Kazakhstan’s Demographic Time Bomb: The Threat to Stability and What Can Be Done

Kazakhstan’s population is set to surpass 20 million for the first time, with over 70% of its residents being ethnic Kazakhs. This growth is accompanied by developments that threaten the country’s stability and could be exploited by outside powers. Some see these changes as leading to revolts akin to the Arab Spring, while others see the decline of the ethnic Russian population and rising nationalism among Kazakhs. The ongoing debate among Kazakhs over whether to assimilate non-Kazakhs or promote a multinational civic nation could exacerbate societal tensions.

Adil Urmanov, a Kazakh commentator, suggests that Kazakhstan’s rapid population growth and urbanization may lead the country on the same demographic path that triggered the Arab Spring protests and revolutions. He argues that the combination of these trends is creating a critical mass of unemployed or underemployed young people in Kazakhstan’s cities, similar to the Arab Spring a decade ago. If not addressed, Kazakhstan could dissolve into chaos. However, this apocalyptic vision has not attracted much attention outside of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s development could potentially lead to serious destabilization due to the ignorance of the outside world about its developing conditions. The country’s demographic changes, including a declining population of ethnic Russians, political responses, and regional divisions, are contributing to this possibility.

First, the decline in ethnic Russians has led to a new assertiveness among the Kazakhs, who are confident in becoming more independent of Moscow. Some Kazakhs are now ready to attack remaining ethnic Russians through language patrols or witch hunts against Russian secessionists. This trend has been reinforced by a sharp decline in ethnic Kazakhs living in Russia.

Third, as the share of ethnic Kazakhs in the population grows, divisions within this group appear to have increased along regional or tribal lines. Regional leaders are increasingly reflecting the views of their respective populations rather than those of Astana. Historical tribal confederations of the past have become more significant, with Kazakhs divided into three great tribal confederations known as zhus. Major government jobs are often handed out based on these identities.

The previous divide between ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs overshadowed these historical identities, and now government officials and the population are increasingly hearingkening back to their roots, which some say is undermining the unity of the nation.

The non-Russian, non-Kazakh populations in Kazakhstan have become increasingly important in domestic matters, with nearly as many as ethnic Russians. These groups have become assertive and violent, forcing outside observers to consider their influence. Despite hopes that clashes among these groups would be a wake-up call for Astana, more violent clashes are predicted in the future.

The demographic developments have intensified a debate over whether Kazakhstan should seek to assimilate remaining minorities or promote a multi-ethnic civil society. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has straddled this divide, aiming to ensure that everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Kazakh and embrace Kazakhstanets, a term designating a citizen of Kazakhstan.

Demography is only destiny over the long term, but the culmination of these developments suggests that changes in Kazakhstan’s population could become significant, particularly if they come together and are exploited by Russia or another outside power. The potential transformation of Kazakhstan and Central Asia’s geopolitics could be significant if these developments occur.

KazakhstanKazakhstan's Demographic Time Bomb: The Threat to Stability and What Can Be Done