Since Vladimir Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine last year and annexed more of the country into Russia—as he began to do in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea— relations between Kazakhstan and Russia have deteriorated (see EDM, September 9, 2021, and June 28, 2022). An increasing number of Kazakhs are telling pollsters that they expect their country to be the next target of Russian aggression and that they assume that Moscow will exploit separatist attitudes within Kazakhstan if it does so. The number making such declarations is still relatively small, 15 percent in one survey this past summer, and both Kazakh officials and Kazakh commentators downplay the potential for such a development anytime soon. However, ever more Kazakh commentators are acknowledging that the potential for separatism based on a variety of groups is growing, backing Astana’s tough response against such a threat, and expressing concern that Moscow could get behind any one of them and threaten their country (Demos.kz, May 17; Novayagazeta.eu, July 13; Qmonitor.kz, October 6, 16).
There are three potential bases for separatism in Kazakhstan at the present time: the ethnic Russians in the north (often viewed as the only threat in this vein), other non-Kazakhs (who now form almost as large a share of the Kazakh population as ethnic Russians do), and sub-groups within the Kazakh nation, both tribal and regional (which are unhappy with the central government). The separatist potential of the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan has long been recognized. They formed a plurality of the population until the mid-1980s, but have now declined to approximately 15 percent, a development that has cut both ways as far as separatism is concerned. On the one hand, the ethnic Russians now represent a far smaller foundation for the development of such a movement. On the other hand, those who remain feel more threatened because of their increasingly marginal status. These remaining ethnic Russians may be more willing to listen to the siren song of Moscow about becoming part of Russia. This is especially the case as the increasingly dominant Kazakhs, who now number more than 70 percent of the population, sometimes behave in ways that the Russians find offensive. One example of this is the activity of the so-called “language patrols,” which demand that everyone in Kazakhstan speak Kazakh (Qmonitor.kz, October 11; see EDM, September 9, 2021).
Over the last several years, Astana has taken an increasingly hard line against any manifestation of Russian separatism. They have gone so far as charging a variety of ethnic Russian individuals with engaging in separatist activities, criminalizing the possession of Russian passports, and, most recently, promoting the idea that all residents of Kazakhstan should describe themselves as Kazakhs rather than as Kazakhstantsy. Moving away from this historical distinction, rooted in Soviet conceptions of ethnicity and nationality, is an idea that Kazakh leaders themselves had promoted beginning in the 1970s, but one that offends many ethnic Russians and some ethnic Kazakhs because it challenges traditional ethnic identities (Qmonitor.kz, July 24). As a result, while Kazakhstan has suppressed some separatist activities among Russians, it undoubtedly has made others even more unhappy with the situation in the country. This could explode if the country becomes unstable, or if outside forces more actively support Russian separatism in Kazakhstan than they appear to be doing at present (Stanradar.com, August 3, 2022; Qmonitor.kz, October 16).
In addition to the Russians, however, Kazakhstan faces separatist challenges from two other directions. These could be exploited by Russia and thus become even more important than the Russian minority in this regard. The first comes from the increasingly numerous non-Russian minorities, some of whom have engaged in violent actions over the last several years, convinced they are the victims of discrimination and are not receiving their share of the national wealth. As of 2022, the largest state minorities include Uzbeks (3.2 percent), Ukrainians (1.9 percent), Uyghurs (1.5 percent), Germans (1.1 percent), and Tatars (1.1 percent), alongside many less numerous groups (The Qazakstan Monitor, May 2). Some of these populations want ethnic statehood either as autonomies within Kazakhstan, which remains a unitary state, or even independence if the situation does not change (see EDM, February 11, 2020; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, February 18, 2020).
But perhaps the most important of these sources of separatism now come from within the Kazakh nation (as traditionally defined) on the basis of regional, religious, or tribal identities. Ethnic Kazakhs in the west have challenged Astana repeatedly in what most dismiss as merely economic protests, but these demonstrations contain an important secessionist message, as do religious protests (Stanradar.com, August 3, 2022; Vpoanalytics.com, August 15, 2022; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, February 22). However, the most important of these intra-Kazakh divisions consists of a social formation not found in any other post-Soviet country. From time immemorial, Kazakhs have always been divided into three great tribal confederations known as zhus, with almost every ethnic Kazakh knowing whether he or she is a member of the Older, Lesser, or Middle zhus—and with major government jobs routinely handed out on the basis of those identities.
Many had expected that with modernization, the role of the zhus in Kazakh society would lessen, and there is some evidence of that (Turanpress.kz, June 23, 2022). However, a curious thing has happened instead, according to Russian analyst Vladimir Prokhavtilov. These divisions have become more important as Kazakhs move toward becoming the overwhelming majority of the population, and as more traditional ethnic Kazakhs have returned from abroad. In the past, Kazakhs of whatever zhus could be counted upon to unite against any perceived ethnic Russian threat given the size of that nationality in Kazakhstan. Now, they are increasingly turning on one another, given the declining significance of the Russian minority (Fondsk.ru, March 17). Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is worried about that, not least because these divisions too could easily be exploited by Russia or another outside power (Akorda.kz, March 13). Due to this, he has taken the lead in promoting a civic identity for all, despite its counter-productive risks (Qmonitor.kz, July 24).
In contrast to most analysts in the West, Russian specialists in the region focus on these alternative sources of separatism in Kazakhstan. Moscow is clearly aware that these divisions pose just as much a threat to Astana as Tokayev fears. Such groups also know that these potential fissures can be exploited either directly or by false flag operations to threaten Astana and force it to revise its current foreign policy stance, which the Kremlin views as anti-Russian (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 10, 2022). Indeed, one Moscow analyst has pointedly noted that Tokayev and his regime “should not be afraid of some mythical independent Northern Kazakhstan, but of the emergence of an independent emirate” or regional power elsewhere in what is now Kazakhstan (Vpoanalytics.com, August 15, 2022).
At the very least, Western analysts and governments must be similarly aware of these possibilities, as they work to help Kazakhstan break many of its ties with Russia, but in ways that will not end by breaking Kazakhstan.