As Ukraine battles pro-Russia separatists in its east, Kazakhstan is holding nationwide security drills to check the ability of its law enforcement forces to maintain public order. Some of the exercises are being held in areas abutting Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia.
The drills are designed to coordinate responses of the police, army, and emergency services if “crisis situations” arise, Kazinform reports. Underlining their significance, Security Council head Kayrat Kozhamzharov is personally overseeing the maneuvers and Prime Minister Karim Masimov is observing.
Astana has supported the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula last month. Yet the pro-Russian activists making trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk cannot fail to arouse consternation within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
On April 9 EurasiaNet.org witnessed riot police in the sleepy Altay mountain town of Ridder, where ethnic Russians make up 85 percent of the population, marching out of the city police precinct. The security forces, helmets donned and sporting riot shields, batons and assault rifles, were headed out for “training,” one officer said.
In East Kazakhstan Region, where Ridder is located, ethnic Russians make up 39 percent of the population, according to official statistics from 2012. Further west, North Kazakhstan Region is the country’s only administrative region where ethnic Russians form a majority, with 50.1 percent of the population.
People in these areas are closely watching events in Ukraine. But Nazarbayev’s support for Russia is widely welcomed.
Nevertheless, Astana is taking no chances, moving to criminalize calls for separatism, soon to be punishable by up to 10 years in jail. The move came as Vladimir Shtygashev, a local assembly chairman in Russia’s autonomous Khakassia republic, became the latest Russian politician to spark a row over remarks perceived by many in Kazakhstan to be verbal infringements on its territorial integrity.
As Moscow holds up violations of the rights of Russian speakers to justify its intervention in Ukraine, Nazarbayev’s inclusive language policy also appears popular among Russian speakers in Kazakhstan.
No one is “forcing” anyone to learn Kazakh, says Yevgeniy Cherkashin, director of the Region publishing house in Oskemen, East Kazakhstan’s regional capital (known in Russian as Ust-Kamenogorsk). “Nazarbayev is pursuing a very competent policy of interethnic accord,” he added, in comments overwhelmingly echoed by other Russian speakers interviewed by EurasiaNet.org this week in northeastern Kazakhstan.
Separatist protests are widely viewed as unlikely at present. But they are not Nazarbayev’s only concern. The security drills come as Kazakhstan faces small outbreaks of industrial unrest, with strikes this week in western oilfields and the industrial city of Karaganda.
The walkouts appear to have been resolved with rapid concessions on the part of employers, a sign that authorities fear labor disputes spiraling out of control as they did in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, when 15 civilians died in clashes with security forces.
Nazarbayev must also be preparing for any Kyiv-style political turmoil. While Kazakhstan enjoys a high degree of social stability, a spate of protests in February against the devaluation of the currency shows the potential for unrest is never far beneath the surface.