Sunday, March 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Western Kazakhstan Challenges Astana in the Way Siberia Challenges Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 3 – The Western regions of Kazakhstan produce much of that country’s wealth but get relatively little back, thereby creating a situation which resembles the one that exists between Siberia and Moscow in the Russian Federation in which a regionalist challenge has the potential under conditions of crisis to grow into a separatist one.

            In an article on last Thursday, journalist Petr Bologov describes the situation and asks provocatively “will a new state appear on the banks of the Caspian?” only to answer that question in the negative at least while Nursultan Nazarbayev remains in charge of the country (

            Western Kazakhstan first attracted notice at the end of 2011 when clashes over pay led to clashes between workers and the authorities that left 15 people dead, Bologov says. But he suggests that behind this violence was “the striving of a certain part of the West Kazakhstan elites” to gain greater autonomy or even “an independent state on the shores of the Caspian.”

            To make his case, the journalist points out that Kazakh society has long been divided among three “zhuzes” or communities, the Elder zhuz, the Middle zhuz and the Junior  zhus.  Although these have not had formal political recognition since the Russian conquest, they remain important parts of the Kazahstan political landscape.

            The Junior Zhuz, whose members are to be found in Aktyubinsk, Altyrau, Western Kazakhstan and Mangistau oblasts of Kazakhstan, the idea referred to colloquially as Western Kazakhstan.  This group is further divided into four tribal unions, each of which has several family groupings.  Among the most prominent of these is the Aday family.

            The Aday, a name many Western Kazakhs now identify with, “for a long time refused to recognize the authority of the Kazakh khans or the Russian tsars or later the Bolsheviks,” Bolotov says, and continued to struggle openly against the Moscow-imposed Kazakhstan soviets until 1930.

            The divisions among the zhuzes were much in evidence in December 1986 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Kazakh Dinmuhamed Kunayev as party chief with an ethnic Russian, sparking riots in which an estimated 200 people, Russians and Kazakhs, lost their lives. But these divisions continue to matter.

            After the collapse of the USSR, the Western Kazakhs who had played an important role in Kazakhstan government under the Soviets were largely exluded from the new power vertical that Nazarbayev was building there.  Not surprisingly, many of them were angry and sought various ways to reclaim their powers.

            Among the most effective was to encourage the local population to place the blame for their declining economic fortunes not on local elites but on Astana. That was especially easy for the local elites to do because Astana was in fact behind the arrival of numerous low-skilled and low-paid Uzbek gastarbeiters.

            Another effective means was to point out that even though Western Kazakhstan produces “more than a third” of the country’s GDP, its residents receive only one-sixth as much back from Astana as do residents in the central and eastern regions of Kazakhstan, a complaint that resembles that of many Siberians about Moscow.

             Promoting such regional grievances, Bolotov notes, was easier because the people of Western Kazakhstan share many common views about themselves and the rest of the world, as was documented by a 2007 study, “The Portraits of the Regions of Kazakhstan” (  and are more likely to be Salafi Muslims than are other Kazakhs.

            Astana has reacted in much the same way to Western Kazakhstan as Moscow has to Siberian regionalism: It has blamed outsiders such as the Chevron Oil Company or even presented the disorders in that region as reflecting Western efforts to destabilize the situation (

                Most outside observers see little chance that this regionalist movement, however much Astana may fear it and may move against cadres from that region, will be grow into a secessionist challenge, at least as long as Nazarbayev is in control.  But separatist attitudes do exist, as Kazahstan political scientist Daniyar Ashimbayev pointed out in 2011 (

                Thus, there is no reason “to exaggerate the danger,” Bolotov says, “but one ought not to forget about it” either especially since “Nazarbayev will not live forever” and there are few “figures of his caliber” on the horizon in that region who “will be capable of restraining centrifugal forces in society” and in political life as well.

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