Crimea on the steppe?

Kazakhstan consistently sides with Russia in global affairs and supports many of its integration initiatives in the former Soviet space. However, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 the fear that Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian regions might share the peninsula’s fate has returned.

Visitors arriving at the railway station in the sleepy northern town of Petropavlovsk may find it puzzling that the clocks on the station’s walls show a time different to the local time zone. The oddity stems from the fact that Petropavlovsk station, as well as many other stations in the North Kazakhstan region, lies along Russia’s trans-Siberian railway and is operated by the Russian Railways – hence, the clocks show Moscow time, which is three hours behind the local time. North Kazakhstan is also one of the two Kazakh regions, along with the neighbouring Kostanay, where ethnic Russians still outnumber ethnic Kazakhs, despite the continuing depopulation processes caused by the emigration of ethnic Russians to Russia and the higher birth rate among ethnic Kazakhs.

Due to these geographic, economic and demographic factors, some Russian politicians and public figures (such as the outspoken Russian Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the author Eduard Limonov) have questioned Astana’s grip on the predominantly Russian areas and have even called for Moscow’s annexation of the territories. This has given rise to serious concerns among Kazakh experts and the wider public over a potential repeat of the Crimean scenario in the northern and eastern regions of Kazakhstan.

Astana, viewed from the steppe. Photo: Ninara. Source: Flickr

Strategic bonds

In February 2014 Zhirinovsky urged Russian authorities to annex the former five Central Asian Soviet republics and turn them into a ‘Central Asian federal district’, while Limonov called on the Kremlin to annex the northern parts of Kazakhstan. Astana’s reaction was vociferous, but mostly ignored by Moscow, which dismissed the calls as privately held views expressed by a small number of individuals, not the Kremlin’s official policy.

On global issues, Kazakhstan staunchly sides with Russia and supports many Russian integration initiatives in the former Soviet space. It is a founding member of the Moscow-led free trade bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which was set up in 2015 from the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is also a member of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of six former Soviet countries. Kazakhstan’s strategic bonds with Russia are also largely determined by them sharing the world’s second longest land border, stretching for nearly 7,000 kilometres, along which a sizeable ethnic Russian population resides, accounting for a fifth of Kazakhstan’s total population.

Many consider these facts a guarantee that Russia will not consider entering into an open conflict with Kazakhstan and seizing part of its territory. Others believe that Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians are too apolitical to organise themselves into a meaningful force that would openly advocate the annexation by Moscow of predominantly Russian areas in northern and eastern Kazakhstan.

‘In the past there were certain public organisations that represented the interests of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. But these organisations have long become history. There is practically nothing to watch now and it is hard to judge the mood based on publications by certain individuals,’ says Andrey Chebotarev, director of the Almaty-based Alternative think tank. ‘There are no deliberate factors that would somehow worsen the socio-political mood among ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. There are some factors that affect the entire population but there are no serious factors that specifically target the ethnic Russian population.’

Chebotarev, however, does not believe Crimea would be repeated in Kazakhstan: ‘I have no expectation of the Crimean scenario because we do not have any serious organised groups that existed in the 1990s, such as the Russian Community and Lad [a Russian nationalist organisations – editor’s note] as well as Cossack organisations,’ he said, adding: ‘There are no politically active organisations representing the Russian diaspora and it is in Russia’s interests that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s stable rule continues.’

The people factor

Since the 1990s ethnic Russian organisations and movements have either died out or, like the Lad movement, have been incorporated into the official Assembly of Kazakhstan’s People (a body made up of ethnic minority organisations that promotes interethnic harmony and accord in multicultural Kazakhstan.) Repeated attempts to speak to Lad’s North Kazakhstan regional branch on Russian sentiments in the region yielded no result, but led to a phone call from police top brass who showed interest in New Eastern Europe’s reporting from the region.

