Although there are still no official statistics as to its size, the exodus of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from Kazakhstan has clearly accelerated since Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president last month. Nazarbayev was the last central Soviet-era leader of the republic and a man viewed by many Russians as a guarantor of ethnic harmony. According to Igor Pereverzev, a Russian commentator based in Kazakhstan, even though Nazarbayev remains in power behind the scenes, the emerging post-Nazarbayev leadership appears less interested than him in balancing the interests of ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs; instead, the incoming political elite looks more committed to a “Kazakh first” approach, which concerns ethnic Russians. As a result, outmigration of this important minority is certain to grow in the coming months, making Kazakhstan more Kazakh than it has ever been and prompting the government to devote less and less attention to the shrinking ethnic-Russian community—a vicious cycle as far as the latter are concerned (Lenta.ru, April 5).
In fact, Pereverzev writes, ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Kazakhstan were shocked not so much by Nazarbayev’s resignation—few believe he will really leave power as long as he is alive—but rather by the lightning-quick change to rename the capital of Astana to Nur-Sultan in his honor. For ethnic Russians and even Russian-speakers in Kazakhstan, the new name is “so Eastern,” and many are now taking this as a signal by the new leadership that it is time for them to leave. If they emigrate as expected, the share of ethnic Russians in the population of Kazakhstan will drop from about 25 percent today to less than 10 percent in a decade or two. And at that point, Kazakhstan will truly become a Central Asian country and not the bi-national republic the Soviet leadership originally set it up to be.
Despite the lack of statistics, there is evidence this exodus has already begun. Pereverzev points out, “Practically every day, the indigenous resident of Alma-Ata reads on social networks that one of his or her acquaintances has moved to Russia together with his family,” even though he had been doing well economically in Kazakhstan. Indeed, the commentator continues, “Even those who never expressed such a desire or had any cause to do so are now thinking about emigrating” (Lenta.ru, April 5).
In some ways, of course, this situation parallels what happened in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union; but fearful of what Russian flight would do to his country’s economy and relations with Moscow and Russian enterprises, Nazarbayev did what he could to slow the exodus by paying special attention to his country’s ethnic Russians—although, he had diminishing incentive to do so as Russians continued to leave and Western firms moved in. That reflected his Soviet experience, one that included being mentioned “more than once” by former Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev as a possible Soviet prime minister. Nazarbayev’s successors do not have a similar background, and their country is already far more Kazakh than it was when Nazarbayev rose to power in the late 1980s.
The ethnic makeup of the Kazakhstani government reflects this growing demographic shift. In the last decades, Pereverzev notes, “the share of non-Kazakhs in government administration has fallen constantly. If the first prime minister [of independent Kazakhstan] was a man with the Ukrainian name of Tereshchenko, the current government consists exclusively of ethnic Kazakhs.” Indeed ethnic Kazakhs are now ascendant, especially after Nazarbayev has retreated from day-to-day management of the country, something Russians and Kazakhs can both see.
But there is a twist to this story that may have even greater consequences. Many of the most successful Kazakhs are themselves Russian-speakers; and as a result, Pereverzev suggests “the chief divide in society passes not between ethnic groups but between the Kazakh-speaking world and the Russian-speaking one, to which not only ethnic Russians belong.” The departure of the latter will leave the Russian-speaking Kazakhs in a far weaker position, and the ethnic-Russian exodus will thus contribute to making Kazakhstan an ever more traditionalist Islamic and Central Asian country than it has ever been before.
The percentage of ethnic Kazakhs among the Russian-speaking population of the country, itself the product of Soviet policies, is “enormous,” Pereverzev argues. In fact, the government which, in ethnic terms, consists exclusively of Kazakhs, nevertheless still conducts its meetings in Russian, something that deeply offends many Kazakh-speaking members of the republic’s titular nationality. And they have other reasons for their frustration: the Russian-speaking Kazakhs are generally wealthier and more European in their attitudes about family life and society. Kazakh-speakers “more often look to the past and not to the future,” Pereverzev observes (Lenta.ru, April 5).
According to Pereverzev and other commentators, Nazarbayev supported the Russian-speaking Kazakhs even as the share of Kazakh-speaking ones increased, but a tipping point has already been reached (Central Asia Monitor, April 8; Kont, April 9). Feeling their growing power, more traditional Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs may feel freer to act on their views, something they have done to a limited extent in recent years by, for example, securing the closure of gay clubs in the capital and in Alma-Ata.
This trend, in turn, is dividing the population of Kazakhstan, first and foremost between ethnic Russians and the newly dominant Kazakh-speaking ethnic-Kazakhs, but also between Russian-speaking Kazakhs and Kazakh-speaking ones, which may presage growing social and political instability. Perhaps this could have been avoided if Nazarbayev had done even more to promote greater modernization of education for Kazakh speakers and more Kazakh-language instruction for ethnic Russians. But he did not—or more precisely, he ran out of time. Now, his successors, who will reap the consequences of this situation both domestically and internationally, seem even less committed to making the effort. Ethnic Russians have already drawn that conclusion; and they are voting with their feet, making it increasingly likely that Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs dominate the post-Nazarbayev regime more than they could while the last Soviet republic head was in charge (Lenta.ru, April 5).
Reprinted with permission from the Jamestown Foundation.