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Russians in Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, fears of becoming the next Ukraine

ASTANA, Kazakhstan —A volatile mix building in Kazakhstan contains the same ingredients that ignited in Ukraine: a Russian minority that says it fears being under siege, rising anti-Russian nationalist sentiment and pressure on the Russian language.

Last year, Russia used that explosive combination as a pretext to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Now, many here in this city on the steppe fear that Kazakhstan’s presidential election last Sunday may have been the last peaceful one the former Soviet republic will have and that the country may be next in Moscow’s cross hairs. President Nursultan Nazarbayev won 98 percent of Sunday’s vote, but the 74-year-old leader has done little to prepare for a successor amid widespread speculation that this term will be his final one. Kazakhs and Russians alike worry about strife when he leaves office.

About a quarter of Kazakhstan’s citizens are ethnic Russians, and many have the same grievances as their compatriots in Ukraine. Some say they feel pressured to speak Kazakh, the use of which has spread in recent years. Few Russians are represented in state leadership positions.

Some ethnic Russians are ­already calling on the Kremlin to send preemptive, peaceful aid, even as they voice their effusive support for Nazarbayev, a former Soviet apparatchik. The Kazakh leader, meanwhile, has promised to crack down on anything that smacks of ethnic division.

“We will harshly punish any form of ethnic radicalism, no matter from which side it comes, ” Nazarbayev said shortly before the election at a state-run congress of ethnic groups intended to build cross-cultural unity. In the past year, he has stiffened punishments for advocating separatism and upped efforts to move ethnic Kazakhs to where most of the Russians live, in the north of a nation as big as Western Europe.

Youths performing during an election campaign rally in Almaty April 18, 2015. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked Kazakhstan’s fears last year when he gave the country’s leader a double-edged compliment: Nazarbayev “has performed a unique feat, ” Putin told a group of pro-Kremlin youth activists. “He has created a state on a territory where there was never a state.”

Putin has vowed to protect Russian-speakers around the world. Kazakhstan is by far the world’s biggest uranium producer. Russia also views its neighbor as a buffer against an increasingly active China, which is rapidly expanding into parts of Central Asia that were long part of the Russian Empire.

“After Nazarbayev, we will have a transition period, a very dangerous transition period, ” said Dosym Satpayev, the director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, who said he feared a repeat of the conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels in the east have seized stretches of territory. “There will be a strong fight about what happens next.”

Kazakhstan is a fragile patchwork of ethnicities, the legacy of Soviet deportations that used the region’s wind-blown steppe as a dumping ground for political prisoners and ethnic groups deemed insufficiently loyal to the Kremlin. Nazarbayev, the only leader independent Kazakhstan has ever known, used pressure, coercion and savvy diplomacy to steer away from ethnic conflict when his country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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