Dissatisfaction among ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan is growing. Many have left since the country gained independence, and those who remain are feeling increasingly frustrated and excluded by "Kazakhization" policies. Emigration has caused a significant decline in Kazakhstan's overall population, far outpacing the higher birth rates of those remaining.
From 1989 to 1999, the number of ethnic Russians in the country decreased by 1.58 million. In addition, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars have emigrated. Whereas in 1989, the 6.53 million ethnic Kazakhs in Kazkahstan comprised roughly 40 percent of the 16.3 million population, by the end of 1999, the 8.12 million Kazakhs represented nearly 55 percent of the country's 15 million inhabitants.
Another reaction to exclusionist government policies is separatism. Indeed, a growing number of Russian speakers, searching for a greater measure of political, economic and social security, appear willing to support radical causes. Aleksandr Shishannikov, a leader of the Lad movement, a nationalist-leaning organization that advocates Russian rights, said in a mid-February newspaper interview, "The population here is has gotten to the point where any extremist in the region who describes himself as a defender of the Russian people can count on the support of the entire population of East-Kazakhstan province."
The November putsch attempt in the East Kazakhstan capital of Ust-Kamenogorsk is the clearest indicator of festering discontent. On the night of November 18, 1999, law enforcement authorities in Ust-Kamenogorsk arrested 22 individuals, including 12 Russian citizens. They were accused of conspiring to seize power by armed means with the intention of seceding from Kazakhstan and establishing a "Russian Altai" republic. The head of the group of "extremists" is a citizen of Russia, Viktor Kazimirchuk, who is the self-proclaimed leader of a "Rus" socio-political organization. Kazimirchuk calls himself Pugachev after the Don Cossack leader of an 18th-century peasant rebellion against Catherine II.
Precise details about the alleged conspiracy remain unclear. Some have argued that the putsch attempt was provoked by rogue elements within Russian state security, others say that the Kazimirchuk-Pugachev group is a collective "lone gunman," or assert the incident was incited by Kazakhstan state security forces. Whatever the origins, the government's response to Russian separatists has been quick and harsh. In February, for example, a Russian-language newspaper in East Kazakhstan was closed by authorities for three months because it published the home address of the leader of the putsch. A trial of the insurrectionists is in the offing.
The incident has the potential to become a source of tension between Kazakhstan and Russia. Moscow has requested the extradition of an unspecified number of the 12 Russian citizens implicated in the plot. Astana, however, has rejected the Russian request.
Lad and other organizations have been critical of the Ust-Kamenogorsk conspiracy. At the same time, a number of Russian-speaking civic and political organizations, including Lad, the Communist Party and the Union of Cossacks, have advocated the notion of Kazakhstan joining the existing union of Russia and Belarus. In early February, the groups appealed to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to hold a referendum on unification with the Slavic states. Nazarbayev rejected the appeal.
The Slavic union idea is not new. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in a pamphlet written 10 years ago, advocated the incorporation of northern and eastern regions of Kazakhstan into a Slavic union. At a time when Kazakhstan, like most other Soviet union-republics, was busy asserting sovereignty over its territory and natural resources, Solzhenitsyn staked a claim for Russia to Kazakhstan's northern borderlands with Siberia. Solzhenitsyn's polemic elicited a strong protest from among ethnic Kazakh intellectuals, who began research into Imperial Russian policy in the region.
Using archival sources, they demonstrated that Russian policy in northern Kazakhstan in the late 1800s was consciously informed, in the conceptions of Tsarist bureaucrats, by the U.S. precedent towards its Native American population earlier in that century. The nomadic and pastoral Kazakhs were driven off the lands on which they had grazed their herds for centuries, which were then "enclosed" as the Kazakhs were moved into smaller and smaller areas eventually resembling large American Indian reservations.
Ust-Kamenogorsk (also known by its Kazakh name Oskemen), the capital of East Kazakhstan province, was founded by Russian settlers in 1720. Russians have long lived on what are the borderlands of Kazakhstan with Russia.
Since Kazakhstan gained independence, language legislation that places emphasis on the revival of Kazakh culture has helped to erode the stature of Russian speakers in society, as well as their dominant positions in political and economic spheres. Kazakhstan’s state building blueprint in the early 1990s called for the construction of tolerant multi-ethnic pluralism. Nearly a decade since independence, however, realizing the goal of a civil state in which two ethnic groups are equally represented now seems unlikely in the near future.
The government has indeed shown a general indifference to the Slavic emigration from the country and appears to have even subtly encouraged it. The policy reflects the influence of ethno-nationalist circles within the ethnic Kazakh leadership. The emigration satisfies their desire to increase the ethnic Kazakh percentage of the population, thus offering greater security to their own rule by in essence legally excluding a significant number of potential competitors. At the same time, Kazakhstan's leadership has given every indication that it will move quickly to crush anyone who advocates alternative state-building formulas.
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First published by EurasiaNet (13 March 2000).