Unlike Kazakhstan’s Russian-language papers, the Kazakh-language media are full of frightening stories of frequent attacks by Russian extremists in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other locales. The complacent attitude of the Russian authorities toward the surging attacks on foreigners leads observers to believe that official Moscow is using the skinhead movement as a tool in dealing with Central Asian and Caucasian states with large ethnic Russian populations. To many members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it seems implausible that a Russia that is still powerful enough to challenge the United States in military terms cannot curb the rising racial tensions and violence. Even pro-Moscow officials in Astana wonder if Russia can be regarded as a law-governed state after a gang of nationalists from Kabardino-Balkaria severely beat the popular singer Zaur Tutov earlier this month (Sana, April 6).
The rise of fascist and nationalist movements in Russia is an uneasy issue that Moscow and Astana carefully avoid in official talks. But public reaction to nationalist attacks in Russian cities is something hard to couch in diplomatic prose. Late in February a 32-year-old Kazakh woman was stabbed to death by a group of nationalists in St. Petersburg, apparently for talking in Kazakh on her cell phone. Immediately after the killing, the Kazakh national movement “Fate of the Nation” and the youth organization “Future” staged a protest rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Almaty and sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin demanding punishment for the perpetrators of the racially motivated crime. Later, the leader of Future, Dauren Babamuratov, announced that St. Petersburg’s Kalinin district court had ignored the protesters and reduced the case to an act of common hooliganism (Turkistan, March 2).
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seeking not to irritate Moscow, publicly declined popular demands to send a note of protest to the Kremlin over the incident, saying that the woman killed by the Russian skinheads, although ethnically Kazakh, was a Kyrgyz citizen.
This is not the first instance of Kazakh nationals being beaten or killed in Russia. Yet none of these tragic incidents has been raised in top-level talks with Russian officials. Most of the incidents of savage attacks on Kazakh nationals in Russia remain unknown in Kazakhstan. In 2004 Russian extremists led by Anatoly Gruzdev killed a Kazakh citizen, and a similar murder took place in Volgograd in 2002, but authorities in Astana had no official reaction. As Astana looks away, similar extremist movements have begun to emerge in Kazakhstan. A small square near the Saryarka cinema in Almaty has turned into a gathering place for local Russian skinheads. The walls of houses in Almaty’s Orbita residential area are stained with fascist-style graffiti. The estimated number of skinheads in Almaty does not exceed 50 or 70 people, but the trend is alarming (Turkistan, March 2).
Some reports indicate that nationalists in Russian cities are winning supporters among ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan who maintain contacts with the Russian-nationalist Freedom Party. There have been cases of Koreans and other ethnic minorities of Asian origin living in Kazakhstan being beaten by local skinheads. But like Russian authorities, Kazakhstan’s law-enforcement agencies dismiss these ethnically motivated crimes as minor hooliganism. Many analysts underestimate the potential danger of the incipient Russian nationalism in Kazakhstan, erroneously believing that a skinhead movement cannot take root in Central Asia. In a letter of solidarity written to the Russian-nationalist Freedom Party, an ethnic Russian resident of Astana complain that although Russians make up 30% of Kazakhstan’s population, Kazakh has displaced the Russian language in schools. Thus skinheads are the last hope for ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan to preserve their language and culture (Turkistan, April 13).
Over the last decade many place names in Kazakhstan associated with the colonial past have been changed. But this process has faced resistance from ethnic Russian activists. In Pavlodar (North Kazakhstan), for example, Russian residents, who make up half of the population, launched a public campaign to protest plans to rename the city (Zhas Qazaq, April 14).
The surge of Russian nationalism and xenophobia, fuelled by Kremlin complacency, signals the revival of Moscow’s great-empire ambitions. Kazakhstan is the most vulnerable target for Russian nationalism in Central Asia at least for two reasons. First, despite the ongoing efforts of Kazakhstan’s government to reach a level of demographic safety by encouraging the return of Kazakhs living abroad to their motherland, Russians have retained their ethnic and cultural dominance, largely due to political and economic pressure on Astana from the Kremlin, which uses the ethnic factor as an efficient lever in inter-state affairs. Second, Astana’s current inter-ethnic policy merely declares ethnic harmony, tolerance, and national accord, ignoring deep-rooted problems. Kazakhstan has to face the reality of nationalism and adopt a more pragmatic ethnic policy conforming to standards of international law.