Flags, songs, and dozens of men riding horses through the snow-covered steppe: No, it is not a scene from a new historical blockbuster, it is a viral challenge organized by ethnic Kazakhs to reaffirm their territorial rights. The residents of the Northern Kazakhstan region and the city of Petropavlovsk shot videos this past winter channeling a warrior-like nomad style to “show Russians who the true owners of this land are.”
The challenge was first issued in late 2020 to demonstrate simple acts of patriotism and promote the expression of respect for Kazakhstan’s flag in connection with the upcoming December 16 Independence Day. Kazakhstanis put flags up on their houses and took pictures with them. But the simple patriotic challenge took on a new tone after Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of Russia’s major party, United Russia, and deputy of the Russian State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia) made a notorious comment.
Nikonov claimed that Kazakhstan had never existed before as a state and moreover, was not settled prior to the arrival of the Russian Empire. In addition to this, he stated that the “territory of [modern] Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union.” The claim found support among other Russian politicians nostalgic about the imperial past, who demanded that the lands of Northern Kazakhstan must be returned to the Russian Federation. Although it might sound like a brutal violation of mutual respect for territorial integrity between long-time allies, this is far from the first time Russians have agitated at Kazakhstan’s edges.
At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was the only state of the constituent republics where the titular ethnicity was a minority. As of 1989, ethnic Kazakhs constituted only 39.6 percent of the republic’s population, while ethnic Russians made up 37.4 percent. The ethnic composition of the region had begun to diversify with the penetration of the Russian Empire into the Kazakh steppe in the 18th century. That process continued with the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, its subsequent resettlement policies during World War II particularly, and the devastating aftereffects of collectivization, namely a famine that massively decreased the indigenous Kazakh population. The migration of ethnic Russians was especially pronounced in Northern Kazakhstan, which to this day continues to have a significant population of ethnic Russians. This is most evident in the populations of big cities. For example, in Petropavlovsk ethnic Russians constitute 59.28 percent of the whole population, in Pavlodar 41.11 percent, in Kostanay 41.88 percent, and in Kokshetau 29.41 percent. This creates the conditions for strained ethnic relations between Kazakhs and Russians, and separatist sentiments among ethnic Russian nationalists.
The first attempt to annex Northern Kazakhstan occurred shortly after independence. In 1992, some politicized ethnic Russian communities united with previously militant Cossacks, who made claims to the land in Northern Kazakhstan and desired to become an autonomous republic, separate from the newly independent state of Kazakhstan. The attempt fizzled, and since then Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev carefully crafted a nation-building policy branded under the name of “unity” — but at least in part aimed at keeping the ethnic Russian community loyal and obedient.
Nonetheless, thereafter the “Russian Question” has always alarmed Akorda. In fact, many major policies arguably have roots in anxiety over this issue, such as the decision to move of the capital from Almaty (located in the southeast of the country) to Akmola, soon after renamed Astana, and currently called Nur-Sultan, (located in the north-central part of the country); the expansion of the Northern Kazakhstan region southward to include more Kazakh-speaking villages; and the ban on holding dual-citizenship in Kazakhstan.
In 2014, after the eruption of the conflict in and around Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Kazakh officials became especially alarmed and launched several nation-building programs that were aimed at reinforcing the centrality of Kazakh ethnic national identity and diminishing Russian and Soviet legacy and influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s answer to a student’s question pertaining to the “Ukrainian scenario” occurring in the northern regions of Kazakhstan was to claim that “Kazakhs had no statehood” before the Soviet Union — that only worsened the situation. As many experts have pointed out, before the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, many Russian political figures and historians persistently stated that Ukraine never had a separate statehood and was never a separate entity from Russia; thereby preparing the public with the narrative supporting annexation.
In Kazakhstan, Putin’s comment caused ethnic turmoil throughout 2014 and 2015. Three ethnic Russian Kazakh nationals were jailed for expressing nationalistic and separatist views and/or directly agitating on social media to “return lands to Russia.” Similarly, inspired by this idea, dozens of closed groups emerged, promoting and agitating for separatism. After the introduction of new laws punishing the incitement of inter-ethnic conflicts, several nation-building programs, and harsh demonstrative jail sentences, the pressure fell and the topic slowly died away again.
The “Russian Question” is back, however, but this wave of territorial claims and perceived threats to Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity are hitting with new vigor. Not only have recent comments regarding Northern Kazakhstan been persistent and uncensored by the Kremlin, they are also coming from and supported by prominent figures in Russia’s government. But this time, instead of the Kazakh government responding, we are seeing Northern Kazakhs themselves uniting and demonstrating their ethnic identity with the claim that they are the true owners of the land. For them, the “Russian Question” is especially sensitive and critical. In the North Kazakhstan region, ethnic Kazakhs make up only 35.03 percent of the population, while ethnic Russians constitute 49.53 percent. In the region’s biggest city, Petropavlovsk, ethnic Kazakhs make up 29.99 per cent of the population compared with ethnic Russians at 59.28 percent. In this respect, the “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian world”) has dominated public discourse in this particular area. In many ways, the region is far removed from Nur-Sultan and is much closer to the Russian Federation, not only literally but also figuratively. The presence of Russian TV and media is vast, cross-border cultural and family ties are profound, and back-and-forth migration is a frequent occurrence.
With Russian culture so dominant in the region, and a lack of active civil society movements among local ethnic Kazakhs, the community’s response was unprecedented. When asked why they made such a stark statement, locals replied by saying that it is “because of that Russian deputy” and that “we need to protect our land.” It might seem to be a good sign from the civil society development perspective, since we are seeing the rise of civil consciousness, development of the ability to unite around a cause, and a firm public statement regarding their ethnic heritage. But on the other hand, the rise of ethnic nationalism and heated disputes over “ownership” (be it cultural, historical, or legal) in such a diverse region is a slippery slope. As happened during Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine several years ago, some chatter now in Russia about Kazakhstan being next. Considering that Russia’s favorite policy pursuit is to instigate a “rally-around-the-flag” moment when times are tough domestically, its current turmoil regarding Alexey Navalny and growing public discontent, brings to the surface the question of how far Russia wants to go with Kazakhstan in this regard.