BORDER INCIDENTS IN KAZAKHSTAN REVIVE APPREHENSIONS ABOUT NATIONAL SECURITY
On May 30, a Kazakhstani border patrol operating in the country’s east made a gruesome discovery: 15 people who had been recruited to guard the Kazakh-Chinese border in a remote mountain outpost were found dead. Their charred bodies were scattered around the ruins of what used to be the wooden barracks of the Kazakh border protection service. Speaking at an extraordinary session of Kazakhstan’s National Security Council the following day, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called this incident a terrorist attack and promised to mobilize all available personnel of the Ministry of internal affairs, the National Security Committee and the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate its circumstances. According to the already existing practice introduced in the wake of the December 2011 unrest in the western town of Zhanaozen, Nazarbayev ordered the establishment of a special investigative commission endowed with extensive authority.
On June 5, one day before the start of Nazarbayev’s official visit to China and the subsequent launch of another SCO summit in Beijing, the only surviving border guard was found a few kilometers away from the crime scene. The police discovered in his possession several mobile phones previously belonging to his fellows, a notebook and a firearm owned by the commanding officer, himself killed in the mysterious massacre. The Interior Minister promptly dismissed any references to terrorism and the Prosecutor General’s Office later informed that the captured soldier had pleaded guilty during an interrogation. After two months of investigations, the soldier has retracted his words saying that he yielded to psychological pressure, while the prosecution insists on his sole responsibility.
Despite these presumably “positive” signs leading to easy conclusions, most observers met such declarations with utmost skepticism. Kazakhstan’s former deputy minister of defense Amirbek Togussov openly defied the official version, saying that a 19-year-old soldier could not have killed 15 people and even hinted at the possibility of an organized extremist group operating in the Kazakh-Chinese border area. Former minister of defense Mukhtar Altynbayev, currently serving in the Kazakh Senate and unanimously regarded as one of Nazarbayev’s long-time supporters, admitted to the existence of severe irregularities concerning the border service.
Nazarbayev’s meetings with both Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao at the SCO summit seemed overshadowed by this incident, especially after some Russian media published erroneous allegations that Vladislav Chelakh, the detained and indicted border guard, was a citizen of the Russian Federation. As regards Kazakh-Chinese relations, they also looked at risk in the context of multiple versions put forward by independent analysts and implicating China-based terrorist or extremist groups aspiring to control of the poorly protected borderlands. During his speech in Beijing, Nazarbayev firmly defended the new concept of the SCO’s antiterrorist activity based on the implementation of the 2013-2015 Strategy of cooperation against terrorism, extremism and separatism. The Kazakh leader further underlined the need to establish a permanent SCO Forecast Center and to institutionalize the mechanism of extraordinary meetings at the level of foreign ministers and secretaries for national security. In Nazarbayev’s view, such meetings could be enacted in the case of serious incidents involving two or more SCO member states.
Several days later, another heavy blow was dealt to the reputation of Kazakhstan’s border protection forces. 11 soldiers serving within the purview of the Eastern Regional Directorate of the Kazakh border service left their barracks and were found alive the following day 18 kilometers away from the checkpoint. According to the official version, this unauthorized departure was the result of difficult interpersonal relations, which further led to the arrest of three officers accused of frequently abusing their subordinates. By that time, President Nazarbayev had already relieved of his duties the deputy chairman of the National Security Committee in charge of border protection issues. Most experts believe that these two incidents have considerably undermined the credibility of Kazakhstan’s border troops, especially if the vastness of the Kazakh territory and the scarcity of its population are taken into account. The proximity of China is also one of the irritating factors, even though Beijing is firmly opposed to the spread of any anti-government or crime-related activities in its areas neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Kazakh-Chinese border has already become a frequent target of smugglers and criminals. Earlier in May 2011, Kazakhstan’s Agency responsible for dealing with corruption, more widely known as the financial police, neutralized a group of contrabandists engaged in illegal trade with China. This group established back in 2006 was based at the Khorgos checkpoint and received direct support from the country’s National Security Committee and several other law enforcement authorities. It had imposed heavy duties on every truck entering Kazakhstan from China; of US$ 25,000 paid per vehicle only US$ 5,000 were directed to the state budget. During the years of its activity, the group comprised of over 100 people working both at the border and in the Kazakh capital legalized more than US$130 million in property and other assets.