In Soviet times, Russian writers habitually referred to what many now call Central Asia as “Central Asia and Kazakhstan” as a way of signaling that, from Moscow’s perspective, Kazakhstan was closer to Russia. Kazakhstan stood out from the other Soviet republics of Central Asia by the fact that its population included a far higher share of ethnic Russians—a plurality until the mid-1980s—and its leaders were far more heavily Russified. In post-Soviet times, Russian analysts have dropped this formulation but continued to view Kazakhstan separately from the rest of region, claiming that it was the former Soviet republic with which Moscow had the fewest outstanding problems, even compared to such long-time allies as Armenia and Belarus.
But now, the situation is changing—and changing fast. Some in Moscow have even speculated whether Kazakhstan might be “the next Ukraine.” This shift reflects the rise of nationalism among the Kazakhs, who today form an overwhelming majority of the republic’s population. Ethnic-Russian flight, which has left Moscow without the leverage it had always counted on, combined with the expanding role of China, a development which means Russia can no longer count on being the only outside power that Kazakhstani officials think about, are the drivers of this shift
This transition is happening at a time when Russians, at the instigation of the Kremlin, are ever more concerned about how Russians and the Russian language are treated abroad and frightened about the possibility that refugees from Afghanistan may flood into the Russian Federation and destabilize the country.
In recent weeks, a growing number of State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) deputies and Kremlin-linked commentators have begun to pick up on the idea that Kazakhstan is on its way to becoming “another Ukraine”—by which they mean a country riven by ethnic nationalism, hostility to Moscow, and a barrier rather than a bridge to the extension of Russian influence into Central Asia and South Asia beyond. These voices demand that Moscow respond forcefully and promptly before the situation in its large southern neighbor spirals out of control. Yevgeny Valyayev, of Moscow’s Public Diplomacy Foundation, is among them. He noted that “over the course of many years, it seemed that practically no disagreements existed between Russia and Kazakhstan,” something that made that country an exception in the former Soviet space. According to him, that led many in Moscow to ignore the ways in which Kazakhs were declining to use the Russian language and had started promoting anti-Russian versions of history. However, following recent developments like the reported appearance of “language patrols,” which demand that everyone in Kazakhstan speak Kazakh, Russian observers have reacted with expressions of extreme concern (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 1).
“Kazakh nationalism long ago became just as mainstream a point of view as Ukrainian or Belarusian nationalism, and it unites them via an active struggle with the imperial past, in which Russia and Russians become the chief targets for attack,” Valyayev continued. In addition, no one should forget that in northern Kazakhstan, there are a large number of ethnic Russians and they are hardly indifferent to the shift in attitudes in Kazakhstan, he said. They fear they are being reduced to the status of “second-class citizens,” especially as polls show that among young Kazakhs, there are an increasing number who want Russians to leave Kazakhstan “forever” (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 1).
Ethnic-Russian flight from northern Kazakhstan is accelerating. If this trend continues at its current rate, ethnic Russians will soon form little more than 10 percent of that country’s population. Kazakhstani officials insist that the primary cause for their departure is economical rather than any deterioration of inter-ethnic relations between Russians and Kazakhs. But radical Kazakh nationalists and their “language patrols” are gaining increased support. The outbreak of inter-ethnic violence last year, admittedly not between Kazakhs and Russians but between Kazakhs and Dungans, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group, suggests the danger of conflict is great. Moscow is especially nervous because some of the most radical Kazakh nationalists whom Nur-Sultan has expelled are continuing to operate from Georgia and Ukraine (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 9, 2021; see EDM, February 11, 2020
While senior Russian officials still support good relations with Kazakhstan, growing numbers of Russian commentators fear that if Moscow does not react soon, it may be, in their words, “too late.” For instance, Pavel Zarifullin, of the Gumilyev Center for Eurasian Research, argues that for the last 30 years, Moscow has “done nothing for the defense of Russians” in Central Asia and Kazakhstan and may now reap the whirlwind because of that failure (Gumilyev Center, September 6).).
Two other developments are pushing Moscow to reevaluate its assumptions about and policies toward Kazakhstan. First of all, China, stung by earlier tension with Kazakhstan over water, investment and Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang (see EDM, March 30, July 26), has now taken a step that is winning enormous support from nationalistic Kazakhs. Namely, China has begun publishing the People’s Daily in Kazakh, not Russian, which Kazakh nationalists interpret as a signal that Beijing now views Kazakhstan as a Kazakh- rather than a Russian-speaking country (365Info.kz, September 4). This gesture gives China a real advantage over Russia, which continues to aggressively promote the Russian language throughout the former Soviet space.
In addition to China’s growing role, the Taliban’s victory has sparked concerns in Moscow that there will be an influx of refugees from Afghanistan. Moscow officials worry that among the refugees will be radicals who may link up with Islamists inside the Russian Federation (see EDM, September 7). To counter that danger, Moscow has stepped up discussions with Kazakhstan about tightening border controls. However, the worsening relationship between the two countries is likely to make reaching any agreement far more difficult, however much officials in both countries try to put a positive face on things (Caspian Bulletin, September 9; The Q Monitor, September 7). For these reasons, Kazakhstan, long viewed by Moscow as a safe harbor, is likely to prove anything but that in the coming months.