Wednesday, November 13, 2019

With Influx of Chinese Capital, Northern Kazakhstan Could Become a Second Crimea for Russia, Lepekhin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 8 – This week, Vladimir Putin and his Kazakhstan counterpart Kasym-Jomart Tokayev agreed to the delimitation of the border between their two countries and to the expansion of trade and other contacts between them. But analysts warn that there are developments that could put them at odds and even make Northern Kazakhstan a second Crimea.

            Their arguments take the following line. At present, Kazakhstan cooperates with Russia economically but that reflects the views of now-former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who has always favored integration even though he has pursued policies which have led to Russian flight and the reduction in the Russian share of his country’s population from 40 percent to 20.

            But now he has been succeeded by Tokayev who heads a country that is not only vastly more Kazakh but one that is increasingly independent-minded especially because the influx of Chinese capital is swamping Russia’s much smaller role there. And thus, his approach is likely to become increasingly more distant from Moscow’s.

            And as Tokayev does so, Vladimir Lepekhin, the head of the Institute for the Eurasian Economic Community, says, problems for ethnic Russians in the northern part of Kazakhstan are likely to increase. As long as Kazakhstan is Russia’s friend, “political issues won’t arise,” but if that changes, they could (

            “No one is thinking about this now,” he continues, but if Kazakhstan does reorient itself away from Russia to China, that could raise the question of the status of the Russian-speaking population in the northern part of Kazakhstan and even transform it into a Crimea, especially if Russians in Russia and Russians in Kazakhstan feel things are slipping out of control.

            There is precedent for this in Russian-Kazakh relations, Sergey Aksyonov of Svobodnaya pressa says in citing Lepekhin’s argument. It came in the summer of 2017.  At that time, Moscow was willing to give up Lake Sladkoye in Novosibirsk Oblast to Kazakhstan to resolve border issues.

            But if the politicians saw that as a realistic approach, the Russian people in general and the Siberians in  particular objected; and their protests forced Moscow to backdown and insist on the current borders, a sensitivity that Putin and his advisors appear to have “forgotten”  (

                Lepekhin is not the only Russian who sees trouble ahead with the passing of the torch from Nazarbayev to Tokayev and Kazakhstan’s emergence as a Kazakh nation state with enough funding from China to pursue an independent course. Aksyonov also cites Dmitry Zhuravlyev of the Institute of Regional Problems and Andrey Dmitriyev of the unregistered Other Russia Party. 

            Zhuravlyev says that he expects Kazakhstan “with time” to become “a full-blown nation state” of the Kazakhs, one in which ethnic Russians will play an ever smaller role. The Kazakhstan authorities will want them to remain but the Kazakh people may have a different attitude – and ever more Russians will leave.

             And Dmitriyev suggests that “the time for solving ‘the Russian question’ in Kazakhstan” is running out. Moscow can’t make a direct demand for the return of Russian lands in northern Kazakhstan or hold the Kazakh foreign minister hostage as it did the Baltic ones in 1940 until he agrees. 

            But nonetheless, there are two possibilities for “the return of our territories and people.” This could happen if radical nationalists come to power in Kazakhstan and local Russians organize a referendum to leave or if the state supports a referendum. “But with each passing year, the window of possibilities is closing.”

            Lepekhin laments both the lack of Russian thinking about all this and the fact that there are very few Russian investments in Kazakhstan both absolutely and relative to China’s role there. He suggests that what Moscow should do now is to make an agglomeration of Omsk and Nursultan and make if the capital of the Eurasian Economic Community.

            That would not only help to keep Kazakhstan in Russia’s orbit, he says; but it would address the depressed conditions in and around Omsk. 

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