In the recent global news, Russian troops were reported to be massing Ukraine’s borders. Now, this move by the Russians is not only worrying Ukrainians but also Kazakhs. Though Kazakhs don’t have to be immediately concerned about Russian troop movements, yet, what unsettles them is years of Russian rhetoric, spearheaded by President Putin’s repeated comments, stressing the ideological rather than the security aspect of the build-up against Ukraine and verbal assaults on Kazakhstan. In his annual news conference, Putin used an unrelated question posed by Kazakhstan TV last month to remind his audience that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.” Putin’s reference to Russian-speaking was in response to some Kazakh activists pushing for Russian inherited from Soviet days to take second place to Kazakh as the country’s primary language.
Russian nationalists have responded vehemently to any suggestion to change the status of Russian in the Central Asian republic. “Unfortunately, in Asia, only the language of power is well understood. Russia does not have to demonstrate its power, but it has to show its ability to apply it. The weak are not respected. As Alexander III said, Russia’s allies are its army and navy; unfortunately, we have no other natural allies,” said Alexander Boroday, a former separatist leader in Ukraine’s Donetsk-turned-member of the Russian parliament. Boroday’s remarks were part of an evolving war of words. Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov charged that xenophobia had sparked several attacks on Russian speakers in Kazakhstan.
Notably, Kazakhstan shares a 6846-kilometer-long border with Russia, the world’s second-longest frontier. The country hosts a Russian minority that accounts for 20 percent of the population. By invoking the notion of a Russian World, an updated version of a concept embraced by ancient sources who saw the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine worlds as spaces not defined by borders but by cultural and economic influence, Putin articulated his view of Russia as a civilizational rather than a national state. Putin first embraced the concept telling a Russian Diaspora conference in 2001 that “the notion of the Russian World extends far from Russia’s geographical borders and ever far from the borders of Russian ethnicity.” Kazakh leaders have walked a fine line when responding to Putin and his far-right nationalist choir. In an article, President Nazarbayev was quick to announce plans to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate that dates back to 1465. Some analysts suggest that 81-year-old Nazarbayev may be the last barricade blocking a Russian-Kazakh confrontation. Noting that Russians as a percentage of the Kazakh population were diminishing, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta pointed out that “Russia understands this but is not in the mood to easily concede to its former colony the right to live as citizens in the country they want.” The newspaper further quoted Kazakh scholar Dosym Satpayev describing the Russian-Kazakh relationship as that of a “husband and wife before a divorce. They are still trying to live together, but black cats are already circling. In the future, someone will probably want to start the divorce process, possibly peacefully or maybe confrontationally.”