MOSCOW — THE arrest of a prominent Russian journalist charged with inciting ethnic unrest in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan has escalated tensions in a country already troubled by increasing racial strife.
Boris Suprunyuk, a spokesman for the Russian community in northern Kazakhstan who wrote frequently about perceived ethnic discrimination in favor of Kazakhs, was arrested at his apartment and taken into custody on April 12 in the regional capital of Petropavlovsk.
The prosecutor general's office in Kazakhstan said Mr. Suprunyuk had been charged with stirring up interethnic discord and humiliating Kazakh national honor and dignity, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. It also said that as editor of the independent newspaper Glas (or Voice) Suprunyuk had published articles that encroached on Kazakh territorial integrity and distorted Kazakh history and policy. The office could not be reached for further comment.
``The arrest occurred according to the best traditions of 1937,'' commented Moscow's daily Pravda after speaking by telephone to Suprunyuk's relatives in Petropavlovsk, referring to Joseph Stalin's purges.
``There were six militia men, they didn't allow him to read his summons, and they woke him up from bed where he had already lain for three days after a heart attack,'' it said. ``His wife was allowed to bring him warm clothes only the following day.''
The incident is the worst so far between Kazakhstan's vocal Russian-speaking minority and Kazakh authorities, and is indicative of rapidly deteriorating relations between Kazakhs and Russian-speakers in the vast country. It also calls into question freedom of speech in a country where minorities are perceived to suffer increasing discrimination.
``It doesn't really make much difference whether he is a good guy or a bad guy. The effect for ethnic Russians will be another opportunity to point their finger at Kazakh authorities,'' says Eric Rudenshiold of the International Republican Institute, based in the capital of Alma-Ata. ``Given already escalated ethnic tensions, this is yet another ill omen for the future.''
Charges of ethnic discrimination and favoritism have plagued racially mixed Kazakhstan since it became independent following the Soviet collapse and Kazakhs replaced Russians as the dominant ethnic group. Russian nationalists both in Kazakhstan and back in Russia call for the ``return'' of the largely Russian-populated northern regions of Kazakhstan to Russian control.
Last month, foreign observers accused President Nursultan Nazarbayev of unfairly disqualifying opposition candidates and condoning ethnic favoritism in the country's first parliamentary elections. While ethnic Kazakhs make up about 40 percent of the population and Russians account for about 39 percent, only 128 of the more than 750 parliamentary candidates were Russian.
A once stable land
A sprawling, resource-rich nation of more than 17 million, Kazakhstan has been one of the most stable countries in the 12-nation Commonwealth of Independent States. But ethnic tensions have now forced tens of thousands of Russian-speakers to flee the country in search of a better life elsewhere.
``The arrest is not a case of ethnic discrimination,'' says Galim Shagrayev, Kazakh Embassy spokesman in Moscow. He said the press had given only one version of the incident, but declined to comment further on the case.
``Of course we have freedom of speech,'' he added. ``Our radio programs are broadcast in seven languages, our newspapers are published in six languages, and our TV programs come out in about the same number.''
Charges had first been raised against Suprunyuk for inciting ``interethnic discord'' last July, according to reports. But he ignored them and continued to write. Suprunyuk favors legalizing Russian social and cultural organizations, granting Russians dual citizenship, and raising the status of Russian, now the ``language of interethnic communication,'' to the second state language.
The Russian government has pushed for dual citizenship for ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics, particularly in Central Asia. But the Kazakh government and others in the region have resisted such demands, arguing that it would only increase ethnic tensions.