Russians in Kazakhstan fall into two broad categories. First, Cossacks (‘free men’) are descendants of Russian peasant fugitives who settled along the southern and eastern perimeter of Russia and fulfilled the function of border protection, entering the Kazakh steppes mainly in the nineteenth century.

Second, Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have come in several later waves: drafted in according to the Soviet strategy of ‘compulsory engagement’ in the 1930s to take part in the industrialization programme; arriving in the 1950s as a result of the Virgin Lands project; or settling after their release from labour camps in the post-Stalin era.

Russian-speakers remain a majority in Kazakhstan’s northern and eastern oblasts. This led the Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, among others, to suggest that northern Kazakhstan be annexed to Russia, with the rest left to the Kazakhs. Northern Kazakhstan is reportedly referred to as ‘South Siberia’ in the jargon of Russian nationalists, who argue that the Russian regions of Astrakhan and Urals ceded territory to Kazakhstan in 1936, and that there is a good case for taking back some of the lands.

This suggestion of partition is immensely provocative to Kazakhs, who can claim that the whole of this steppe region was nomadic Kazakh land long before Russian expansion. Nationalistically minded Kazakhs perceive Russians as conquerors, who repressed their language, culture and religion, and they blame Russians for environmental damage caused by nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region. Russians, for their part, consider they have made a positive contribution to the economy and culture of Kazakhstan and feel discriminated against.

Russian emigration is gaining momentum, especially among younger and more educated members of the community, though there are reports of some returning to Kazakhstan because of the improved economic fortunes of the country. The experience of Belarusians and Ukrainians has been broadly similar, with the percentage of the latter’s population declining from 5.4 in 1989 to 3.7 percent in 1999.

Historical context

As parts of Kazakhstan began to fall within Russia’s field of influence from the 18th century there followed a series of colonisation and settlement by Russians, Ukrainians and other Slavs. The first stage of a military character and included Cossacks, followed by peasant colonisation and accompanied by the arrival of significant numbers of settlers. By 1897, there were 454,402 Russians (10.9 percent of the population) and 79,573 Ukrainians (1.9 percent). By 1913, the Russian-Ukrainian population reached 1.5 million, or about 30 percent of the population.

During the Soviet period, the Russian and Slavic population actually represented at one point a majority, as the Russian population grew at a significantly faster rate than did the Kazakh, largely due to the Soviet Union’s migration policies. Overall, Russians and other Slavs were dominant in all official and public spheres of life in Kazakhstan until independence, including the domination of culture, history and mass media, by the Russian language. This had the effect of a large percentage of the non-Russian population spoke Russian fluently by 1989 (72.9 percent), whereas very few Russians and other Slavs learnt Kazakh.

After 1992 new Cossack movements demanded recognition of the repression endured during Soviet times; official second-language status for Russian, the return of historical names for Cossack settlements, recognition as a population indigenous to Kazakhstan and implementation of traditional forms of Cossack self-rule have also been sought. Cossack associations emerged in areas of traditional Cossack settlement. The movement was regarded with suspicion by the authorities. Some Cossack communities were not allowed official registration, their meetings banned and atamans (leaders) arrested. Relations between Kazakh nationalists, who enjoy limited support from the government, and Cossacks, especially in heavily Russian Petropavlovsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk regions, have been tense and have led to sporadic violence.

Russian-speakers have formed several cultural and political organizations, with one of the most prominent representing the Slavic community in general being the Republican Slavic Movement (known by the abbreviation LAD). Its stated goals were the preservation of Slavic identity, equal rights for all to a share of national property and participation in the state administration. The organization appealed to Russians not to leave Kazakhstan. It sought state language status for Russian and the legalization of dual citizenship, while also campaigning for better job opportunities for Russian-speakers, and generally seeking to awaken Russian national consciousness, which it considered dormant.

Despite President Nazarbayev’s initial policy of inclusive state-building, many Russians suspected that the balance is altering in favour of a more nationalistic and exclusive variant. Their fears were nurtured by the campaign to rename Kazakhstani towns, regions and streets, changing not only names reflecting the legacy of communism, but also traditional Russian place-names in compactly Slavic regions. The authorities also encouraged ethnic Kazakhs to move to the north where Slavs predominated and to settle in borderlands to boost the Kazakh population there. Many saw the proposed transfer of the capital from Almaty to Astana as intended to enable the Kazakhstani government to control Russian communities in the north.

Government relations with the Russian political community have deteriorated. In April 1995, prior to the presidential referendum, the Kazakh prosecutor-general closed down the journal Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, the voice of the ethnic Russian movement in Kazakhstan, charging that it was fomenting ethnic hatred. The same fate befell Russkii Vestnik (Russian Messenger). Political opponents, especially among the Russian community, increasingly used Russian Federation newspapers to circulate their views. Before the presidential referendum the Republican Slavic Movement encouraged people to vote ‘no’ to extending the President’s term.

Current issues

The issue of the near total displacement of Russians, Ukrainians and other Slavs (less than 8 percent) from all levels of government employment continues to be one of the most concerning situations for these minorities. The top echelons of power in northern Kazakhstan have also become increasingly Kazakh. Russians perceive that they are being pushed out of the country in order to provide space for repatriated Kazakhs, who are resettled in traditionally well-kept former German villages and receive cash subsidies and interest-free loans from the government.

On the positive side there has been the ratification of treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the establishment of a Human Rights Ombudsman, a Presidential Commission on Human Rights, and of a National Commission on Issues of Democratization and Civil Society.

On the negative side the closing down of a number of civil society – including the Soros Open Society – and opposition organisations from 2004, as well as the recent assassinations of opposition figures and independent journalists, in 2005 and 2006, have made the prospects for minorities such as Russians to bring about substantial changes in Kazakh society increasingly bleak. Furthermore, none of the recently created bodies dealing with human rights can address the most egregious substantive forms of discrimination against the Russian minority (such as unreasonable language preferences legislated by the government) since they only have investigative or advisory powers, and are claimed to be insufficiently independent of the government.