Kazakhstan wary of ethnic Russians broaching autonomy
KOSTANAY, KazakhstanMar 05, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
Mar 05, 2016 12:00 am
In the city of Kostanay in northern Kazakhstan, the ribbon of St. George, a black-and-orange symbol of resurgent Russian patriotism that was adopted by separatists in Ukraine, hangs from every second car's rear-view mirror.
Most people in this town and the surrounding region are ethnic Russians, distinct from the mainly Muslim ethnic Kazakhs who are in the majority nationwide and control the main levers of power in this oil-producing former Soviet state.
Demographically, the region therefore has much in common with Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and the eastern Donbass region, whose majority Russian-speaking populations pulled out of Kiev's orbit with help from Moscow. There is no separatist rebellion in northern Kazakhstan, but the ethnic Russians, who make up more than a fifth of the country's 18 million population, are feeling increasingly insecure and some sympathise with the separatists in Ukraine.
The Ukraine experience has made the Kazakh authorities highly sensitive to any signs of disloyalty by ethnic Russians. Ethnically based political parties are banned.
"Their bodies are in Kazakhstan but their minds are in Russia," said political analyst Dosym Satpayev, talking about what he described as the significant portion of the Kazakh population influenced by Russian media. "There are signs that (the authorities) in Kazakhstan are beginning to realize it also faces a separatist threat," said Satpayev, who runs the Risk Assessment Group, a think tank.
There are no signs of Moscow promoting separatism in Kazakhstan, although it wants to keep the country in its orbit.
Moscow has a clear interest in what goes on in its neighbour. At 3.7 million, Kazakhstan's Russian diaspora is the second-biggest after Ukraine and its northern and eastern regions are home to major industrial enterprises with Russian links. Northern Kazakhstan is a major coal and grain region.
Most of the landmarks in Kostanay, a city of 200,000, date back to the 19th century, when the territory became part of the Russian empire and settlers arrived. More people arrived from Russia when Kazakhstan became part of the Soviet Union.
Today, most people in Kostanay speak Russian. The Kazakh language can barely be heard in the streets, in contrast with southern Kazakhstan, where ethnic Kazakhs generally use it.
Perhaps mindful of the legal penalties, people in Kostanay do not express separatist sentiments in public. Many say they display the St George's ribbon to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War Two, not because of any association with the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. But some in the city sympathise with the pro-Russian movements in Ukraine and see parallels with Kazakhstan.
Some ethnic Russians in the region have gone further, and fought alongside the separatists in Ukraine. Last February, a Kostanay court ordered the detention of two people who had fought in Ukraine. It is illegal under Kazakh law to participate in armed conflicts abroad.
The Kazakh government under the 75-year-old Nazarbayev has nurtured close relations with Moscow, but pushes back hard against any sign the country could fracture along ethnic lines. In an apparent attempt to change the ethnic balance, the government is also encouraging ethnic Kazakhs to repatriate and people from southern regions to move to the north by offering financial assistance and easier access to education.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University