At the same time, the ‘stable rule’ of Nazarbayev, who has governed Kazakhstan with an iron fist since he was first appointed as the country’s communist leader by the Soviets in 1989, raises the question of what will happen in Kazakhstan after the veteran president’s eventual departure. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine has opened up a discussion about Astana’s relations with Moscow. As a result, prominent public figures have called for the Kazakh government to rethink its position on integration with an increasingly assertive Russia. Former Senator Gani Kasymov urged the government to revise its relations with Moscow in order not to jeopardise its relations with western countries. ‘Today our relations with Russia bear the nature of a strategic partnership, and from this point of view we ended up on the same side of the barricades,’ Kasymov said at the time. ‘We should not lose our established positions in the world [because of Russia].’

In August 2014, under pressure to reconsider the relationship with Russia, Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan would exercise its right to leave the Eurasian Economic Union if it felt threatened and the free-trade bloc became increasingly political. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin issued a thinly-veiled rebuke, praising Nazarbayev as a ‘unique man’ and ‘very wise and experienced leader’ who ‘has done a unique thing – he has created a state on a territory that had never had one.’ In Kazakhstan some interpreted Putin’s comments as a threat to its statehood, should a future administration change its geopolitical alignment away from the Kremlin. If Putin does decide to carry out a Crimea-like scenario or a project similar to the one the Kremlin is trying to implement in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and ‘little green men’ appear in Kazakh towns, some residents of Petropavlovsk have not ruled out that certain locals might support them.

‘It is quite unbelievable to even picture such a situation but I won’t be surprised if some local young men show support to such little green men,’ Anatoliy, a retiree strolling through the city’s main pedestrian street in a recent autumn afternoon, suggests. ‘But we are living in peace in Kazakhstan, so I simply cannot see such a scenario unfold.’

Another city resident in his mid-thirties, who refused to give his name, said he did not see any conditions for such a situation to develop because ‘we have too many police and other security forces in the country. People do not even discuss the situation and talk about it because it is so unrealistic.’

No room for separatism

Kazakh authorities closely monitor the media and the internet and harshly punish anything deemed an incitement of interethnic or social strife. In December 2016, a court in the North Kazakhstan region sentenced a local resident to five and a half years in prison for online posts calling for the separation of the northern Kazakh regions and their incorporation into Russia. Kazakhstan also has a history of local separatist incidents. In 1999, for instance, Kazakh security forces thwarted an attempt by a Russian citizen, named Viktor Kazimirchuk, and 21 of his accomplices (both Kazakh and Russian citizens) to seize power in the East Kazakhstan region and establish a breakaway Russian republic. The members of the group received lengthy prison terms but since their conviction was in 2000, they have long since been released.

‘Hypothetically speaking, there may be such people [supporting armed men in green uniforms] but for this to happen there should be a certain situation like the one that emerged in Ukraine, when the previous government collapsed and a new government started discriminating against ethnic Russians. In reality, there are no conditions for this situation to emerge in Kazakhstan,’ Chebotarev, the expert in Almaty, explained.

Yaroslav Razumov, an Almaty-based journalist, believes that the Crimean scenario could not be repeated in Kazakhstan because of different historical, social and political links between Crimea and eastern Ukrainian regions with Russia and Kazakhstan’s northern regions with Russia. Nevertheless, he admits that the Ukrainian events have revived old phobias in Kazakhstan. ‘The calm and ideology-free analysis shows, and I am fully convinced, that the Crimean scenario cannot be staged in Kazakhstan in principle. However, even non-nationalistic ethnic Kazakhs presume and fear that it might be implemented in northern or eastern Kazakh regions,’ he said. ‘They argue that no-one could even imagine that this might have happened to Crimea,’ he continued.

