Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of more of Kazakhstan, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. An increasing number of Kazakhs are expressing concerns about their country being the next target of Russian aggression and that Moscow will exploit separatist attitudes within Kazakhstan.
Although the number making such declarations is relatively small, Kazakh commentators are acknowledging the growing potential for separatism based on various groups, supporting Astana’s tough response against such threats and expressing concern that Moscow could get behind any one of them and threaten their country.
There are three potential bases for separatism in Kazakhstan at present: ethnic Russians in the north, other non-Kazakhs, and tribal and regional sub-groups unhappy with the central government. The separatist potential of ethnic Russians in Kazakh has long been recognized, but their decline to approximately 15% has cut both ways as far as separatism is concerned. The remaining ethnic Russians may be more willing to listen to Moscow’s siren song about becoming part of Russia, especially as the increasingly dominant Kazakhs, who now number over 70% of the population, sometimes behave in ways that the Russians find offensive.
Over the last several years, Astana has taken an increasingly hard line against any manifestation of Russian separatism, charging various ethnic Russian individuals with engaging in separatist activities, criminalizing the possession of Russian passports, and promoting the idea that all residents of Kazakhstan should describe themselves as Kazakhs rather than Kazakhstantsy.
Kazakhstan has been moving away from the historical distinction of ethnicity and nationality, which has been promoted by Kazakh leaders since the 1970s. This move has caused tension among ethnic Russians and some ethnic Kazakhs, as it challenges traditional ethnic identities. While some separatist activities have been suppressed, it has made others unhappy with the situation in Kazakhstan. This could escalate if the country becomes unstable or if external forces support Russian separatism more than they currently do.
Another significant separatist challenge in Kazakhstan is from the growing number of non-Russian minorities, who have engaged in violent actions over the past few years. As of 2022, the largest state minorities include Uzbeks (3.2%), Ukrainians (1.9%), Uyghurs (1.5%), Germans (1.1%), and Tatars (1.1%). Some of these populations want ethnic statehood within Kazakhstan or even independence if the situation does not change.
The most significant source of separatism now comes from within the Kazakh nation based on regional, religious, or tribal identities. Ethnic Kazakhs in the west have repeatedly challenged Astana in economic protests, which contain an important secessionist message. However, the most important intra-Kazakh division is the social formation of the Kazakhs, which has always been divided into three great tribal confederations known as zhus.
The role of the zhus in Kazakh society has become more important as Kazakhs become the overwhelming majority of the population and more traditional ethnic Kazakhs return from abroad. In the past, Kazakhs of any zhus could unite against any perceived ethnic Russian threat, but now they are increasingly turning on one another due to the declining significance of the Russian minority. Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is worried about this, as these divisions could be exploited by Russia or another outside power.
To promote a civic identity for all, he has taken the lead in promoting a civic identity for all. Russian specialists in the region focus on alternative sources of separatism in Kazakhstan, aware that these divisions pose a threat to Astana and can be exploited directly or through false flag operations to threaten Astana and force it to revise its current foreign policy stance. Western analysts and governments must be aware of these possibilities as they work to help Kazakhstan break many of its ties with Russia, but in ways that will not end by breaking Kazakhstan.