Kazakhstan shows generous side amid Russian stampede, but tensions are rising

Kazakhstan shows generous side amid Russian stampede, but tensions are rising
Huge traffic jams have built up at Russian border crossings with surrounding countries as Russians make hurried decisions to flee the mobilisations. / AlJazeera news footage, screengrab.
By Aida Kadyrzhanova in Almaty September 27, 2022

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on September 27 conceded that the country was struggling to accommodate nearly 100,000 Russians who have fled their homeland to escape Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war military mobilisation but he pledged to take care of them.

"A lot of people from Russia have come here over the last few days," he said in a speech. "Most of them were forced to leave by the desperate situation."

"We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian matter," Tokayev declared.

The president also remarked: "We do not have any crisis. Our government must do its work. The incoming people will be provided with help, but not special benefits. All necessary procedures will be held in accordance with the law. We will hold talks with Russia and resolve this issue, taking our people's interests into account."

In some initial comments on the matter, Russia’s defence ministry said on September 27 that Moscow “has not sent any request to the authorities of Kazakhstan, Georgia or any other country for the alleged forced return to Russian soil of Russian citizens, and it is not planning to do so”.

The influx of Russians triggered by the September 20 mobilisation announcement has placed a significant strain on the infrastructure of Kazakhstan, a country attractive to many Russians given that Russian is commonly spoken as an official language and that the country is one of the more accessible there are 30 border road crossings.

Hotels and hostels are full, and rents have skyrocketed, with many landlords not shy of price-gouging. On September 24, there were reports of a movie theatre in Oral, northwestern Kazakhstan, at the confluence of the Ural and Chagan rivers close to the Russian border, providing fleeing Russians with somewhere to sleep for the night. Theatre management said they came across many Russians on the streets who were “looking for an overnight stay”. 

Though post-Soviet Kazakhstan remains a strategic ally of Russia, Tokayev has made it clear his administration does not support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Aware that far from every Kazakh will be supportive of not closing the border to the fleeing Russians, Tokayev in his speech urged patience and tolerance.

Substantial numbers of Russian men, some with families, started crossing what is the world's second-longest land border to enter Kazakhstan as soon as it became clear Putin was ordering a call-up of reservists amid Russia’s floundering military campaign in Ukraine. Many others headed to other countries that neighbour Russia, including Georgia, Mongolia and Turkey.

As things stand, Russians do not need a visa or even a passport to enter Kazakhstan. Their Russian identity papers are sufficient.

Things could change

However, things could change. The interior ministry has published a proposal to adjust immigration rules this week to limit to three months the time Russians can stay in Kazakhstan unless they have a passport.

There have been some calls from Kazakhs for an immediate closing of the borders to Russians. But others have even arranged meeting points for arriving Russians. They are then referred to volunteer networks to help them find shelter.

An Almaty resident told Reuters she took in three young men from Russia on September 16 who were set to spend the night on the street in the city centre.

"I am crashing on my friends' couch right now," a 32-year-old Russian IT professional who has moved to Almaty told the news agency, requesting anonymity. "I do not have a clear plan on what to do next, but I am definitely not going back to Russia. I hope to find work here."

openDemocracy reported on how it was addressed on Telegram by “Oleg”, who said: “A week ago you could have called it relocating, but now the whole situation is like a stampede.”

“I decided to leave because I have a family and a small child. And I believe that any scenario is better than obeying criminal orders now,” he was further cited as saying, adding: “I’m trying not to think far ahead. It’s actually a very stressful state of uncertainty and fear, and this fear is paralysing.”

Officials will be wary of growing discontent in Kazakh towns and cities at the inflow of Russians. Locals have started to speculate about matters such as how increased demand could lead to eye-watering rises in residential rents there are anecdotal reports of landlords forcing out Kazakh tenants in favour of Russians who can pay more as well as higher prices for cars and a lack of kindergarten and school places.

First wave, second wave 

In the so-called “first wave” of Russian arrivals, which occurred from late February when Russian forces entered Ukraine, Kazakhs came to the conclusion that it was mostly very wealthy Russians that had moved out of Russia. There was also a noticeable relocation of some Russian businesses to Kazakhstan. Of the individuals who made the journey, they were very much people who would face little difficulty or no problem in paying for air tickets, hotel rooms or rent. They typically spoke two or three languages and adapted to working “from home”.

