North Kazakhstan isn’t the next Crimea — yet

Kazakhstan has avoided Ukraine’s mistakes and kept its ethnic Russians in the fold

A pedestrian promenade in Petropavlovsk with a banner reading: “We are your children, Kazakhstan”
Joshua Kucera

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on Kazakhstan focusing on issues of national identity. This installment explores Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia.

PETROPAVLOVSK, Kazakhstan — In the recent takeover of Crimea, enthusiastic Russians revived a historical nickname for President Vladimir Putin: “The Gatherer of Russian Lands,” a reference to Czar Ivan the Great, who dramatically increased the size of the empire in the 15th century. Russia's recent expansionism, albeit much more modest, has occasioned pride among Russians and fear among its neighbors, as both wonder what territory might next be “gathered.”

Northern Kazakhstan would seem to be a prime candidate. Next to Ukraine, Kazakhstan has the largest number of ethnic Russians outside Russia, about 4 million. Kazakhstan's ethnic Russians live next to the border and are subjects of a government that is trying to promote Kazakh identity.

It's a parallel not lost on Moscow: In February, politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was born in Kazakhstan, said the country should join Russia as a “Central Asian Federal Region.” And a number of pro-Kremlin analysts have drawn analogies comparing Kazakhstan to Ukraine. “Northern Kazakhstan, which is primarily populated by Russians, could suffer the same fate of the southeast of Ukraine,” said Valery Tishkov, director of a Moscow think tank and a former Russian nationalities minister. “We've already seen the emergence of a Kazakh ethnic nationalism.”

But people in Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kazakhstan's most heavily Russian province, say they are far from becoming the next Crimea. There is a broad consensus among the city's Russians (an estimated 70 percent of the population) that the land historically belongs to Kazakhs, and they praise the country's current leadership for its efforts to maintain Russians' rights there. 

Petropavlovsk’s origins were humble. Founded in the 18th century as part of a string of forts across southern Siberia, the city was originally intended both to defend the newly conquered Russian territory and to facilitate trade with the local Kazakhs and other Central Asians. That gives it a very different place in the Russian imagination than Crimea. The site of Russian military heroism from the Crimean War to World War II, Crimea was given to Ukraine only in 1954, as a “gift” when the borders between Soviet republics were mere bureaucratic boundaries.

“How many times in history has Crimea changed hands?” asks Galina Kuzmina, the press secretary for Russian Community, a government-affiliated association promoting the interests of Russians in Petropavlovsk. “Petropavlovsk has always been Kazakhstan. You can’t compare the two situations.”

Statue of Russian poets Alexander Pushkin (right) and Abai Kunanbaev.
Joshua Kucera

Petropavlovsk openly celebrates the city's multicultural heritage. There is a plaque commemorating the friendship between Chokan Valikhanov, a leading Kazakh intellectual of the 19th century, with the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and a monument jointly honoring Alexander Pushkin and Abai Kunanbaev, the two most celebrated poets of their respective traditions.

The city opened a new mosque and church on the same day in 2005, and in 2007 the government opened the completely restored residence of Ablai Khan, an 18th-century Kazakh leader. Empress Catherine the Great had the residence constructed for Ablai Khan’s visits to Petropavlovsk to facilitate contacts between the Russian and Kazakh authorities. A display at the museum quotes Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev honoring Ablai Khan for “strengthening the relations between Russia and the Kazakh steppe.”

These efforts can seem forced; in particular, people tend to joke about the Pushkin/Kunanbaev monument, noting that the two men had nothing to do with one another (Pushkin died before Kunanbaev was born), said Vera Gavrilko, a local independent journalist. “But it shows that they are trying,” she said.

The specter of ethnic separatism was much more threatening in the 1990s, when Kazakhstan was newly independent and Kazakhs represented a minority in their own country. In 1996, legendary Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called for northern Kazakhstan to revert to Russia. In 1999, the Kazakh government broke up what it claimed was a plot by ethnic Russians in the northern part of the country to secede and join Russia.

The Kazakh government undertook a number of policies in order to mute that threat. It encouraged migration of ethnic Kazakhs from neighboring countries, which, along with the emigration of many ethnic Russians to Russia, has changed the demographic balance in the country: While in 1989 Kazakhs represented less than 40 percent of the population, today that number has grown to 66 percent (the percentage of Russians, meanwhile, has dropped from 40 percent to 21 percent). The government moved the capital of the country from Almaty, in the far south of the country, to Astana in the north, at least partly in an effort to change the demographic center of gravity. But at the same time the constitution guaranteed Russian as the “language of interethnic communication” and moved slowly and delicately to Kazakhify the country (to the point that many of the original targets for phasing in Kazakh-language government are years, if not decades, behind schedule).

Yuri Zakharov, head of the Cossack Association in Kazakhstan.
Joshua Kucera

“When Kazakhstan became independent, no one believed that it would stay together — Russians in the north, Kazakhs in the south,” said the head of the Cossack Association in Kazakhstan, Yuri Zakharov. “But Nursultan Abishevich has been able to bring everyone together,” he said, using the respectful form of Nazarbayev's name.

