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What Does Russia-Ukraine War Mean For Kazakhs? – OpEd

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Hundreds and hundreds of people from among those who are known as the members of Russian-speaking communities in Germany took to the streets in several German cities on April 10 to protest what they call discrimination against Russians. They faced off against protesters rallying against the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. There were verbal clashes between the two camps. German police had to separate them at times to prevent physical confrontations.

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According to the footage shown on EuroNews TV channel, not only Russian and Soviet flags, but also the Belarusian and Kazakh ones were flying on the pro-Russian side, giving the impression that the Kazakh people stand in solidarity with the Russian Federation and Belarus, the Central Asian country’s key trading partners in the Eurasian Economic Union and main allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and in opposition to Ukraine in this conflict. Germany are said to be home to 1.2 million people of Russian origin and 325,000 from Ukraine. In that EU country, the combined number of immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and their children amount to 2,937,000 persons. At least, this is what the statistics say. There, the number of people with migration background related to Kazakhstan reaches approximately 1.24 million persons. This is a significant figure for the Central Asian nation. 

It however has very little to do with the number of Kazakhs, Kazakhstan’s titular ethnic group. The above-mentioned number of people in Germany with migration background related to the Central Asian country consists almost completely of ethnic Germans and, in part, their family members from minorities of Russian and other European origin. According to the press, 4.2 million people have left Kazakhstan over the years of independence. A very high proportion of them have moved to Germany. Those haven’t all been full-blooded German. Since Soviet times, the community of Russian Germans (both in Russia and in Kazakhstan) has been largely made up of people with non-German (although almost exclusively European) backgrounds married to Germans and those born in interethnic marriages to parents (with one being a German man or a German woman in each of these couples). As for the Kazakh SSR (the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, which was one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1991 in northern Central Asia) in particular, it was a kind of melting pot in which people representing various European ethnicities (Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Greeks and the like) and Caucasian ethnic groups (Georgians, Armenians and the like) were being merged into one community – community of Russians and those others feeling themselves to be Europeans in contrast to the indigenous population of Kazakhstan.

In short, at that time the Central Asian republic was a place where representatives of all West Eurasian peoples (in the USSR) were melting and reforming into what now is known as the model of the Russian world. Ethnic Russians, Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians were at the heart of that kind of melting pot since they made up over 90 per cent of Kazakhstan’s European population in Soviet times. By the break-up of the USSR, they got blended together – due to a very large number of mixed marriages – as a community ethnically diverse, yet unified by a single language.

According to the 1989 census, there were 6,227,549 Russians in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. At that time they comprised 37.82 per cent or almost two fifths of the republic’s population. As of the beginning of 2021, there were 3,478,287 Russians in the Republic of Kazakhstan. In over three decades, their share declined to 18.42 per cent, or to less than a fifth of the country’s population. Both the number and proportion of the Kazakhstani Russians have been halved during this period. At the same time, the numbers of the Kazakhstani Germans and Ukrainians have fallen respectively from 957,518 to 174,632, and from 896,240 to 256,700; that of the Kazakhstani Belarusians from 178,325 to 52,200. In over three decades, their shares declined respectively from 5.82 to 0.92 per cent; and from 5.44 to 1.36 per cent; and from 1.11 to 0.28 per cent.  

Since the establishment of the Kazakh SSR up to the collapse of the USSR, the Russian-speaking community of ethnic Russians, Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians were the majority in Kazakhstan. At the beginning of 1990s, the situation started to change. Their combined share which were estimated to account for approximately 51 per cent of Kazakhstan’s total population 1989, has steadily decreased thereafter, and now is just over 20 per cent. All this looks like a consequence of mass emigration. Millions of Russian-speaking Europeans left Kazakhstan. Russia and Germany were and still are the major destination countries for them. 

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Now Kazakhs constitute the majority of the population almost everywhere in Kazakhstan. This nation isn’t what it was. In other words, there is no longer a country populated mainly by people of Russian (European) origin. But many of those who emigrated from Kazakhstan and now live abroad continue to be guided by the perceptions and attitudes remained since those not so distant times when the melting pot of Russians and those others feeling themselves to be Europeans, in contrast to Kazakhs and their kind, was actually dominating the Central Asian republic. They apparently still tend to see their former homeland as a kind of extension of Russia. According to the available information, 90 per cent of people from the former USSR currently living in Germany support Vladimir Putin. Slightly less than half of those emigrated to the most populous EU country from the CIS and the Baltic States as ethnic Germans, are former Kazakhstanis. In that light, it was hardly surprising that the Kazakh flags were flying at the rallies by pro-Moscow supporters who took to the streets in several German cities on April 10 to protest what they call discrimination against Russians.

All this brings up the logical question “What does Russia-Ukraine war mean for Kazakhs themselves who now represent over 70 per cent of the population in the Republic of Kazakhstan?” In the understanding of its indigenous population, the central Soviet authorities and the Russo-European political, social and cultural dominance in the Kazakh SSR has historically been associated not only with Russians, but also with Ukrainians. Among the 15 first secretaries, who had headed the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1925 to 1989, there were only 2 ethnically Kazakh people. Kazakhstan’s titular population was an ethnic minority in their own republic from the 1930s to the 1980’s.

Following the start of Stolypin reforms in Kazakhstan at the dawn of the twentieth century, 45 million tithes (about 121 million acres) of land were withdrawn from the use by the autochthonous population. These land parcels were then handed to 1.5 million peasants who had come here from Russia and Ukraine. As a result, there were 860,201 Ukrainians (13.88 per cent of Kazakhstan’s population) vis-à-vis 1 million 275,055 Russians (20.57 per cent) in 1926, just one year after the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic had been established. Since then Kazakhs have been used not to see much difference between those two Slavic peoples. However, now, to all appearances, the time comes for the destruction of such stereotypes.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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