Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-KAZAKHSTAN: “Russian Plot” Tries Already Frayed Ties

Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW, Nov 30 1999 (IPS) - Top Kazakh and Russian officials are trying to downplay an alleged Russian plot exposed last week to establish an independent state in Eastern Kazakhstan, saying it will not affect bilateral ties.

But political analysts have noted that the two countries seem to be already having an increasingly uneasy relationship, largely because of a considerable Russian population still living in Kazakhstan.

A former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan used to have a population dominated by Slavs, or Russian-speaking, people. But since it became independent in 1991, Kazakhstan has seen a steady emigration of Slavs, with the numbers estimated to run into hundreds of thousands.

The Russians have been leaving Kazakhstan largely because of lack of economic opportunities, as well as education prospects for the youth. Despite the presence of some Slavs among Kazakhstan’s high-ranking officials, Russian speakers feel under-represented as the Kazakhs are de facto favourites in career advancement.

And though ethnic tensions have never really surfaced openly between the Kazakhs and the Slavs, some Russian nationalists in Moscow have accused Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev of discrimination against the Slavs in his country and forcing them to leave.

Indeed, they have even argued that there was no such place as Kazakhstan within its current borders and that the Kazakh north- east regions are historically part of Russia.

Kazakhstan’s Slavs, who now make up a third of the country’s 17 million people, live mostly in the north, along the 7,000-km border between Kazakhstan and southern Russia. Due to the Slav emigration in recent years, Kazakhs today are the marginal majority in their own country.

Nazarbayev, for his part, has been careful to refrain from playing the Kazakh nationalist card. Indeed, after 22 people were arrested Nov 22 in the north-eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the local government, Nazarbayev was quick to describe the incident as “criminal” and not political.

In addition, he said that the arrests were not going to affect relations with Russia, although 12 of those detained are Russian citizens — and despite the allegations of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (KNB) that the plotters were aiming to create a separate and predominantly Russian state within Kazakhstan’s borders.

Nazarbayev said, “So far, we have overcome even more difficult problems with Russia, and we’ll solve this one as well.”

Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has also dismissed the incident as nothing serious. Otherwise, he argued, Russian security agencies would have been informed in advance by their Kazakh counterparts.

Still, some analysts here have jumped at Nazarbayev’s reference to “difficult problems with Russia” as proof that the two countries have not been having smooth relations. They have also pointed to a forecast decline in trade turnover between the two countries – from 3.2 billion dollars last year to about 2.5 billion dollars this year – as further evidence.

Complaints by both countries about each other have become quite frequent as well. Kazakh authorities, for instance, have said Russia has failed to pay the annual 115 million dollars for the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Russia uses Baikonur for its space launches. In recent months, though, Kazakhstan has repeatedly placed temporary bans on the Russian launches — on the grounds that the occasional crashes of the space vehicles spoil the Kazakh environment.

Russia, meanwhile, has complained that its border with Kazakhstan is too open to smugglers, especially drug dealers. This is the reason cited by Moscow in deploying Cossacks, descendants of a Slav warrior class, along the Russo-Kazakh border.

But the action has touched a raw nerve in Kazakhstan, where memories of the Cossack colonisation of the Kazakh steppes linger. The arrival of the Cossacks in Kazakhstan had signalled the start of the violent movement of the Tsarist empire eastward.

Some analysts here, though, speculate that Nazarbayev may just be raising the bogey of “Russian domination” to justify his autocratic rule. There are even those who say that the alleged Russian plot in Ust-Kamanogorsk is rather “suspicious”.

Yury Bunakov, leader of the Russian community in Ust- Kamanogorsk, hints that there is reason to be wary of Astana’s version of the incident. “Nobody touched these alleged plotters for more than two months,” he says. “When it became clear that the provocation failed, they were arrested.”

Indeed, Nazarbayev, who won another seven-year presidential term last January, has always stressed the stability Kazakhstan has enjoyed under his rule, compared to the ethnic strife plaguing some of the newly independent Central Asian states.

But there are observers who say Nazarbayev has nevertheless yielded to the temptation of high-profile nationalist gestures, pointing in particular to the decision to move the capital from Alma Ata to Astana.

The move was completed last December, making an erstwhile steppe town some 1,000 km northwest of Alma Ata Kazakhstan’s new capital. The price tag for the change: about 400 million dollars, or roughly the equivalent of Kazakhstan’s budget deficit in 1999.

Among the explanations for the decision were pollution in Alma Ata, which is also earthquake-prone, and the need to relocate the capital away from the Chinese border. But sceptics insist that the real reason behind the move was the Kazakh government’s desire to secure the northern region, which is populated mostly by Slavs.

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