Today Chechens and Ingush represent small, but powerful diasporas throughout Central Asia. Especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the Chechen communities are known for their traditionalist culture.
Despite Kazakh and Kyrgyz publics’ ignorance of the Chechen and Ingush memorial day, there is little discrimination felt against Caucasus ethnic minorities in the everyday life. Muslim religion and fluency in Russian language facilitated the quick integration of Chechens and Ingush into local societies. North Caucasus national dances and music are widely popular among Central Asian youth.
However, while not experiencing any major discrimination in the society, Chechens and Ingush encounter implicit barriers from the Kyrgyz and Kazakh state authorities. There is virtually no political representation of Chechens or other Caucasus nationalities in Kazakh or Kyrgyz local government or parliament. Chechens are known for occupying a niche in the business sector, where family connections play an important role.
In Kyrgyzstan, the October 2005 murder of parliamentarian Tynychbek Akmatbayev by an imprisoned ethnic Chechen mafia boss Aziz Batukayev attracted attention to the local Chechen community. The assassination revealed a confrontation between Kyrgyz officials with a Chechen organized criminal gang active in the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
Aset Khadzhiyeva, leader of a Chechen women’s community group in Kyrgyzstan, expressed her concerns that anti-Chechen feelings were on the rise in Kyrgyzstan after Akmatbayev’s assassination. According to her, the head of the Kyrgyz security structures, Aleksandr Zelichenko, intentionally demonized the Chechen community by claiming that out of 50,000 Chechens living in Kyrgyzstan, half are involved in organized crime. Khadzhiyeva claimed that the allegations are invalid simply because the number of Chechens in Kyrgyzstan is only about 3,500.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Chechens reside outside Chechnya. Since the 1950s, the share of North Caucasus nationalities in the Central Asian region declined dramatically, and the share of Chechens alone decreased by a factor of ten, as Chechens were allowed to return to Chechnya after Stalin’s death. Most Chechens migrated either to Cehchnya or to Russia’s major cities. In turn, ethnic Russians massively emigrated from Chechnya in the 1980s and 1990s. According to some Kyrgyz experts, in the wake of war in Chechnya in 1994, a number of Central Asian Chechens were drafted by rebels.
Kazakhstan was the largest receiver of North Caucasus nationalities during the Soviet period. According to the 1949 census, 302,526 Chechen and Ingush resided in the Kazakh SSR, compared to 62,583 in the Kyrgyz SSR and about 500 in the Uzbek SSR.
The Kazakh city of Novy Uzen, located in south-west of the country, was the most populated by the North Caucasus nationalities. In 1989 a group of ethnic Kazakhs instigated a conflict against Lezghins and other Caucasian settlers, demanding their expulsion. As a result of this inter-ethnic clash, five were killed, more than 100 injured and about 3,500 fled the city. The clash was largely muted by the Soviet and Kazakh press.
Aside from tensions in Novy Uzen, the experience of Chechens in Kazakhstan was rather peaceful during the Soviet period and in the independence. Today Kazakhstan is a major destination for Chechen immigrants from Russia and the Central Asian states. Following the terrorist acts instigated by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater in 2002, about 12,000 Chechen refugees from Russia sought asylum in Kazakhstan. Increased xenophobia against Chechens in Russian society was the major reason driving Chechens back to Kazakhstan.
However, Kazakh authorities did not provide asylum to the majority of refugees partly because the issue could spark tensions on a bilateral level with the Russian government. Because of friendly relations between the Russian and Kazakh governments, thousands of Chechen immigrants are unable to receive temporary or permanent legal status in Kazakhstan. Chechen groups are also often accused of drug trade and racketeering. According to Naratai Dutbayev, the former Head of the Kazakh Nation Security Committee, the Central Asian states serve as a “transfer station” for Chechen separatists and terrorists.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, special inter-state programs were designed to allow repatriation of Germans, Russians, and Jews to their ethnic homelands who were also forced to the Central Asian region in the 1930s and 1940s. No such initiative was conducted with regard to ethnic Chechens or Ingush, largely due to the unruly situation in their homelands – indeed, some Chechens migrated back to Central Asia due to conditions in Chechnya. Today, Chechens who emigrate Central Asia for Chechnya are considered rebels; those who choose to immigrate to Russia encounter discrimination; and Chechens escaping suppression by Russian authorities are unable to receive a refugee status.