L’invasion of Ukraine on the part of Russia has attracted international outrage on the Kremlin and has alarmed – albeit under the radar – several countries of the post-Soviet space. Precisely that area object of the “revisionist” speech on the USSR given by Vladimir Putin a few days before the attack. Formally many of the former member states of the Soviet Union are iron allies of Moscow, but this is not enough to completely cancel the fear of end up of Ukraine. This is the case in particular of Kazakhstan: the foreign minister of the Central Asian country hastened, after the Russian recognition of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, to declare that do not consider the hypothesis to recognize them in turn. A clear stance, a few hours after Putin’s move and a few weeks after the intervention of the CSTO – the Russian-led security organization – which helped the president Kassym Tokayev to maintain power, despite the very popular street protests at the beginning of 2022 and an internal struggle against the nomenklatura that could have made him capitulate.
The ethnic mix in the Northern regions – The Kazakh position, therefore, has deeper reasons of a simple alignment with the international condemnation of Russia. Indeed, the government of the capital Nur-Sultan fears that the northern part of its own vast territory may sooner or later end up in Putin’s crosshairs, just as happened to Crimea and then to the whole of Ukraine. And the reasons to fear it are not lacking. First of all the ethnic mix: Kazakhstan has a fragmented demographic composition, the daughter of the Tsarist domination first and then the Soviet one. Suffice it to say that until 1989 the population of Kazakh ethnicity did not reach 40% of the total, while that of Russian ethnicity was close to 38%. The presence of Russian speakers it is still very significant in the north of the country and causes relationships that are sometimes tense towards a creeping separatism. In the regional capital, Petropavl60% of the population is of Russian ethnicity, since it falls slightly in other large centers of the area, such as Kostanay (42%) e Pavlodar (41%).
Russian rhetoric: “Kazakhstan exists thanks to the USSR” – The ethnic reality, therefore, speaks clearly. To this, however, is added the nationalist rhetoric, unlined at regular intervals by prominent Russian politicians. At the end of 2020, for example, the deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov Of United Russia (Putin’s party), has made eloquent statements, which, read in the light of the last few hours, sound particularly sinister. Nikonov went so far as to state that the territory of modern Kazakhstan it was a Russian gift and the Soviet Union, and that the very concept of a Kazakh statehood had never existed before the colonizers arrived. The statement found the support of other nationalist Russian politicians nostalgic for the imperial past: Putin himself, in 2014, said more or less the same thing, arguing that Kazakhstan had never existed before the end of the USSR. A statement that caused great confusion, even leading to the arrest of some separatists of Russian ethnicity in the northern part of the Kazakh territory.
The Kazakh counter-narrative – The reactions from the Kazakh side over the years, however, have not been lacking, both on the institutional front and on the popular front. On the one hand, the authorities of the republic have launched major development plans and of propaganda to try to oppose the influences that come from the North. An action, from their point of view, which is very necessary, considering that in the region to dominate are the Russian media and that family ties between the two sides of the border are very significant, as are cross-border travel. On the other hand, in 2021 a folkloristic and participatory event was held patriotic demonstration on horseback – in the best tradition of the Central Asian steppes – organized by citizens of Kazakh ethnicity residing in the northern part of the state, to reaffirm national sovereignty over that part of the territory. Relevant counter-moves but which could hardly prevent Putin from carrying out a annexation plan – or even of simple destabilization – should the Kremlin tenant decide to do so.
Because (for now) an invasion is unlikely – It must be said, however, that the situation in Kazakhstan is very different from that of Ukraine. Although very open on the economic front, the country fully gravitates in the Russian orbit from a political and military point of view, even more so after the support provided without batting an eyelid by the Kremlin to the regime in a moment of great internal tension. Putin therefore has a huge credit to shake in the face of Tokayev, a factor that increases his already strong political influence on the Kazakh authorities. The Central Asian state, moreover, is among the members of the Eurasian Economic Union (which it helped to found together with Russia and Belarus) and does not risk slipping into Western security orbit as Ukraine risked doing. Finally, a destabilization of Kazakhstan it would greatly irritate China, which has invested huge amounts of money in the country from an infrastructural and logistical point of view, especially following the launch of the New Silk Roads project. And undoubtedly Putin does not want to antagonize Beijing precisely in a region where, at least at the moment, the relationship between the two powers runs smoothly. In short, in the short term it is difficult to think that a Ukrainian scenario will replicate itself in the northern part of Kazakhstan. But even just it scarecrow that this can happen will greatly influence the (geo) political moves of the Kazakh regime in the coming years.