Friday, 2 September 2011

Kazakhstan cracks down on religious groups as authorities tackle militants in troubled west

A nascent militant movement in Kazakhstan's oil-producing west seems to be growing, if recent events and the government reaction is any indication.

On 29th August police in the western region of Atyrau shot dead an alleged militant and rounded up 18 others suspected of plotting “violent acts both on the territory of Atyrau Region and in neighbouring regions of Kazakhstan”. The shoot-out occurred in Atyrau city; eyewitnesses reported hearing gunfire and explosions after security forces cordoned off a district, suggesting a fairly intensive clash.

The break-up of the 'terror cell' is the latest in a string of violent incidents which has surprised analysts and the Kazakh government. Unlike its southern neighbours, Kazakhstan has been largely spared any Islamist militancy and is widely regarded as the region's most stable and harmonious state.

Over the past six months, however, the country has seen a spate of bombings and shoot-outs. Although mainly focused in the western areas of Aktobe and Atyrau, a car bomber struck outside the security services headquarters in the capital Astana on 24th May. Kazakhstan's first-ever suicide bombing came just a week before when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Aktobe, again at the offices of the National Security Committee.

In June, authorities announced that they had disbanded a militant cell in Almaty which was planning to assassinate local officials. In July, a series of gunfights in the west between 'armed groups' and the police left at least nine militants and five officers dead.

The violence so far appears to be sporadic and spontaneous, indicating that the militants are fairly disorganised and inexperienced. But the very presence of such groups is concerning for the Kazakh government, which has only recently admitted that the attackers are probably motivated by religious extremism. Previously they had blamed the mafia or given no real explanation.

The country's west is poor by Kazakhstan's standards and widely considered to be more religiously conservative than other areas. Little of Kazakhstan's oil wealth has reached ordinary people in the area, raising concerns that social and economic frustration will lead young Kazakhs to follow radical Islam.

Alarmed by the prospect, the authorities are now seeking to monitor Muslim groups more closely. President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced on 1st September that tighter controls on religious groups were necessary. Speaking to parliament, the longstanding ruler warned that “Whoever wants to, comes here, opens a mosque and what they're doing in these mosques no one knows, no one checks, no one registers them.” All religious groups will now have to re-register with the government.

So far, international energy companies – most of which are operating in the west - have not been too concerned, as the violence has not been directed at foreign interests. However the mysterious nature of the attacks makes it difficult to identify the scale of the danger or the militants' aims. Attacks against foreigners are certainly possible if the Kazakh government fails to contain the threat.

Sources: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Eurasianet, Reuters

For more news and expert analysis about the Caspian region, please see Caspian Focus.

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