Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are an estimated 3,793,764 ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, comprising 23.7 per cent of the population (Source: Kazakhstan National Census, 2009).
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 – as well as 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 to turn Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union’s bread basket; 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 per cent in 1989 to 3.7 percent in 1999 and then to 2.1 per cent in 2009.
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 was 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 that 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, were 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.
Under Kazakhstan’s Constitution, while Kazakh is the state language, Russian has equal official status for all levels of administrative and institutional purposes. However, nationalist groups are now pushing for a more aggressive promotion of the Kazakh language. Several municipalities have even taken down Russian-language public signs or refused to provide Russian translations for official communications, such as court proceedings. This concern was raised with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s High Commissioner for National Minorities in June 2014. However, in August 2014 President Nursultan Nazarbayev told state broadcaster Khabar Television that he wanted to ensure that any policies promoting the Kazakh language remained moderate to avoid encouraging the divisions evident in Ukraine.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and President Vladimir Putin’s promise to protect the interests of Russian speakers around the world, political analysts have suggested that Kazakhstan’s Russian population could become a geopolitical liability. Indeed, there are occasional signs that Nazarbayev is eager to pre-empt grievances on the part of his Russian constituents or their self-styled defenders in the Russian Federation. In February 2016, in what some observers saw as a message geared towards Russian-speaking voters ahead of parliamentary elections in May, Nazarbayev publicly threatened to fire civil servants who failed to provide Russian-language service to Russian speakers.
Meanwhile, President Nazarbayev introduced a significant change in 2017 when he announced that the country would shift from using the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. This will be the third change in a century; at the beginning of the 1900’s, Kazakh was written using Arabic script until the Soviet authorities briefly introduced the Latin alphabet. The government explained that the shift will support the country’s development by easing use of new digital technologies. Nevertheless, the move is also seen as a further step in strengthening Kazakhstan’s identity and is likely to add to the feeling many Russians have of being excluded. Full implementation is not expected until 2025.
There have been reports of Russians feeling sidelined from political decision making. Their representation at a senior level in politics remains limited, although Vladimir Shkolnik, an ethnic Russian, was reappointed as energy minister in August 2014 and served until March 2016. The ethnic Russian share of seats in Kazakhstan’s lower legislative chamber, the Mazhilis, is roughly proportional to their demographic. This is not necessarily the case for many of Kazakhstan’s non-Russian minorities, who together make up more than 13 per cent of the population. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has previously expressed concern about the under-representation of non–Kazakh ethnic groups in general in political life and the civil service.
An increasingly urbanized society, with more than half of residents now based in urban areas, Kazakhstan has large minority urban populations, particularly ethnic Russians. Russian is still commonly used as a lingua franca in most cities outside the south and west, including among many ethnic Kazakhs. All road infrastructure, public transport facilities, streets, avenues and other facilities in urban areas are legally required to be marked in both Russian and Kazakh.
Updated June 2015
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