New Wave of Kazakh Nationalism Changing Astana’s Domestic and Foreign Policies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 32

President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Source: Newsweek)

Soviet officials always referred to their country’s five Muslim republics east of the Caspian as “Central Asia and Kazakhstan,” explicitly separating out the latter because ethnic-Russians formed a plurality of the population in Kazakhstan, unlike in the other four. And as result of that demographic reality, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) pursued a different approach to both its ethnic Russians as well as to the Soviet Union’s other Muslim republics. Soviet Kazakhstan was truly a binational place and thus could not behave as a “Muslim” republic and easily cooperate with the rest of Central Asia. That arrangement suited Moscow: it meant that Central Asia would not unite because, without the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Turkmens would be unable to balance against the Uzbeks’ regional dominance.

However, in the last decades of the Soviet Union, the share of Kazakhs in their titular SSR rose due to higher birthrates and improved life expectancy. Additionally, the share of ethnic Russians fell as a result of out-migration and the dying off of an aging population. By the 1989 census, ethnic Russians had lost their plurality in Kazakhstan. They formed 37.8 percent of the population, while ethnic Kazakhs amounted to 39.7 percent. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s acquisition of independence, these trends accelerated. By the 2009 census, ethnic Kazakhs formed 63.1 percent of the population, while ethnic Russians made up only 23.7 percent; the largest demographic swing in any of the former Soviet republics. In the last decade, the Kazakh advantage has increased even more, with the titular community outnumbering Russians by more than three to one.

This shift has now reached a tipping point, one that appears certain to transform Kazakhstan’s domestic policies as well as its foreign policy. Domestically, Kazakhstan, long the most tolerant and even supportive of ethnic Russians and the Russian language of any Central Asian republic, has adopted an increasingly Kazakh-first policy. Consequently, growing numbers of ethnic-Russian Kazakhstanis feel uncomfortable and emigrate. Concern in some quarters is growing that the present outflow will equal that of the 1990s and transform Kazakhstan into a mono-ethnic Muslim country in which Russians and Russian speakers will have no place (, March 3).

Several developments in Kazakhstan have underlined this shift in recent weeks. First, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has pressed for the acceleration of the replacement of the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin script for the Kazakh language, something that will highlight the difference between Kazakhs and Russians in a fundamental way (, May 24, 2018). Second, Astana has announced plans to remove Russian from its banknotes. Henceforth, they will only be in the national language (, February 23), again a symbol that Kazakhstan is looking away from Russia and toward its own national future. And third, as a result of a new film about the terror famine in Kazakhstan that Joseph Stalin organized—which killed a greater percentage of the population than did his Holodomor in Ukraine―increasingly more Kazakhs are being nationalized in much the same way Ukrainians have been (, February 14).

But now, ethnic Russians and local Russian speakers see an even bigger threat on the horizon: more and more voices in Kazakhstan are calling for closing down the country’s Russian-language schools. The proposal is meant to bolster the integration of all groups into the Kazakh nation, to promote other languages, including English and Chinese, and to treat Russians in Kazakhstan the same way Kazakhs are treated in the Russian Federation, where there are no Kazakh-language schools at all despite the presence of almost a million ethnic Kazakhs. It is not clear if Astana will actually take this step, but even the discussion of such a possibility has Russians in Kazakhstan and in Moscow worried (Central Asian Monitor, March 4).

Commenting on this possibility, Kazakhstani journalist Zhenis Baykhozha writes that everyone needs to understand what will happen if a decision really is made to “close all Russian schools.” In such a case, she writes in Central Asian Monitor, “The overwhelming majority of Slavs living there, about four million people, and representatives of a large number of ethnic groups will begin to pack their bags [and] sell their houses and apartments [because] for many of them, the chance to give their children an education in Russian is almost the last factor that has been keeping them from leaving up to now” (Central Asian Monitor, March 4).

Baykhozha says that this exodus will hurt Kazakhstan by depriving it of Russian specialists, although, given the age structure of the Russians in the republic, that is less of a problem than it was a few decades above. Moreover, she adds, it would hurt Kazakhs as well, depriving them of a language needed to live and work in Russia and to gain a serious higher education—something not yet available domestically in the Kazakh language. Yet, despite those counterarguments, the number of Russian schools in Kazakhstan is certain to decline, and the prospect that they will disappear entirely will certainly accelerate Russian flight (Central Asian Monitor, May 30, 2018; March 4, 2019).

With that flight—and one can imagine a Kazakhstan in which ethnic Russians will decline to ten percent or less and become a truly marginal group—Astana will also change its foreign relations, looking ever more to the other Central Asian countries and to China, rather than to Russia as it has in the past. That is the judgment of the Kazakhstani Council on Foreign Relations, in a newly released report. That shift will likely upset Moscow even more than the departure of more ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan (, February 27). At a minimum, it will mean that Russians and others will no longer speak of “Central Asia and Kazakhstan” but of a Central Asia that includes that enormous country within its borders.