Is Kazakhstan Russia’s Next Ukraine?
With Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, it’s not only Ukrainians who worry about what President Vladimir Putin may have in store for them. It’s Kazakhs too.
For now, Kazakhs don’t have to be immediately concerned about Russian troop movements. What unsettles them is years of Russian rhetoric, spearheaded by Putin’s repeated comments.
In his annual news conference, Putin used an unrelated question posed by Kazakhstan TV last month to remind his audience that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged that xenophobia had sparked several attacks on Russian speakers in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan shares a 6,846-kilometre-long border with Russia, which is the world’s second-longest frontier. The country hosts a Russian minority that accounts for 20 percent of the population. Ethnic Russians carry their empathy for the motherland on their sleeves.
Dariga Nazabayeva, a member of the Kazakh parliament and daughter of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has a close relationship with Putin, shot back that “cases of xenophobia sometimes occur in Russia too.”
Putin demonstrated his friendship with Nazarbayev when he sent doctors to treat the former Kazakh leader after he was infected by Covid-19.
In recent years, some far-right, ultra-nationalist ideologues have been calling for the return of Russian rule to Central Asia, and the carving up of Kazakhstan.
“One can label calling ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan a Diaspora as a political mistake, for these are our lands which have been temporarily torn away from Russia,” said Pavel Shperov, a former ultra-nationalist member of the Russian parliament while he was still a deputy. “Borders are not eternal. We will return to the borders of the Russian state,” he added.
An informal poll in Ridder, a predominantly ethnic Russian coal-mining town on eastern Kazakhstan’s border with Russia, suggested several years ago that up to three-quarters of the city’s mostly ethnic Russian population favored becoming part of Russia.
Putin first sent a chill down Kazakh spines seven years ago, when a student in a news conference asked him nine months after the annexation of Crimea whether Kazakhstan risked a fate similar to that of Ukraine.
Echoing a widespread perception among ethnic Russians that Russia had civilized central Asia’s nomadic steppes, Putin noted that then-president Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”
Putin went on to say that Kazakh membership of the five-nation, post-Soviet Eurasian Economic Union “helps [the country] stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”
Putin first embraced the concept of a Russian world in 2001, telling a Russian Diaspora conference that “the notion of the Russian world extends far from Russia’s geographical borders and ever far from the borders of Russian ethnicity.”
Kazakh leaders have walked a fine line when responding to Putin and his far-right nationalist choir. In an article, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for an investigation into who was responsible for the famine in the early 1930s sparked by forced Soviet collectivization and the settlement of nomads. Up to a third of the Kazakh population died in the famine.
The former president, Nazarbayev, previously said at a celebration of Kazakh Independence Day that “independence was hard-won by many generations of our ancestors, who defended our sacred land with blood and sweat. Independence is the steadfast resolution of each citizen to defend Kazakhstan, their own home, and the motherland to the last drop of blood, as our heroic ancestors have bequeathed us.”
Some analysts suggest that the 81-year-old Nazarbayev may be the last barricade blocking a Russian-Kazakh confrontation.
Noting that Russians as a percentage of the Kazakh population were diminishing, independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta pointed out that “Russia understands this but is not in the mood to easily concede to its former colony the right to live as citizens in the country they want.”
Novaya Gazeta’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, with Filipina journalist Maria Ressa.
The newspaper quoted Kazakh scholar Dosym Satpayev describing the Russian-Kazakh relationship as that of a “husband and wife before a divorce. They are still trying to live together, but black cats are already circling. In the future, someone will probably want to start the divorce process, possibly peacefully or maybe confrontationally.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute