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No solution for Chechen refugees in Kazakhstan

MOSCOW -- In recent months, the Chechen refugee situation in Kazakhstan has risen on the agenda of Kazakh-Russian relations, so much so that it made the agenda of last week's meeting of the two countries' presidents in Moscow. But with no details of the 19 December meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev released, it appears that a solution remains up in the air.

The lack of resolution means Kazakhstan will continue its delicate balancing act: While international human rights groups and organizations continue to press Astana to live up to its obligations and provide official sanctuary to people fleeing conflict back home, Russia insists that Kazakhstan not label Chechens as refugees and enforce stricter screening of those migrating across the border.

The issue again rose to prominence on 11 November, when some 300 Chechen families sheltering in refugee camps in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia sent a letter to Nazarbaev asking for asylum. "The Chechen people view Kazakhstan as a second homeland," the letter read.

That assertion reflects both World War II history--when Stalin's 1944 decision to deport the Chechen nation from the Causasus to the Kazakh steppes for supposed collaboration with the German military--and more recent waves of migrants fleeing Russian attacks during the two Chechen wars of the past decade.

According to official data, 18,000 Chechen refugees currently live in camps in Ingushetia. Humanitarian organizations have reported that Russian authorities have been pressing refugees to return to Chechnya, but many don't want to return home. The refugees say they fear treatment at the hands of the Russian military, as well as spending the winter in bombed-out buildings.

Akhmar Zavgaev--the Chechen representative in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament--claims that many families don't want to return because some of their members have committed serious crimes in Chechnya and want to avoid punishment. Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, the Russian presidential envoy on civil rights in Chechnya, characterized the letter to Nazarbaev as a provocation.

Top officials in both countries were more measured in their approaches. On 13 November, the speaker of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, said that Chechens "have a right to approach anyone, anywhere" but "the decision will be made" by the would-be receiving country.

Two days later, Nazarbaev said the issue of Chechen refugees was "an internal affair of Russia, our neighbor and strategic partner." At the same time he said that in recent years, at least 10,000 people from Russia's North Caucasus regions had moved to Kazakhstan. These people live and work in our country, though they are not citizens of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev said.

Despite the president's more neutral public stance, the situation on the ground in Kazakhstan has apparently been changing, accelerated by the Chechen terrorist takeover of Moscow's Dubrovka theater in October. Four Kazakh citizens were among the hostages, and 13-year-old Alexandra Letyago died. Since then, the Kazakh immigration police have declined to extend the residency permits of many Chechens, who must renew their status every six months.

"The immigration police told my brother and me: Don't come next time for registration, go back to Chechnya," refugee Zaina Nagaeva was quoted as saying by the newspaper Novosti Nedeli on 27 November. And Umerbay Musayev, head of the Kazakh Interior Ministry's immigration department, has said that Chechens cannot be considered refugees, because Chechnya is a Russian entity, and Chechens are citizens of Russia, not oppressed and forced to flee. "Therefore they will not receive the status of refugees here," he said.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees mission (UNHCR) in Kazakhstan, however, UNHCR and Kazakh authorities had agreed that while Chechens will not be recognized legally as the refugees, they will be considered de facto as such. "But Kazakhstan, for some reason, has broken this private agreement," Yusaku Hanyu, head of the Kazakh UNHCR mission, told Novosti Nedeli.

UNHCR also confirmed that cases of deportation of Chechen refugees have become more frequent in northern Kazakhstan. Some community leaders--such as Akhmed Muradov, head of the Chechen-Ingush Vainakh cultural center in Kazakhstan--have also complained that the Kazakh police have started to unfairly round up more Chechens in police sweeps against illegal immigration.

The Kazakh authorities say they must protect against the possibility that terrorist organizations could be illegally smuggling militants through Kazakh territory. They point to the case in 2000 when security forces arrested Ziyautdin Ziyautdinov, one of the alleged participants in a bomb blast that went off in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk in September 1999. Ziyautdinov, who settled down in the Almaty suburbs with a false Kyrgyz passport, was deported to Russia. The police also say the increased pressure is also a reflection of the fact that some refugees have joined the Chechen mafia operating in Kazakhstan, furthering the flow of weapons and helping Chechen criminal groups extend their influence.

As a result, Chechen men between the ages of 16 and 60 who are seeking shelter in Kazakhstan will now be subject to fingerprint ID checks. "These measures are undertaken in cooperation with the Interior Ministry of Russia to reveal the militants and also persons involved in terrorist organizations," said Kazakh Deputy Interior Minister Ivan Otto on 15 November. Sulim Nagaev, deputy chairman of the Chechen Cultural Center in Almaty, said that 80 to 90 percent of Chechens have nothing against such controls, believing they would help separate the bad apples from the rest of community and the legitimate refugees.

Following a recent wave of reregistration refusals in various regions of Kazakhstan, UNHCR has asked the Kazakh government to settle the issue of legal status of refugees from Chechnya and expects that in early 2003 the next session of an intergovernmental working group on immigration will be held to deal with the problem, Hanyu said.

--by Rashid Dyussembayev

For more information about Kazakhstan, visit the TOL KnowledgeNet's Kazakhstan page at


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