Antisemitism in Kazakhstan

A UCSJ-report

Kazakhstan is the largest of the five Central Asian republics and comprised about 15% of the Soviet Union's total area. Russia borders it to the north, China to the east, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. No one ethnic group constitutes a majority; rather, Kazakhs and Russians each account for 38% of the population. Minority groups include Germans, Ukrainians, Tatars, Uzbeks, and an estimated 32,000 Jews. The Kazakhs' relationship with the Russians can be described as cool at best. Soviet policies generally favored Russians, and both groups are very leery of each other. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was popularly elected in 1991, and he has acted authoritatively since. He suspended the Parliament in 1995 and canceled the presidential elections of 1996. However, Nazarbayev has allowed other political parties to organize, and the 1995 parliamentary elections were judged to be relatively fair. But under a new constitution, Nazarbayev centralized much of the state's power in his office, leaving the legislature with little control over policy.
Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, but much of the economy is still state-controlled, and economic reform has been slow in coming. It is dependent on Russia and other nations for trade.

Jewish Life

Jews reside throughout Kazakhstan, and they maintain a substanti- al community in Almaty, the capital. Many cultural and education programs are sponsored by the Almaty community, including Hebrew and Yiddish classes, a theater, and a senior citizens center. Construction began in 1996 of a new synagogue. Smaller communi- ties also maintain culture societies, synagogues, and schools. But many of these institutions are in dire need of Jewish-themed books and dictionaries. Kazakhstan has diplomatic relations with Israel. The two nations have engaged in several exchange programs and have even established a "Friendship Society."

Antisemitism and Government Response

Freedom of religion is a constitutional right and is generally respected in Kazakhstan. Thus antisemitism is not as much of a problem there as in many of the other former Soviet states. Nationalism is on the rise, and Jews have occasionally been beaten or harassed for their identity. President Nazarbayev has publicly called for an end to antisemitism, and he backed his words in 1995 by ordering the closing of a newspaper that had published antisemitic and anti-Russian articles. However, it was re-opened later that year. In addition, though most of them speak Russian, Kazakh Jews are threatened by antisemitism from within the Russian population as well.

Selected Antisemitic Incidents

On March 20, 1997, Leonid Solomin, an independent labor leader and organizer of nonviolent protests against the state, was charged with violating Kazakhstan's hard currency laws. In the previous months, Solomin and his associates were routinely interrogated and harassed in blatantly antisemitic terms by Kazakh KGB agents. Other union workers were told that they had "sold themselves to the Jew Solomin." Solomin's house was broken into, and union financial records that Solomin was storing were stolen. Although Solomin is clearly being harassed for political reasons, the state has publicly asserted that he is charged with "a typical economic crime." Dr. Leonid Stonov, who visited Almaty in 1996, reports that the paper, Kazakhskaya Pravda, has published several articles warning against "Zionists" and "international Jewry." One accused Jews of driving a wedge between Russians and Kazakhs; another called upon the people to kill Jews "if they in time do not clear off to Israel." One prominent target of attack is the rival paper Caravan, a democratic weekly edited by a Jew-this weekly is allegedly responsible for "the great confrontation of Moslems and Christi- ans" from which only the Jews will profit. The paper was sued for libel by the Almaty Jewish Society and was forced to pay damages (the court also ordered the Society's chairman to pay damages to the paper for declaring it "fascist.").

Human Rights

Nazarbayev's new constitution has concentrated most state powers within the executive branch. He has effective control of the judiciary, and corruption is rampant. Freedoms of speech, religion, assembly are usually respected, though Nazarbayev has greatly limited his citizens' ability to criticize their government. Political parties are allowed to contest elections, but the views of opposition parties are often not disseminated to the extent that government's views are. The Kazakhstan-Ameri- can Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law (UCSJ), in its 1996 report on human rights, states that "limitations on human rights and freedoms, based on the need to maintain public order, observe the rights of others, and safeguard the constitutional system, correspond in principle to the norms and standards of genuine constitutional democracies. However, the Executive Branch has appropriated the right to establish and interpret constituti- onal norms." Police and militiamen have been accused of detaining people on dubious pretexts and beating them. Persons have been known to be detained by police for months without being charged. Omaz news bureau reported on February 18, 1997 that a young man was beaten to death while in custody. There are no jury trials, and prosecutors have several institutional advantages over defense attorneys. Human rights monitors argue that thousands of inmates contract tuberculosis and other diseases and die due to overcrowded prisons and malnutrition. Independent media exist in Kazakhstan, but the state tends to suggest topics of discussion, leading to a system of self-censorship. Thus certain persons and events are not as publicized as perhaps they should be. Primary among forbidden topics are criticism of the president and interviews with the opposition. Journalists who break these taboos are subject to arrest and their papers may be withdrawn from circulation. Leonid Stonov reports that on November 4, 1996, the authorities shut down all seven independent radio stations and two private television channels by invalidating their transmission center contracts. The government claimed that the stations' frequencies interfered with airport traffic control. Then, without giving advance notice, the government disconnected independent TV station TVM's telephone lines and electric supply.

History of Jews in Kazakhstan

Jews first settled in Kazakhstan in the 1880's, mostly as officials of the czarist government (including some soldiers). Their numbers grew during the twentieth century; new arrivals included exiles during the Stalinist era and people fleeing the Nazis in the west. Due to Soviet repression of Judaism, religious affairs were conducted underground, and so Almaty never had a synagogue until 1996. An estimated 5,000 Jews lived in Kazakhstan after World War II. Many have immigrated since the breakup of the Soviet Union, mostly due to the nation's economic uncertainty.


Compared to their brethren in the other former Soviet republics, the Jews of Kazakhstan have fared rather well. While antisemitic sentiment certainly exists and should not be taken lightly, Kazakhstan's government has generally upheld religious freedoms. Furthermore, Kazakhstan's ties with Israel are quite encouraging. But the Solomin case, a reversion to Soviet tactics, is indicati- ve of the extent of governmental abuse of human rights.