Kazakhs also noticed that some of the Russians who were new in their localities were intent on "credit-card migration," planning to pick up Visa, Mastercard or other bank cards in Kazakhstan that, due to sanctions, they could no longer obtain back home.

The second wave of migration that is underway is plainly driven by desperation. Moscow could close the borders at any moment. The worry is that many of the new arrivals will soon be unable to pay basic living costs. It’s a wave of migration that could lead to tensions and have social repercussions.

Sad to say, some Russians who come to Kazakhstan feel so comfortable in the language environment that they vex some locals by forgetting they are guests in a sovereign nation, rather than at home. There are long-standing initiatives within Kazakh society to widen the use of the Kazakh language; the proponents of such efforts might be wary that their work could be partially undone by the fresh influx of Russians. 

Local students staged a picket on September 23 at Almaty International Airport during the arrival of a Rossiya flight from Moscow. They held up posters with the slogans "Finally realised you are simply cannon-fodder [pushechnoe myaso]?" and "Respect or leave".

“You are not welcome here because you are passive accomplices of the war,” wrote Kazakh journalist Bakytzhan Bukarbai.

Another protest saw a man bike from the steppe Kazakh city of Karaganda to Astana with a placard on his backpack calling on authorities to close the border with Russia.

QazaqGrammar activists, meanwhile, at the height of the first-wave of the Russian migration rush in March, cautioned Russians against mispronouncing the Kazakh language and served a reminder that Kazakhstan is no longer a colony of Russia. The activists used Kaznet as a medium, but the majority of comments on Kaznet regarding Russians in Kazakhstan are encouraging for the migrants. Those posting content and remarks on the platform typically have a soft spot for Russians who have arrived on a shoestring budget and don't know how they will make ends meet in the near future.

In terms of apprehension over the course that housing rents and property prices will take, Kazakhs enduring their own cost of living crises are perhaps right to be concerned in Almaty, Astana and other big cities. Kazakh real estate agent Saule Nurpeisova recently told business website Express K that the inflow of Russians was giving Kazakh property owners the freedom to experiment with rental hikes. She said she knew of numerous Russians who were actively looking to acquire real estate.

Kazakhs are also concerned that if the borders remain open there could be wave upon wave of Russian migration ahead.

“It is certainly impossible to let this problem take its course, as was done in March-April. Because I'm ready to doubt anything now, except one thing. This wave of exodus is hardly the last, given how quickly the Russian government is spiralling out of control,” said lawyer Yerzhan Yesimkhanov in a post on his Telegram account.

“This is a bilateral military conflict. This is not our war and we will not participate in it in any way. But we should be concerned about the expected massive influx of migrants to the border regions with Russia. A new wave of migration from Russia will reflect pressure on the social infrastructure and financial and economic system of Kazakhstan,” cautioned Urazgali Selteev, director of the Eurasian Integration Institute.

With not-so-great timing the Moscow-led security bloc Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is holding military drills in Kazakhstan from September 26 to October 8. The Kazakh defence ministry has informed the public of the exercises in good time, clearly worried that the sight of Russian armed forces on the roads might deal some Kazakhs a nasty and misleading surprise.

Russian forts

Historically, the Russian presence in the Kazakh lands has waxed and waned. It began in the early 16th century, when Russian forts were built on the northwestern edge of what is today’s Kazakhstan. In the Soviet period, the Russian presence went to a whole new level. During World War II, much Russian industry was relocated to Kazakhstan, and in the Nikita Khrushchev era of Communism during 1953-1964, many Russians settled in the country as part of the “Virgin Lands Campaign”. Still more settlers arrived in the latter part of the 1960s and 1970s, taking jobs in the development of mineral resources.

As of today, around one-fifth of Kazakh citizens are ethnic Russians, largely residing in northern parts of Kazakhstan not far from the 6,846-kilometre (4,254-mile) border with Russia. Troublingly, amid the charged atmosphere of the Ukraine conflict, some Russian nationalists have loudly proclaimed their age-old argument that the northern territories of Kazakhstan are actually Russian land. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Putin remarked that Kazakhstan had no history of statehood until the demise of the Soviet Union.

The border with Russia was deliberately drawn so far north in order to include large groups of Russian speakers. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the northern part of Kazakhstan is somewhat analogous to the Donbas in Ukraine.