Cossack loyalty to Nazarbayev is indicative of the differences between Kazakhstan and Ukraine, where Cossacks have been at the vanguard of pro-Russian forces in Crimea and the southeastern part of the country. In Kazakhstan, the Cossacks went so far as to nominate Nazarbayev for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. In Zakharov's office in Petropavlovsk he displays a photo of himself with Nazarbayev.

Nevertheless, Russians do have grievances with the Kazakh government. Getting a government job now requires knowledge of the Kazakh language, which very few Russians have. Kazakh nationalist politicians have mooted changing the name of Petropavlovsk (after Peter and Paul, the saints to whom the original Russian fort was dedicated) to the Kazakh Kyzylzhar.

And in and near Petropavlovsk, there has been a string of cases in which ethnic Russian citizens have been victims of violence at the hands of ethnic Kazakh police officers. “Criminals aren't supposed to have nationalities,” Zakharov said. “But when a crime happens involving a Kazakh, and the detectives, police and prosecutors are Kazakh, people don’t believe the investigation is going to be objective. Of course there are complaints.”

Nevertheless, he stresses that complaints like that are minor in the larger picture of Kazakh-Russian relations. “We’ve lived together for 300 years, we understand one another,” he said. “Ethnopsychologically, we’re the same: Both Kazakhs and Russians are tolerant, calm. If we have something to eat, something to drink, we’re not going to fight.”

A street in Petropavlovsk.
Joshua Kucera

The rhetoric around the long-standing friendship between Russians and Kazakhs is a vestige of Soviet historiography, which emphasized the “voluntary” submission of the Kazakh khans to the Russian empire in the 19th century. But Kazakhs were in more or less continuous rebellion against Russia from the 18th century through the 20th, as Russian settlers inexorably encroached upon the nomadic Kazakhs’ traditional grazing grounds. The Kazakhs were ultimately too weak to withstand the Russian advance, however, and were forced to accommodate Russia’s demands that they submit politically and give up nomadism.

Today, that story is being retold: Kazakhstan is under economic pressure from Russia, in the form of Moscow’s “Eurasian” integration projects, most notably the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which was formally created in May in Astana and includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. The timing of the signing, coming in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, was awkward for Kazakhstan. Rare nationalist protests have criticized the EEU as an abdication of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, while Nazarbayev has repeatedly insisted that the union is only economic and not political.

And just as Nazarbayev has had to delicately balance the desire to Kazakhify the country with the need to avoid alienating its ethnic Russians, he’s carried out a parallel balancing act with respect to relations with the Russian government. Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has striven toward what it calls a “multi-vector foreign policy,” which is a delicate way of explaining that it seeks new partners — primarily China, the U.S. and Europe — to balance out the Soviet-era dependence on Russia.

To that end, Kazakhstan has enlisted European and American companies to exploit its oil and natural-gas fields. With the income from those resources it has been sharply increasing its military spending, and has increasingly been buying European, Chinese and Turkish hardware to replace the exclusively Russian equipment it inherited from the Soviet Union. And it has been trying to gain more control over the Soviet-legacy military and space facilities that Russia still operates in Kazakhstan, including the legendary Baikonur space launch site. It has done all this while still managing not to appear as a threat to Russia, by not making the advances toward the European Union or NATO that convinced Russia that Ukraine was turning into a geopolitical problem.

But the events in Ukraine have thrown this delicate balancing act into question. Kazakhstan's initial diplomatic response to the annexation of Crimea was cautious to the point of incoherence. In a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nazarbayev stressed the importance of Ukraine's “territorial integrity,” while in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin the same day, he said he “understands Russia’s stance on protection of the rights of national minorities in Ukraine and its security interests.”

Soon after Russia annexed Crimea, the Kazakh government announced that it intended to introduce laws punishing “illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan” by up to 10 years in prison. And it promised to make it easier for ethnic Kazakhs from outside Kazakhstan to gain citizenship.

“The situation in Ukraine clearly rattled a lot of people here,” said one Western diplomat in Astana, speaking on condition of anonymity. (The Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment for this article.)

There is a broad consensus that as long as Nazarbayev is in charge, he has built up enough trust with Moscow and Kazakhstan's ethnic Russians to withstand a crisis. But he is 73 years old, and what happens when he is replaced is unclear. While some in Astana believe he has nurtured deep roots for his moderate policy, others worry that in an uncertain succession, nationalists could come to power. That, in turn, would badly frighten both Moscow and Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians.

“One can easily imagine a future hysteria around ‘a Russian genocide,’ now in Kazakhstan, when instead of the ‘Benderovtsy’ the bogeymen are ‘basmachi,’” wrote one Russian analyst, Mikhail Kalishevskiy, on the Moscow-based website Fergana News. (“Benderovtsy” were Ukrainian nationalist partisans who fought Soviet rule in World War II and after; Kremlin rhetoric has relied heavily on the alleged threat of their return in today's Ukraine. “Basmachi” were Central Asian rebels who resisted the imposition of Soviet rule in the 1920s.)

“As long as [Nazarbayev] is president, there won’t be any big problems,” Zakharov said. “But if, God forbid, something happens to him, there is no guarantee. There will be trouble, I’m sure of it.”

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the name of Chokan Valikhanov and removes a reference to a requirement that students at Nazarbayev University pass a Kazakh-language exam.

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