Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russian Kazaks Push for Autonomy

Russia's Kazak minority is stepping up its call for autonomy, mirroring demands by Russians in Kazakstan.
By Slujan Ismailova

Representatives of the 2 million strong Kazak community living in southern Russia are forging ahead with their campaign for an autonomous region bordering their ethnic homeland.

The initiative, launched in Saratov late last month, mirrors calls from the Russian minority in Kazakstan for an autonomous region of their own in the north of the Central Asian republic.

A series of publications in recent months have fuelled debate on the subject. In April, an article widely circulated in the provincial media suggested Russia should buy parts of Russian dominated northern Kazakstan.

More far-fetched were calls from some radical deputies in the Moscow parliament to sell the Kurilsky Islands to Japan to finance the Kazak purchase.

Meirzhan Mashan of the Kazak Institute for Development believes the Saratov initiative plays right into the hands of Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Although, on the face of it, the idea flies in the face of Putin's anti-federalist policies the creation of an autonomous Kazak region would enable the Russian leader "to demand similar concessions from [Kazak President Nursultan] Nazarbaev - autonomy for Russians living in northern Kazakstan," Mashan suggested.

The Kremlin has yet to comment on the Saratov proposal. Likewise Astana has been quiet on the issue, perhaps fearful the idea sets a dangerous precedent for its own restive Russian minority.

Russians make up 34 per cent of Kazakstan's population and form the vast majority in the northern regions of the country. Ever since Kazakstan achieved independence in 1991, the Russian-dominated north has sought autonomy and even union with Russia.

Many observers believe the decision to move the Kazak capital from Almata to the northern city of Astana, was designed to strengthen the authority of the Kazak government in the region.

Fears for the country's territorial integrity following the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted the Kazak government to reject the idea of dual nationality, a key demand of the Russian population.

Political analyst, Sanat Kushkumbaev, believes pro-Russian autonomy factions in Kazakstan and Moscow have sensed new opportunities since Putin came to power.

His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, enjoyed good personal relations with Nazarbaev. Putin, on the other hand, has yet to establish close links with his Kazak counterpart. What's more, the new Russian leader has said protecting the interests of Russians abroad would remain a priority.

Supporters of Russian autonomy in Kazakstan have welcomed the Saratov proposals. They see in them an opportunity for barter.

The foundations of the Saratov initiative were laid at a meeting of like-minded Kazak community leaders in Orienburg, Kazak capital in the 1920s, in February this year. It was decided to approach the Russian government with a proposal for a federal level, national-cultural Kazak autonomous region.

The Orienburg meeting spawned a conference of Russian Kazaks in Saratov in April. The conference was attended by several significant political figures. Two months later, on June 23-24, a second conference was called to formally launch the initiative.

Given the Kazaks make up only 1.25 per cent of Russia's total population, the Kremlin has little to lose from backing the minority's proposal, especially as its demands fall well short of territorial autonomy.

Kazakstan's Russians, however, could well make such a demand - greatly complicating the on-going process of formally delimiting the borders between Russia and Kazakstan.

The granting of territorial autonomy may set in motion subsequent demands for total separation and union with Russia - a goal much easier to achieve while the border remains undefined.

It would also run the risk of stirring up similar demands among the republic's other minorities - most significantly the ethnic German community in eastern Kazakstan. This, says Pyotr Svoik, a leader of the Kazak opposition party Azamat Party, is why Astana would never agree to devolutioin.

"As soon as that happens the issue of Western Kazakhstan will arise. Given the struggle for oil resources in the Caspian, it's very likely a separatist mood could develop there," Svoik warned.

Astana cannot afford, therefore, to back the Saratov proposals and must be wary of any support issuing from the Kremlin. Kushkumbaev believes, however, the risk of alienating the Kazak government should prevent Putin exploiting the Saratov plans too vigorously.

Slujan Ismailova is an IWPR contributor.