Nearly two weeks ago, twenty-two individuals (twelve citizens of Russia and ten ethnic-Russian citizens of Kazakhstan) were arrested in Ust-Kamenogorsk in East Kazakhstan province. They were charged with planning an uprising to seize political power in the province and proclaim a republic called "Russian Land," autonomous of both Russia and Kazakhstan. The deeper significance of this group's arrest is not limited to only inter-ethnic relations in Kazakhstan or even problems of democratization in the country; it more importantly concerns relations between Russia and Kazakhstan and the future geopolitical configuration of Central Eurasia itself.
Kazakhstan was one of Stalin's favorite dumping-grounds for deported Soviet ethnic nationalities. Today, there are roughly one hundred ethnic groups in Kazakhstan with a population officially estimated at under fifteen million at the beginning of this year, though under steady decline due to emigration, spread over a territory almost four times the size of the US state of Texas.
In the early 1990s the official line was one of a tolerant multi-ethnic pluralism; yet throughout the current decade there has been an increasing Kazakhization of political, social, and economic life. Kazakh prefects have been appointed even in predominantly Russian areas of the country. Only Kazakh historical figures are portrayed on the country's currency. Names of streets and of many entire cities have been changed. Kazakh-language broadcasts are mandated on the country's radio and television stations even though large numbers of ethnic Kazakhs themselves do not speak fluent Kazakh.
Despite official declarations, as early as 1994 the official newspaper Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, whose editor is appointed personally by Kazakhstan President Nazarbaev, publishes what passes as "public service" announcements targeting its ethnic Russian population to facilitate their emigration to Russia. The announcements give the addresses and telephone numbers of various provincial government offices in the Russian Federation, and state that any Kazakhstani citizens seeking to emigrate should contact those offices for information.
One of the most remarkable facts of political life in Kazakhstan is Nazarbaev's unintended success in unifying a broad but disparate opposition front against him. This opposition includes Kazakh intellectuals, conventional ethnic-Russian social organizations, standard trade-unions from extractive industries such as mining, more radical worker-based "leftists", and impecunious pensioners of every nationality and region. The removal of the national capital, and hence the parliament, from Almaty to Astana in the center of the country, was designed in part to complicate the communications among these groups and the country's elected legislative representatives.
Various sources have suggested many different explanations for the events in Ust-Kamenogorsk, especially given the fact that the principal in this foiled exploit is one Viktor Kazimirchuk who used the nom de guerre Pugachev after the Don Cossack leader of an 18th-century peasant rebellion against Tsarina Catherine II:
1. That rogue elements within the Russian state security apparatus are in league with the ultra-nationalist fringe of Russian politics to intensify political tensions within Kazakhstan. One of those arrested is the head of Zhirinovsky's party in the city of Slavgorod, Altai Krai, Russia. The events recall Solzhenitsyn's early-1990s call for the annexation to Russia of Slavic-populated regions of northern Kazakhstan.
2. That Kazakhstan state security organs are discrediting ethnic movements in the country in general, allowing Nazarbaev to undertake cosmetic initiatives so as to appear as a national conciliator prior to a planned visit to the United States this month. In fact, among Kazimirchuk’s (Pugachev) contacts in Omsk were Siberian Cossack organizations concerned that their brethren in Kazakhstan have been consistently refused registration of their organizations with the Almaty government, effectively denying them the opportunity to organize politically.
3. That the events are the work of U.S. state security organs bent on exacerbating state-to-state relations between Kazakhstan and Russia. Alleged proof if said to be that the ex-wife of Kazimirchuk (Pugachev) is said to be Italian, that he himself traveled in Europe allegedly as a counterintelligence double-agent in contact with the Red Brigades, and that he freely dispensed with tens of thousands of US dollars at his disposal in Siberia.
4. That Kazimirchuk (Pugachev) is a psychologically unbalanced individual acting on his own initiative. This theory goes to show that the "lone gunman" theory of political violence need not be the exclusive property of American political culture.
To make matters more interesting, of course, none of these hypothetical explanations by itself necessarily excludes any of the others.
Events in Ust-Kamenogorsk are the canary in the Kazakhstan mineshaft. There is wide popular discontent in the country, and not only among ethnic Russians; yet there are no real mechanisms through which to express it. The West, for its own strategic interests, needs to focus on the significance of Russian-Kazakhstani relations and of political development (or rather its absence) in Kazakhstan itself. If Uzbekistan is what Mackinder called the "pivot" of Central Eurasia, then Kazakhstan is the shatterbelt.
On the other side of the shatterbelt there is China. China has demanded that Nazarbayev repress social organizations representing Kazakhstani Uyghurs. These Uighurs fled their homeland Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan) beginning in the late 1930s through the early 1960s. Kazakhstan has collaborated with Chinese authorities and violated international treaties by peremptorily returning to China those ethnic Uyghurs from China who have fled to Kazakhstan and claimed political refugee status by reason of racial persecution. A widely disseminated report by Amnesty International this year documents tortures systematically inflicted upon Uyghurs by Chinese authorities.
China's strategy of encroachment upon Central Asia was revealed in high-level documents leaked in Beijing confirming that China is asserting a conscious national policy to export young unmarried, unemployed working-age Han males to exert an unfolding future geopolitical influence. Ethno-nationalist Han Chinese expansionism into Central Asia allows for geopolitical penetration into a realm formerly occupied by Russia. This is a demographically inspired chauvinism of the sort that the term Lebensraum was once used to describe.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst 1, no.
3 (8 December 1999): 3 4.