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Russia & Kazakhstan: A Longstanding Relationship between Two Nations
16 January 2013
Russia & Kazakhstan: A Longstanding Relationship between Two Nations

Russia & Kazakhstan:
A Longstanding Relationship between Two Nations
By Maia Levoy and Abigayle Eames
Language Connections

Kazakhstan mapKazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, greater than all of Western Europe put together, and the world’s largest landlocked country. It is located in Central Asia, straddling the Ural River of Eastern Europe, belonging to both Europe and Asia. The country sits next to the Caspian Sea in the southwest, and Kazakhstan shares its borders with China to the East and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the south. Perhaps of most significance, its largest border is with Russia to the north and northwest. Traditionally, Kazakhstan was a nation of nomads and herders migrating between western China and the southern border of Russia.

As the world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan is home to over 100 different nationalities, the most dominant amongst them being Kazakh and Russian. It has a total population of over 16.6 million people, with a population density of fewer than 15 people per square mile, one of the world's lowest. The northern part of the country is predominantly Ukrainian and Russian, while Kazakhs and Turks are most prevalent within the southern part of the country.

The word Kazakh means "a free and independent nomad" in ancient Turkish, and for centuries Kazakhstan was a country of nomadic herders. During the 18th century, Russia began to take an interest into the Kazakh steppe lands. By the 19th century, all of modern-day Kazakhstan had come to be integrated within the Russian Empire of that period. Kazakhs were required to learn and speak Russian and Russian settlers began colonizing the territory. Under the Soviets especially, the population of ethnic Russians increased rapidly, and, as a result Russians became the majority for much of the 20th century.

Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet period has been strikingly marked by the nation’s diverse demographics – which now include large populations of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Uzbeks, Tartars and more. Only recently have Kazakhs once again become the majority population of Kazakhstan. The government is still working to further fortify Kazakhs’ position within their nation – encouraging expats to return home and Kazakh couples to have larger families. In addition, there has also been a push to promote and promulgate the Kazakh language. Free Kazakh learning centers have opened around the country, street names have been changed back to their historical names, and the main state-owned television station has begun broadcasting exclusively in Kazakh. Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, hopes that by 2020, 95 percent of adults will be able to speak both Kazakh and Russian.

However, Kazakhstan is also still managing to maintain the nation’s international commitment, specifically in regards to its ties with Russia. Kazakhstan is officially a bilingual country, where Kazakh, a Turkic language spoken by almost 65 percent of the population, is the national or “state” language, and Russian, spoken by almost all Kazakhstanis, is an “official” language and is used for business and diplomatic activities.

President Nazarbayev recently spoke about the importance of the Russian language to the Kazakhstani people and their economy, declaring their bilingualism as a historical advantage. He acknowledged the positive influences that Russian has had on his country, saying it was through this language that “we got acquainted with a different culture, science, and we are using it in our everyday life.” It was in part due to the strong Russian presence that Kazakhstan has been able to make successful strides in setting themselves as a market economy. The president has advised his people to treat the Russian language with care when attempting to embrace Kazakh as the language of their heritage, saying that the long historical connection the country has with Russia should not be ignored.

Further, Russia’s current relationship with Kazakhstan remains one of high importance. The two nations share the world’s longest land border and, in 2005, began a process to diplomatically demarcate their borders. Although diplomatic relations have tended to fluctuate since the fall of the Soviet Union, this border demarcation is a general show of each country’s willingness to cooperate with the other. These relations were especially strained due to Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana’s military and economic cooperation with the United States, and Russia’s continued use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome at a predetermined and fixed rate of 115 million USD per year, set to last until 2050, but despite these issues both nations have maintained their military and economic cooperation. They have acted as partners on regional affairs and both are strong supporters of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Kazakhstan currently sells both oil and gas to Russia at a reduced rate and in return many Russian businesses are heavily invested in Kazakhstan’s economy. Even more prevalent is the participation of both nations as two out of three countries, also including Belarus, comprising the Eurasian Customs Union, soon to become the Eurasian Economic Union. President Nazarbayev expressed his positive sentiments on this partnership before Russia had even begun to push for it and he has been a staunch supporter of this union as Kazakhstan is obviously a much weaker partner in this union.

The two nations have worked together after the collapse of the Soviet Union to resolve, in a constructive manner, their interstate issues with the national interests of each nation in mind. Language has played a huge role in these relations, and although Kazakh will always be the state language of Kazakhstan and although there have been movements to increase its role, it is important that Russian not be diminished in order to continue moving the relationship forward. Recently, the Kazakh Ambassador to Russia, Galym Orazbakov, stated that he “saw no threat in such tight cooperation,” with Russia, and that there were, “positive prospects for a Russia-Kazakhstan economic integration,” which could only be possible with the use of Russian as the common language for which these negotiations could take place. It is important that Kazakhstan retain its native language, but for the sake of economic and diplomatic progress, Russian should be seen as a strong advantage that bilingual Kazakhstan has gained through its relations and enduring history with neighboring its Russia.



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