ASTANA, Kazakhstan —A volatile mix building in Kazakhstan contains the same ingredients that ignited in Ukraine: a Russian minority that says it fears being under siege, rising anti-Russian nationalist sentiment and pressure on the Russian language.
Last year, Russia used that explosive combination as a pretext to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Now, many here in this city on the steppe fear that Kazakhstan’s presidential election last Sunday may have been the last peaceful one the former Soviet republic will have and that the country may be next in Moscow’s cross hairs. President Nursultan Nazarbayev won 98 percent of Sunday’s vote, but the 74-year-old leader has done little to prepare for a successor amid widespread speculation that this term will be his final one. Kazakhs and Russians alike worry about strife when he leaves office.
About a quarter of Kazakhstan’s citizens are ethnic Russians, and many have the same grievances as their compatriots in Ukraine. Some say they feel pressured to speak Kazakh, the use of which has spread in recent years. Few Russians are represented in state leadership positions.
Some ethnic Russians are already calling on the Kremlin to send preemptive, peaceful aid, even as they voice their effusive support for Nazarbayev, a former Soviet apparatchik. The Kazakh leader, meanwhile, has promised to crack down on anything that smacks of ethnic division.
“We will harshly punish any form of ethnic radicalism, no matter from which side it comes,” Nazarbayev said shortly before the election at a state-run congress of ethnic groups intended to build cross-cultural unity. In the past year, he has stiffened punishments for advocating separatism and upped efforts to move ethnic Kazakhs to where most of the Russians live, in the north of a nation as big as Western Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked Kazakhstan’s fears last year when he gave the country’s leader a double-edged compliment: Nazarbayev “has performed a unique feat,” Putin told a group of pro-Kremlin youth activists. “He has created a state on a territory where there was never a state.”
Putin has vowed to protect Russian-speakers around the world. Kazakhstan is by far the world’s biggest uranium producer. Russia also views its neighbor as a buffer against an increasingly active China, which is rapidly expanding into parts of Central Asia that were long part of the Russian Empire.
“After Nazarbayev, we will have a transition period, a very dangerous transition period,” said Dosym Satpayev, the director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, who said he feared a repeat of the conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels in the east have seized stretches of territory. “There will be a strong fight about what happens next.”
Kazakhstan is a fragile patchwork of ethnicities, the legacy of Soviet deportations that used the region’s wind-blown steppe as a dumping ground for political prisoners and ethnic groups deemed insufficiently loyal to the Kremlin. Nazarbayev, the only leader independent Kazakhstan has ever known, used pressure, coercion and savvy diplomacy to steer away from ethnic conflict when his country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He has forged a relatively prosperous Muslim-majority nation in a region where instability and harshly repressive governments are the norm. Nazarbayev, too, has relentlessly marginalized and eliminated his opponents, even as he has tried to balance good relations with the West alongside two powerful neighbors, China and Russia. U.S. oil companies have invested billions here. Democratic overhauls have been frequently promised but slow to come, critics say, and the leader holds a personal constitutional right to rule as long as he pleases.
That iron hand has meant that the nation’s fault lines have sometimes been invisible until they have suddenly broken open. That happened in December 2011 in the western oil field settlement of Zhanaozen, when security forces killed at least 17 striking workers who had demanded a bigger piece of the oil wealth they helped to unlock.
Ethnic relations are another potential hot spot, even though leaders have tried hard to paper over divisions. But some tensions are inevitable, given the trends, analysts say. At independence, ethnic Russians were 38 percent of the population. Now they are barely more than a fifth of the country’s 17 million residents, while ethnic Kazakhs are 66 percent and continue to expand, according to official estimates. Many Russians have emigrated, and many more who have stayed say they are plotting their options after Nazarbayev.
“My mother is in a panic. She asks where to go, what to do” when Nazarbayev leaves office, said Marina, 21, who works at a charity for orphans in Astana and gave only her first name because she feared the consequences of speaking about ethnic tensions. Recently, she went to evening prayer services at the Assumption Cathedral in Astana, a gleaming five-year-old complex that was partially funded by Gazprom, a Russian state-controlled energy company. “It’s no secret that people who don’t like ethnic Russians have come to Astana. I don’t think anyone will protect Russians here.”
Their fears have been exacerbated by watching Russia’s powerful state-run media outlets’ coverage of the conflict in Ukraine. Those television channels have taken nationalistic elements in Ukraine’s protest movement and cast them as representative of the entirety of the country’s new leadership. Kiev, Russian channels say, is filled with bloodthirsty nationalists intent on killing ethnic Russians.
Russian channels have paid relatively little attention to Kazakhstan in the past year, but they have stoked nervousness among the country’s ethnic Russians and have demonstrated the overall power of the state media to mobilize Russian-
language society, analysts say.
In recent years, the Kazakh language has made stronger inroads across the country, pushed both by demographic reality and a state policy to encourage its use. Russian remains an officially recognized language, and it is a lingua franca inside cities. Nazarbayev says he wants the new generation to know Kazakh, Russian and English. Even ethnic Russian lawmakers are increasingly taking up Kazakh, a cousin of Turkish.
“We are in Kazakhstan. We should learn Kazakh,” said Svetlana Romanovskaya, a member of parliament whose business cards are printed in three languages and who has English and Kazakh-language textbooks in her office.
Russians’ fears of the future are strong enough that some community leaders have written to Moscow for support.
“There are a lot of young people in the villages and settlements who are not well-educated, and it’s easy to set them against Russians,” said Yuri Bunakov, the leader of the Russian community in the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an official chamber of representatives of the country’s ethnic groups. After the annexation of Crimea, he said, he saw a rise in anti-Russian sentiment among Kazakhs online.
The Russian community sent a letter to the Kremlin last month asking for funding to support pro-Russian cultural projects in Kazakhstan, Bunakov said.
“The expectation for what will happen after President Nazarbayev is quite negative,” Bunakov said. “We need help immediately, not slowly.”
Some analysts say that Russia could use the threat of intervention as a pressure point to ensure that Kazakhstan does not swing too far toward China or the West. On Jan. 1, the country joined the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic integration project that includes Russia, Belarus and Armenia. But Nazarbayev has staunchly pushed against Russian attempts to bind the countries more tightly together, including an effort by Putin to establish a common currency.
There are fears “not that we would get invaded, but that they could turn the media against us if we did something to annoy Russia,” said Nargis Kassenova, the director of the Central Asian Studies Center at Kimep University in Almaty, the former capital. But she said Russia appeared to be less interested in northern Kazakhstan than it had been in eastern Ukraine.
Officials said Kazakhstan’s policies on inter-ethnic cooperation would not change, even when Nazarbayev leaves office.
“This is a matter of survival. No country which is multi-
ethnic is immune from inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflicts,” said Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. “We understand that one match is enough. You may be successful for 10 years. But if you one day relax and ignore the issue, and a match appears on that day, a big fire can occur.”