Yertysbaev’s resignation. The 
letter was signed by the free-speech group Adil Soz, the Union of Journalists 
and the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters.

The move came a week after media groups wrote to Yertysbaev himself asking him 
to step down.

The immediate cause of the dispute was an incident in which Yertysbaev 
apparently stopped Yulia Isakova, a reporter with Era-TV, from attending a 
government meeting on March 2. 

Five days later, Isakova sued the minister on the grounds that her rights as a 
journalist had been violated. 

She is asking for symbolic damages of one tenge. “Money is immaterial - what is 
important is that my professional honour was slighted,” she said.

Sholpan Jaksybaeva, executive director of the National Association of 
Broadcasters, says the minister’s treatment of the Era-TV journalist is “a slap 
in the face for the entire journalist profession”. 

She continued, “The fact that Yertysbaev behaved like this in front of the 
cameras looks like a public act of intimidation. Perhaps the minister was 
hinting to all media – if you criticise me, this will happen to you too!”

Yertysbaev denied that he stopped Isakova coming to the meeting, saying he had 
merely refused her an interview because Era-TV had lodged a formal complaint 
against him. 

“This is just another campaign against me,” Yertysbaev told the Liter 
newspaper. “Our ministry gave access [to the government meeting] to everyone 
who wanted it, and at least ten 10 TV channels were present, including 
journalists from Era-TV.”

However, this argument seems merely the tip of the iceberg of a much broader 
conflict between the media and their minister, in which all sorts of grievances 
are being aired. 

Era-TV’s official complaint against the minister centres on the distribution of 
a new set of broadcast frequencies for provincially-based media in January, 
which was decided at a meeting of a special government commission on 
broadcasting rights, chaired by Yertysbaev. 

As a result, Era-TV lost its old frequency because it failed to fulfill a 
statutory requirement governing the proportion of programmes that should be in 
Kazak rather than Russian. The frequency it got instead does not reach as many 

In late January, the heads of Era-TV and Channel 31, another station which lost 
out, wrote to President Nazarbaev’s office alleging that the commission had 
broken or altered a number of its own rules and displayed bias in its final 

Yertysbaev disputed the allegation, saying the meeting was perfectly in order. 

“We committed no violations….We discussed each application thoroughly. From the 
start, a consistent decision was made not to give preference to television 
channels which disregarded the [official] language policy in their 
broadcasting,” he told the Respublika newspaper.

Apart from the frequency issue, journalists in Kazakstan have other bones to 
pick with Yertysbaev. The minister contributed many of the controversial 
clauses to a media law passed by parliament in July 2006 which caused an outcry 
among journalists, media managers, and free speech organisations. The 
amendments they felt were retrograde include large fees to register a new media 
outlet, mandatory re-registration if the organisation makes minor changes to 
its business, and a ban on editors setting up new publications or broadcast 
channels if their last one was shut down by the courts. 

Yertysbaev has taken a tough stance on the media since he was appointed in 
December 2005. He is seen as a loyal supporter of President Nazarbaev, and many 
would argue that in pushing through the media law he was simply pursuing his 
boss’s wishes. 

“This case gives us an indication of the prevailing culture of this regime,” 
said independent journalist Sergei Duvanov. 

As Yertysbaev became the focus of the media’s anger, the question arose as to 
whether colleagues will stick by him and face down their critics, or leave him 
to his fate. 

As Duvanov noted, this is one of the first disputes of its kind to be so widely 
known about.“It has already drawn a wide public response, and is a very serious 
matter,” he said.

Nikolai Kuzmin, political editor of the Expert-Kazakstan journal, says this 
dispute is not really between the government and the media, and is more about 

“In this case, the journalists are not unhappy with the minister’s policies, 
they are fed up with the minister himself. The conflict… shows no signs of 
being a war between the media-community and the state authorities,” he said.

In a first sign that Yertysbaev would be left to face the music, Prime Minister 
Karim Masimov used a March 11 cabinet meeting to tell the minister to explain 

“I began to receive enquiries yesterday and today from various media outlets 
about relations between you and them,” he told Yertysbaev. “I want to 
investigate this issue and make my own assessment,” said Masimov. “I’m 
instructing you to draft a memorandum to me in the next two days, providing 
explanations to all the questions that I am being asked.”

Then, on March 15, Masimov was appearing in a live phone-in on TV when a viewer 
asked about the incident involving Yertysbaev and Era-TV’s Isakova. Instead of 
deflecting the question, Masimov rang up the minister and suggested he 
apologise to the reporter. 

On the other end of the line, Yertysbaev replied that he felt he had done 
nothing wrong as a minister, but that he apologised to Isakova and all other 
journalists in a personal capacity for anything he might have done. 

Speaking before the phone-in took place, Dosym Satpaev, the director of the 
Kazakstan-based Risk Assessment Group, predicted that President Nazarbaev will 
follow the line taken by his prime minister when the matter comes to him for 

“On this matter, the head of state will be guided not by statements from 
journalistic NGOs, but by how this information is presented by Prime Minister 
Masimov,” said Satpaev.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz. Staff at IWPR’s news agency 
project NBCentralAsia contributed additional reporting.