Razumov argues that relations between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea cannot be compared to the situation between Russia and Kazakhstan due to differences in historical memory. ‘Kazakhstan is largely perceived as something abstract by Russians. They regard it as something that doesn’t belong to Russians,’ he explained.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, demographic and social changes in Kazakhstan have also somewhat decreased separatist sentiments in predominantly Russian regions. According to the last Soviet census in 1989, the share of ethnic Russians in the country was as big as that of ethnic Kazakhs – 38 per cent to 40 per cent, respectively. However, as a result of outward ethnic Russian migration and inward ethnic Kazakh migration, as well as the higher birth rate among ethnic Kazakhs, the proportion of ethnic Russians had decreased to 20.6 per cent as of 2016, whereas ethnic Kazakhs accounted for nearly 67 per cent. Nevertheless, ethnic Russians still constitute large minorities in the country’s north and east – 42 per cent, 50 per cent and 37 per cent in the Kostanay, North Kazakhstan and East Kazakhstan regions respectively, where the share of ethnic Kazakhs now stand at 40, 35 and 60 per cent.

The effect of migration  

In response to the situation in Ukraine, the Kazakh government resumed its programme to encourage ethnic Kazakh immigration from abroad. The programme, launched in the early 1990s, helped nearly one million ethnic Kazakhs move back to Kazakhstan through 2011; when the government suspended the programme following events in the oil town of Zhanaozen (in the country’s west) where clashes between striking oil workers and security forces led to the death of 15 people. Following 2014, the government has significantly simplified procedures to acquire Kazakh citizenship for ethnic Kazakh immigrants settling along the border with Russia. It has also started encouraging internal migration from the densely-populated predominantly ethnic Kazakh southern regions to the north and east of the country.

This is transforming the demographic and linguistic landscape of these regions, with newly-settled ethnic Kazakhs becoming increasingly assertive in speaking Kazakh and leading a more traditional way of life. Ethnic Russians complain that the newcomers move to their towns and show disrespect for established local customs. ‘I have witnessed a young Kazakh doctor tell a Russian elderly woman to go to Russia to get treatment. This is outrageous, but people don’t bother to take action against such incidents,’ a driver, who gave his name as Sergey, lamented. ‘Local Kazakhs wouldn’t do this; she must have been from the south.’

The man said he had not heard people talk about separatism in his region but noted that many of his friends and acquaintances had considered leaving for Russia. In addition to interethnic relations, the economic crisis Kazakhstan has experienced since the collapse of oil prices in 2014 has also increased ethnic Russian emigration from the country.

Razumov, the Almaty-based journalist, said he decided to move to Russia after an infamous incident in 2013 when a former local government official verbally and physically abused a flight attendant for failing to reply in Kazakh. ‘At some point I realised that I would not be able to protect my family from such situations.’

Chebotarev suggested migration was a ‘realistic indicator’ of the ethnic Russian mood in Kazakhstan, but it could not be considered a political factor because migration is largely motivated by socio-economic reasons. ‘I would even call it educational migration when young people go to study in Russia and stay there to establish their lives, and later are joined by their relatives,’ he says. Chebotarev’s views are shared by Razumov, who said that in the booming early 2000s many ethnic Russians adopted a position that could be dubbed as delayed emigration and which might be materialising now. According to Russian migration authorities, over 260,000 Kazakh citizens were registered as residents in Russia between January and June 2017, and about 20,200 acquired Russian citizenship in this period alone. Razumov also believes that outward migration will help keep separatist mood among Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians at bay. In order for the Crimean scenario to happen in Kazakhstan, he thinks, there would have to be serious conflicts within the ethnic Kazakh community itself.

‘There is not much internal conflict potential in Kazakh society at the moment. There are no large-scale, tectonic rifts that could provoke certain foreign interference,’ he suggests. On the other hand, like Kazakhstan, Russia is not in such great economic shape due to western sanctions and low commodity prices.

‘In these conditions starting another big conflict which would obviously invite negative reaction in the world, with geography playing out even in the opposite direction and China being not indifferent to such things, would not suit anyone in Russia. Moreover, there is no need for this,’ Razumov concludes.

Published 10 November 2017
Original in English
First published by New Eastern Europe (November-December 2017)

Contributed by New Eastern Europe © Naubet Bisenov / New Eastern Europe / Eurozine



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