Katrina Senchuk is an intern in the Lowy Institute’s West Asia Program. All translations from Russian and Kazakh media are her own.
A recent incident on the border of China and Kazakhstan brings to light the persistent complexities and latent phobias that shape the 'delicate dance of power' between China, Russia and Kazakhstan.
On 30 May, Kazakhstan confirmed 14 border guards and a ranger from the local nature reserve had been found murdered at the remote Arkankergan post, bordering China and Kazakhstan. The bodies of twelve of the border guards were discovered stacked on top of each other in the burned barracks, while two others were found nearby. According to some reports their Kalashnikovs were missing.
A village near the China-Kazakhstan border (photo by Flickr user ktan.kh).
Border incidents with China have been uncommon since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991. However, Arkankergan is seasonally staffed by border guards normally stationed in Ucharal, to prevent Chinese from collecting native medicinal plants and herbs growing in the region.
Initially, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the incident may have been the result of a terrorist act, but stressed that no definitive conclusion has been reached. Immediately a number of conspiracy theories began to circulate. One was that a group of professional saboteurs operating out of Kazakhstan had committed the murders to destabilise last week's SCO summit, with fingers pointed at the Americans.
Russia-based Newsland Russia claimed that such an attack could only be attributed to the US. It argued that Washington was discontented with Astana for its close ties to Russia on the one hand and its growing relations with China on the other. Newsland Russia claimed that, given the time and place of the accident, there is little doubt that the attack was politically motivated to send a message to the Kazakh Government to alter its position to the two aforementioned strategic partnerships.
Further hypotheses in the Russian press have attributed blame to al-Qaeda, Uyghur separatists and 'soldiers of fortune'. The latest guesswork from the Institute of Political Studies in Kazakhstan has speculated that the attack was an effort by the Saudi Salafis to step up their activities to hinder Kazakhstan's cooperation with China.
Media coverage and blog discussions of this incident in both Russia and Kazakhstan have become something akin to a multi-layered Dostoyevskian murder mystery. In addition to the lurid descriptions of the murders, there are claims of 20 Land Rovers and six horses missing or stolen.
On Thursday last week, Kazakh officials claimed to have finally solved the mystery, attributing the murders to 19 year-old Russian National Vladislav Chelah. Chelah was himself a member of the Kazakh border guard unit whose members were killed. It is claimed that he had suffered a psychotic episode. Recent interviews with Chelah's grandfather dismissed the official story, arguing that 'Vladislav wanted to serve in the army; he said he was glad that he came to the border.' According to Chelah's mother, he wrote letters home exclaiming that 'my dream has come true. I am defending the borders of the Motherland.'
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this case is the fact that the Chinese are not being blamed. In my own research for the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program on Kazakh Attitudes to China, I have discovered a high degree of Sinophobia in the country. Sinophobic sentiments are pervasive in opinion pieces and online media commentaries, particularly in areas of migration, trade and what is perceived to be the Chinese takeover of Kazakhstan's resource-rich economy.
So it is surprising that for an event of such scale there has been no mention of potential Chinese foul play, though Kazakh officials would of course have a keen interest in downplaying any Chinese participation in the attack given the tenacious economic ties between the two nations and last week's SCO Summit in Beijing.