Ethnic tensions have flared up in Kazakhstan following a deadly New Year’s Eve brawl involving Armenians. According to reports, an alcohol-fueled fight broke out at the Ancient Rome restaurant in Kazakhstan’s central town of Karaganda. Officials say a 23 year-old Kazakh man was stabbed to death. Four others were also injured.
Kazakhstani police announced the arrests of two ethnic Armenians and one Kazakh in connection with the incident. A third Armenian suspect, Narek Gururyan, is apparently still at large.
Anti-Armenian sentiments have been flaring as details of the alleged involvement of three Armenians emerged. In a rare instance of public protest in the authoritarian country, some 200 people demonstrated outside the city’s police station on the 6th of January. They managed to get an audience with the Province’s governor, Yerlan Koshanov who promised that he would personally insure that justice was served.
According to Kazakh media sources, the spread of sensational news on social media has fueled Armenophobia, with some users calling for reprisals against the Armenian community. In response, Karaganda’s prosecutor Marat Seksembaev issued an official statement warning against the online dissemination of racist messages and misleading information about the case and threatened criminal prosecution. Kazakh police have strongly denied that the New Year’s Eve incident was ethnically-motivated.
Despite attempts by authorities to calm the situation, anti-Armenian unrest has spread to other cities across the country. In a bizarre turn of events, a mob attacked a coffee shop named Cafe Baku in the northeastern city of Semey, apparently confusing Armenia with Azerbaijan.
Up to 25,000 Armenians live in Kazakhstan; most arrived during Soviet era population transfers, while others have been attracted by economic opportunities provided by the country’s oil boom. Armenian communities in neighboring central Asian republics have been targeted by Armenophobic violence in the past.
In an effort to ease ethnic tensions, leaders of Kazakhstan’s Armenian community met with the family of the deceased, offering their condolences. They had earlier issued a formal apology on behalf of the community for the murder.
News of the unrest has been met with concern in Yerevan. Authorities say they are closely monitoring the developing situation. Armenian Security chief, Armen Grigoryan, spoke with his Kazakhstani counterpart, Gabit Bayzhanov by telephone on Monday. They agreed to avoid turning a domestic dispute into an ethnic conflict.
This sentiment was echoed by Kazakhstani Foreign Minister, Beybut Atamkulov who denounced “attempts to give ethnic overtones to the tragedy” in a phone call with Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has also commented on the incident. The Prime Minister ruled out any ethnic dimension to the brawl saying, “From what I’ve been told, the two groups involved in the bar fight were not divided along ethnic lines. In fact, one of those arrested for the stabbing was an ethnic-Kazakh.” He further called on Armenian media outlets to fact-check reports to avoid spreading sensational stories and further fan the flames.
In a video posted to YouTube on Monday, Narek Gururyan, the third suspect, shared his condolences with the family of the victim and expressed readiness to turn himself in. He added that he would take responsibility for his actions but that he did not stab anyone. Kazakh authorities responded that same day, promising him an objective investigation if he turned himself in.
Armenian authorities say they are closely monitoring the developing situation.
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.
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