Saturday, September 29, 2018

Can Kazakhstan Stem the Outflow of Ethnic Russians – And Does It Want To?

Paul Goble
            Staunton, September 28 – As a result of the departure of Russian speakers in general and ethnic Russians in particular, experts say, Kazakhstan is on its way to becoming a mono-ethnic country, one in which the growing majority is becoming more nationalistic and the declining minority is feeling more threatened as a result.

            Russians are leaving Kazakhstan now less because they think they can do better economically in Russia – many of them can’t, Rosbalt’s Irina Dzhorbanadze says – but because they feel increasingly alien in a Kazakhstan dominated by Kazakhs and fear what will happen after Nursultan Nazarbayev passes from the scene (

                These feelings, she says, are the product of “’Kazakhization’” efforts of the government and population including greater use of Kazakh in all spheres, an ongoing shift from Cyrillic to Latin script, and talk about Russians as “’a fifth column’” that may threaten the country’s territorial integrity and thus must be blocked.

            “One local publication,” Dzhorbanadze continues, “even openly welcomed the departure of ethnic Russians from the republic, having noted that ‘one can only be glad’ that they are moving to the Russian Federation.” Such attitudes are not “’total,’” she says; but “they are quite widespread.”

            But they are prevented from infecting more Kazakhs almost exclusively by President Nazarbayev, “but,” as the journalist points out, “the leader of the nation is quite old and it is very difficult to predict what forces will come to power after him” and whether they will take the same position as he has.

            What makes the situation of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan especially problematic, Dzhorbanadze says, is that “mentally, the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan are not Russian Russians. Their lengthy stay in the republic, their way of life and their traditions have left on them a definite and positive impression.”

                Behind all this, she points out, is the fact that Kazakhstan doesn’t face population decline if Russians leave. “The level of fertility among ethnic Kazakhs unlike ethnic Russians and others is quite high: five children in a family is the norm.” But Kazakhstan can easily become mono-national, something that will have serious consequences for it and the region.   

            At least some Kazakhs believe that they will lose some advantages if the ethnic Russians leave, and they are talking about what Astana might do in order to prevent this trend from accelerating.  Yuliya Kistkina of the Central Asian Monitor surveys some of their views (

                Among the most interesting and definite are those provided by Murat Telibekov, a Muslim activist in Kazakhstan who believes that if the ethnic Russians depart, nationalism in Kazakhstan will grow and possibly acquire extreme forms, something that will undermine what has been “an important advantage.”

            He urges that Astana immediately move to take five practical steps:

1.      All government institutions must reflect the existing multi-national composition of the country’s population. Today, if one visits police departments, to take but one example, there is never any non-Kazakh among the officers, the result of ethnic preferences and corruption.

2.      The media must be cleansed of all attacks on ethnic Russians and of suggestions that Moscow is planning to annex the northern part of the country.

3.      The government must slow the current program of renaming cities and towns lest that alone frighten ethnic Russians.

4.      Astana must adopt an ethnic-blind approach to promoting immigration.

5.      And the government must allow the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan to play a larger role in government decisions.

            But even more important than any of these steps, Telibekov continues, Astana must promote economic growth so that people will not be inclined to blame their problems on others as they do now. According to him, “the current intolerance and xenophobia are a unique manifestation of sublimation.”

            “People unconsciously seek the source of their own misfortunes and suffering” in others. These can be sexual or ethnic minorities, foreigners, compatriots who do not know the native language, police or corrupt officials,” he says. If everyone were doing better economically, fewer would be inclined to do so. 

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