Russians grow uneasy in Kazakhstan: Their republic is not the picture of perfect inter-ethnic harmony Kazakhs like to believe, Hugh Pope reports from Alma-Ata

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The Independent Online
WHAT may be central Asia's only Christmas ball this year will be patronised by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The proceeds will go to children's homes, war veterans and, Kazakhstan Pravda reported, the restoration of a mosque. A perfect illustration, the nominally Muslim Kazakhs would say, of their former Soviet republic's unique inter-ethnic harmony. But the Kazakh perception of normality, it seems, is not shared by the Russians who dominate the cities and the north of this vast country.

'There may not be any problems now, but there will be. These Kazakhs are bad people. I am going to leave,' said a Russian engineer, drawing a finger across his throat as he drove along the streets of the handsome Kazakh capital.

Foreign diplomats and many Kazakhs insist that Russian worries are misplaced and point at the presence of several ethnic Russian ministers. Like the scores of foreign companies courting the new Kazakh government for a share in its potentially great mineral wealth, all are convinced that the country is not about to fall into the trap of ethnic conflict.

Ethnic clashes can be counted on the fingers of one hand since 1986. In one of Alma-Ata's well-stocked bazaars, peasant women lamented the idea of Russians leaving. 'We want them to stay,' said one. 'We have a Kazakh motto that tells us: even if someone throws a stone at you, respond with food.'

But ethnic Russian unease, even paranoia, is feeding off worries about the fate of Russians who had to flee in disarray from the Baltics, the Caucasus and nearby Tajikistan. Tragically, the fears may become self-fulfilling.

High Kazakh birthrates, Kazakh immigration and the emigration of ethnic Germans, Greeks and Russians - the latter estimated at 70,000 a year by the government and 300,000 by the Russian embassy - will soon make Kazakhs a majority among more than 100 national groups. Kazakhs make up 42 per cent and the Russians 38 per cent of the population of 17 million.

The issue has begun to poison relations with Moscow. The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, enraged the Kazakh leadership during a visit to Alma-Ata last week with talk of protecting ethnic Russian interests 'even in friendly countries'. President Nazarbayev hit back, saying such talk reminded him of Hitler's offer to protect the Sudetenland Germans.

Mr Nazarbayev's language was unprecedented. The popular and internationally respected former Communist leader has long kept up a rearguard struggle to maintain co-operation between the states of the former Soviet Union, knowing that open conflict could blow his country apart.

But Russia has become difficult to please. It dominates Kazakhstan's trade. A dispute over payments caused serious oil shortages during this year's harvest. Diplomats say Moscow also makes life difficult for Alma-Ata in talks about the nuclear weapons on its soil. And no final word has yet been said about the key to the country's economic future, an oil pipeline that must cross Russia.

Last month Russia started to make ever-harsher conditions to maintain monetary union around the rouble, including a demand from Kazakhstan for more than dollars 1bn ( pounds 675m). Kazakhstan did not have it and was forced to issue its own currency on 15 November. The new tende is a relative success but has raised yet more local Russian concern about the rupture of links to Mother Russia. Portraits on the banknotes featured historic Kazakh figures. The only one in Tsarist uniform was a descendant of Genghis Khan.

'The Kazakhs are trying to build a mono-ethnic culture. Many Russians will go. It may not be for themselves, but for the sake of their children,' said a local Russian newspaper correspondent. He said hundreds of thousands of signatures were being collected in ethnic Russian areas along the border calling for dual citizenship and even confederation with Russia.

Russian critics point at a clause in Kazakhstan's new constitution that gives dual citizenship rights only to expatriate Kazakhs. They complain about the replacement of Russian administrators and factory chiefs by ethnic Kazakhs. Above all, they object to the relegation of Russian to a 'language of inter-ethnic communication'. The official language is now Kazakh which, because of heavy Soviet repression, is still not even spoken by half of the Kazakh population.

A policy known as Kazakhisation is admitted by the government but, officials say, they are just building a new nation, not denying Russian rights. They cite the evening news broadcast in which Kazakh and Russian newsreaders take turns to repeat each item. They also note President Nazarbayev's strenuous efforts to please all sides and keep good relations with Moscow.

'Even though Russia pushed us away, we are still looking at Russia,' said presidential spokesman Seifcazy Mataev. 'I am sure we have to be together with Russia for the sake of peace here. If the Russians leave, our factories will stop. We must prove that Russians live better here than in Russia.'

But the Kazakhs are rediscovering their history, including the fact that Stalinist famines and purges killed more than 40 per cent of their population. Even moderates see a Kazakh-dominated, even a mono- ethnic administration as a natural development. 'My wife and I speak Russian together - we were educated that way,' said Tanyar, a 25- year-old telephone engineer. 'But I want my children to grow up speaking Kazakh.'