Imangali Tasmagambetov, former mayor of the Kazakh capital, Astana, has been appointed defence minister, while former defence minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov in turn becomes mayor.
The appointments were announced on the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev's Twitter account. Tasmagambetov, who had previously held posts of prime minister and mayor of Almaty, has been tipped off as one of the potential successors to Nazarbayev.
Given the importance of the defence minister's job in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and support to rebels in eastern Ukraine, Tasmagambetov's appointment as defence minister will be seen as a promotion and a sign of Nazarbayev's trust.
The Kremlin's annexation of Crimea has given rise to fears in Kazakhstan that Moscow may use the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in northern and eastern Kazakhstan as a pretext to annex parts of Kazakh territory in the future. In a televised interview on August 24 Nazarbayev tried to quell these fears. "Some fear that Russia will again invade us. But this is not true," he said, warning that Kazakhstan should be careful in promoting the Kazakh language at the expense of Russian. More than 90% of Kazakhstan's 17.3m citizens are able to speak Russian, but only around two-thirds claim to speak Kazakh. Kazakhstan's constitution designates Kazakh as a state language, while Russian serves as a lingua franca and is allowed in official use. "If we adopt laws to ban all languages but Kazakh, we will turn into a Ukraine," he said in reference to the Ukrainian parliament's revocation of the official status of Russian in eastern and southern regions following the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych.
On August 29 Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked by a student at a youth forum whether Kazakhstan would see a repeat of the "Ukrainian scenario" should it diverge from its current pro-Russian policy, Putin said Nazarbayev was a "very wise" leader who knew perfectly well that a "vast majority of Kazakh citizens favour the development of relations with Russia”.
At the same time, Putin made what appeared to be a veiled threat about the fragility of Kazakh nationhood. "He [Nazarbayev] made a unique thing. He has created a state on a territory where there had never been a state," Putin said. "Kazakhs didn't have statehood."
Modern-day Kazakhstan was established as an autonomous republic of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1920 and was promoted to a Soviet republic in 1936, finally winning independence only on the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Kazakhs need the Moscow-led CU and EEU, Putin continued, "because this is beneficial for them to develop the economy and to remain in the space of a great Russian [speaking] world”.
Ethnic Russians accounted for 21.5% of Kazakhstan's 17.3m population at the beginning of 2014, according to the Kazakh Statistics Committee. The northern and eastern Kazakh regions on the border with Russia have sizeable ethnic Russian populations. In the Kostanay and North Kazakhstan regions, ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Kazakhs, who account for just over a third of the population. Ethnic Russians constitute 42.1% and 50% respectively. In the northern Pavlodar and Akmola Regions ethnic Kazakhs account for about 50% of the population, with ethnic Russians making up 34.5% and 37.3% respectively. In East Kazakhstan Region, ethnic Kazakhs are an absolute majority at 58.4%, but the share of ethnic Russians is 38%.
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