Violence Spreads in Kazakhstan, and Now Involving Attacks on Ethnic Russians

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 180

The aftermath of a 2020 attack on a Dungan village in Kazakhstan, which killed eight (Source: Eurasia Net)

Clashes between Kazakhs and various non-Kazakh minorities like the Uyghurs and Dungans have become increasingly common in Kazakhstan.  But now, many in Nur-Sultan and in Moscow fear that tensions over language, employment and even settlement patterns between Kazakhs and ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan will lead to similar outbursts of violence. Such a development would certainly accelerate the departure of additional ethnic Russians from the country and exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Nur-Sultan. Indeed, some Russian commentators are already suggesting that Moscow should intervene in Kazakhstan as it has in Ukraine to protect Russians and Russian speakers from Kazakh nationalism (see EDM, February 11, 2020 and September 9, 2021).

Last year, deadly clashes broke out between Kazakhs and ethnic Uyghurs, prompting more than 20,000 of the latter to flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. And a month ago, a violent confrontation exploded between Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans. But neither of these attracted as much attention as the much smaller altercations between Kazakhs and ethnic Russians or the formation by Kazakh nationalists of “linguistic patrols” that seek to force Russians and others to speak Kazakh (Rosbalt, November 18; Polit Navigator, October 31;, November 1; see EDM, September 9).

The Kazakhstani authorities have announced crackdowns on these patrols and forced some of their leaders to emigrate. But other activists have replaced those who have left, and many Russian speakers in Kazakhstan—and even more Russians in the Russian Federation—see these bands as well as Nur-Sultan’s failure to take an even harder line as setting the stage for violent attacks on the Russian community. They are especially concerned because many in Kazakhstan’s political elite appear to be engaging in victim blaming, arguing that the behavior of ethnic minorities in the country is the reason they are being attacked. Not surprisingly, many Kazakhstani scholars and Russian commentators see this approach as giving a green light to Kazakh nationalists, despite what Nur-Sultan officials say (, October 27; EurasiaNet, October 29).

Following the recent ethnic-Kazakhs clashes with Uyghurs and Russians, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev suggested that the violence was not the result of ethnicity but rather of criminal activity by the minorities. He also proposed that some Uyghurs and Russians are unwilling to integrate into broader Kazakhstani society. Tokayev called for the end of ethnic enclaves, something that could affect many if not all of the non-Kazakhs in his country given that most live separately from the ethnic-Kazakh majority. The ethnic Russians, for example, dominate the northern third of the country but are rarely found in the south (, December 2; Ritm Eurasia, December 2).  The Kazakhstani president’s line of argument, it should be noted, is exactly the same as that offered by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, along with other Moscow officials in their discussions of ethnic problems inside the Russian Federation. But not surprisingly, Moscow rejects it when applied elsewhere and even describes it as “Nazi-like” and an effort by Kazakhstan’s authorities to exploit ethnic conflicts to hide economic and political failures.

Kazakhstani officials like President Tokayev have become increasingly nationalistic at least in part because, like the Russian authorities, they see nationalism as an effective mobilizing tool. But they have also done so because of the Central Asian country’s changing demography: a generation ago, Kazakhs formed a bare plurality of the population. Now, they represent almost 70 percent of the total, the result of their own demographic growth and the demographic decline and exit of ethnic Russians, the second largest nationality in the country.  Given their numbers, many Kazakhs believe that Kazakhstan should be for the Kazakhs first, just as many Russians think Russia should be for the Russians. That has led to the rise of a new Kazakh-centric history of the country, plans to shift from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script, the renaming of many cities and streets, and, most seriously, to ethnic conflict and violence. Many ethnic Kazakhs see these developments as simple justice; ethnic Russians view them as an attack on Russians and Russia.

Kazakh sociologist Serik Beysembayev argues that all these factors contribute to conditions that make ethnic clashes more likely. But in addition, he suggests, economic problems, especially access to land and water, and shortcomings in the way in which officials, some of whom are corrupt, deal with these problems, bear primary responsibility. To avoid a cataclysm, Beysembayev suggests, Kazakhstan must promote policies directed at the inclusion of minorities rather than acting in ways that divide people, making ethnic clashes inevitable (, October 27).

And while the sociologist does not mention it, Nur-Sultan has another reason for changing course, Beysembayev’s analysis suggests. Tensions between Moscow and Kazakhstan are on the rise. Commentators in the Russian capital assert that the nationalistic policies of the Kazakhstani authorities and the attacks on ethnic Russians could justify Moscow’s intervention, just as it purportedly justified Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan has no choice but to take such talk seriously. However, there is a risk that its response could both make future ethnic clashes more likely and increase the Russian government’s inclination to intervene: Nur-Sultan ordered its first batch of drones from Turkey, an entirely understandable action that will do nothing to calm the situation there (, November 29).

At least some Kazakhs will see the drones as a sign of their country’s need to defend itself against Russia, while taking out their anger on ethnic Russians inside Kazakhstan. At the same time,  at least some in Moscow will see this as precisely the kind of manifestation of Kazakh nationalism Moscow must intervene to stop before the situation spirals entirely out of control.