Travellers complain that bribery and harassment continues unchecked on the 
frontier, whatever regulations are supposed to be in place.

By IWPR staff in Kyrgyzstan

Bureaucracy and corruption make crossing the border between southern Kyrgyzstan 
and Uzbekistan such a headache that the written rules are often the least of a 
traveller’s problems. Visa requirements were dropped on February 12, but by the 
time the Uzbek authorities tightened the rules again a month later, few people 
had even got to grips with the changes. 

The Uzbeks put their open-border agreement with Kyrgyzstan on hold because they 
would not accept the ID cards that many Kyrgyz now carry instead of passports. 
They objected to the cards since they do not have pages that can be stamped on 
entry and exit. 

Tashkent has asked the Kyrgyz government to come up with a solution, which is 
likely to involve an additional set of blank pages which can be stamped at the 

In the meantime, Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals once again need to obtain visas 
before travelling to each other’s country.

Uzbekistan first imposed the visa requirement when guerrillas of the Islamic 
Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. 
The Kyrgyz authorities then followed suit.

There are around one million ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan. Most live in 
the south and have relatives in Uzbekistan.

There were hopes that a new agreement between Uzbek president Islam Karimov and 
his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiev to ease cross-border movement would 
help reduce the number of people risking their lives by illegally crossing the 
river that forms much of the frontier. Approximately 90 people have died over 
the last two years, according to official figures.

Gulnara Aripova, a resident of the Kyrgyz frontier town of Karasuu, said the 
brief visa-free period made it safer for her to visit relatives in Uzbekistan.

“We used to risk our lives wading the 20 metres across the deep river,” she 
said, explaining that the river sometimes flows very rapidly. 

Travellers interviewed by IWPR said the visa relaxation actually did little to 
stop the widespread corruption and routine harassment that they suffer on the 
frontier. The only thing they noticed was that the bribes demanded by border 
guards to let them pass were reduced during that period.

“The border guards still demanded money. Not as much as before, but smaller 
amounts,” said Aripova.

She at first refused to pay when Uzbek guards asked her to hand over a bribe in 
return for issuing a visa on the spot, telling them this was no longer 
required. But the guards then changed tack, saying her young daughter needed 
her own passport to cross the border.

“In the end, I paid 500 Uzbek soms [40 US cents], and they let me through,” she 

Fellow Karasuu resident Alimbek Kuchkorov agreed that unscrupulous guards – 
Kyrgyz as well as Uzbek – will always find an excuse for a bribe. 

“Every day, several thousand people pass through the Dostyk checkpoint to get 
to the Karasuu market,” he said “Everyone who crosses leaves behind a bribe of 
200 Uzbek soms.”

The sprawling wholesale market in Karasuu is a magnet for traders in the 
region, and an estimated 30,000 people arrive there from Uzbekistan every day.

Many people at the market told IWPR that the visa-free travel rules did nothing 
to curb the border guards’ behaviour. Some wrote it off as a populist gesture 
by the two presidents which in reality did nothing to make their lives easier. 

“Nothing changed during that visa-free month,” said Adakham Baltabaev, from the 
Kurgantepe district just over the Uzbek border. “Corruption is endemic at the 
border posts, and no one obeys the law.” 

Though corruption is rife on both sides of the frontier, Uzbek nationals appear 
to be worse off, often paying multiple bribes in the course of a single trip. 

“The Kyrgyz border guards don’t take bribes from their own citizens. As for us, 
we have to give handouts to both Uzbek and Kyrgyz border guards,” said Zokirjon 
Hashimov, from the Uzbek town of Khanabad. 

He explained that Uzbeks pay 200 soms to be let out of their own country. The 
Kyrgyz frontier guards let them in for nothing as long as their documents are 
in order, but target them as they leave carrying goods bought at the Karasuu 
market. Then the Uzbek border guards hit them for another bribe, and local 
police will stop them and extort more money on the pretext of checking their 

“That’s how life is for us,” sighed Hashimov.

There are other ways to force travellers to hand over money. Azizbek Ashurov 
from Fergana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, a non-government group based in 
Kyrgyzstan, said that if travellers fail to register with local police within 
five days of arriving in either country, they have to make another illicit 
payment to be allowed to leave. 

Travellers also face demands for money if they do not have the requisite entry 
stamp in their passport. Sometimes border guards deliberately avoid providing 
the stamp so as to give a pretext for extorting a payment later, but Kyrgyz 
nationals who are frequent travellers often choose not to use up all their 
passport pages with stamps, as acquiring a replacement document is currently a 
nightmarish procedure.

“Of course, border guards will satisfy that request for a certain amount of 
money,” said Ashurov.

As a result, Ashurov said, traders commonly smuggle their goods across 
unguarded parts of the border rather than collect all the right documents and 
pay bribes.

As Osh-based journalist Sherzad Yusupov explained, this hampers the growth of 
trade since there is a limit to how much any one smuggler can carry. 

Adyl Ismailov, who heads the Lawyers Without Borders group, said that from a 
purely economic point of view, it was vital for the Kyrgyz and Uzbek 
governments to restore the visa-free travel arrangement. “It will create great 
impetus for the growth of border trade, which provides a living for millions of 
people,” he said.

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