By Paul Goble
A new scholarly study showing that Kazakhs and ethnic Russians are increasingly estranged from each other, with Russians now twice as likely to feel that way as Kazakhs, has so disturbed the Kazakhstan government that Astana has moved to take it down from all Kazakh sites lest it spark more discussions about this most sensitive issue.
Badytzhamal Bekturanova, the president of the Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists of Kazakhstan recently released a report, “Russians and Kazakhs: Why Inter-Ethnic Estrangement is Growing.” Within days, the Kazakhstan government moved to suppress the report by removing it from all websites hosted in the republic.
But the nature of the Internet is such that almost nothing that is posted once ever completely disappears, and Bekturanova’s study is now attracting the attention of sites outside of that republic and almost certainly provoking discussions within Kazakhstan and quite likely within the Russian Federation as well.
An example of this is provided by a lengthy article on an Uzbek site prepared by Russian journalist Aleksandr Shustov who summarizes Bekturanova’s findings and argues that the estrangement she found is the result in his view of “the dangerous games Kazakh nationalism” (vesti.uz/opasnye-igry-kazahskogo-natsionalizma/).
According to the Kazakhstan study, Shustov says, “the level of inter-ethnic alienation” in Kazakhstan has grown from 19.6 percent in 2012 to 26.4 percent in 2016; and it is greatest in the areas where ethnic Russians form a significant part of the population than elsewhere – the north, east, and center of the country and in the old capital of Alma-Ata.
As a result, the ethnic Russians are gradually moving toward “a diaspora-style way of life, worldview and behavior” that precludes close relations with the titular nationality. Ethnic Kazakhs and even Russian-speaking Kazakhs feel such things less intensely because they are confident in the protection of the state.
But there is one thing members of the two groups agree on: 20 percent of Kazakhs and 20 percent of ethnic Russians say that the country will not be able to avoid open inter-ethnic conflict in the future, particularly after Nursultan Nazarbayev passes from the scene and is succeeded by someone who the two groups agree will be more nationalist than the current president.
Russians in the first instance feel discriminated against by measures and practices that put them at a disadvantage with Kazakhs who speak Kazakh. At the same time, however, the Kazakhstan study found that few Russians learn the titular language: At present, only 4.5 percent of Russians in Kazakhstan say they speak Kazakh.
The ethnic Russians who a generation ago formed a plurality of the population in Kazakhstan now form only about 20 percent, Shustov notes, and many of them feel increasingly insecure and are thinking about leaving, although the rate of departures now is relatively small. Only 23,000 ethnic Russians departed last year.
But “after 2014,” when Moscow invaded Ukraine, “concerns about the possible repetition in the northern regions of Kazakhstan of ‘a Crimean scenario’ have only intensified.”
Bekturanova writes in her study that “Kazakh-speaking young people are distinguished by comparably higher indications of a manifestation of ethnophobia, intolerance, and conflict potential on an ethno-religious basis than their Russian-speaking counterparts.” And some are already acting on the basis of these attitudes.
Her research found that “more than half of the ethnic Russians have a negative assessment of the political situation [in Kazakhstan]” with 45.5 percent saying that it is bad. “Each tenth Russian is a supporter of radical means of reforming the political system, and each sixth says he or she is prepared to a radicalization of political views and actions.”
As a result, she continues, “more than a quarter of Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians expect mass actions of protest and an equal percentage expresses a willingness to participate in them. The main reasons for their dissatisfaction are economic problems and ethno-linguistic ones.” And that points to some dangerous possibilities, Shustov says.
According to him, “the growth of ethnic nationalism among the titular ethnos is creating especially favorable grounds for interference from outside on the model of Ukraine” as well as for a renewal of the massive levels of ethnic Russian flight that were observed during the first decade after independence.