Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Three Kazakh Political Scientists Divided on Whether Their Country Faces Separatist Threats

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Apr. 29 – Talk about separatism has been a major feature of the Kazakh media since independence, with most of it involving speculation about supposed plans for the Russian north of the country to break off and join the Russian Federation but at least a part about other ethnic challenges and even regional ones.

            But to date, there has been more smoke than fire, leading some in that Central Asian country to ask whether “separatism” is really a serious challenge or only a scarecrow that various political figures in Kazakhstan use to mobilize their supporters. QMonitor journalist Asel Omirbek interviewed three Kazakh political scientists on this question.

            Their responses, which she summarizes at, show that there is no consensus on this issue:

            Zamir Karazhanov says that “separatism in Kazakhstan is no ‘scarecrow’ but a political reality for the country and its population” and that this phenomenon is not something temporary but “permanent.” Too many people in Moscow, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have pushed the idea of separating the Russian North of Kazakhstan; and Astana has not stilled such calls.

            At the same time, he points out that “there is no organized force for separatism in the political arena,” although that could emerge as a result of the intensifying geopolitical struggle in the world and the ability of the Internet to cross borders quickly and easily – and thus threaten Kazakhstan’s future.

            “For 30 years, ‘an independence generation’ has grown up,” Karazhanov says; “but there remain problems with the self-identification of the population.” It’s no secret that some ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan “consider themselves part of a neighboring state – Russia” and that talk about states not being legitimate of the kind circulating now is a threat.

            A second Kazakh political scientist, Zhaksylyk Sabitov, says that no one can say for sure how widespread separatist attitudes are because there is “no open sociology” in the country; but it is clear that there are no organized forces pushing it now and therefore it is important not to overstate the threat. Anyone who does risks creating what does not now exist.

            He says that Astana must prevent separatism from appearing by working to ensure that the economic development of the regions of the country is more equal than is now the case. That is a long-term tactic but it is the only one that gives real promise of eliminating this threat altogether.

            And Gaziz Abishev says that while people sometimes talk about separatism, they aren’t really committed to the idea. At the same time, he urges that Kazakhs pay more attention to such talk in non-Russian areas than they do. Separatism in a country as large and diverse as Kazakhstan is not a purely Russian problem.

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