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Kazakhstan: Minority Report -- Russians Claim They Are Still Discriminated Against (Part 6)

Kazakhstan's dwindling Russian population faces an uphill battle against discrimination in numerous spheres. And Russians' attempts to organize a movement to fight for their rights are regarded with suspicion by the overwhelmingly ethnic Kazakh authorities. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Carlson reports in the final part of our six-part series on Russian minorities in former Soviet republics.

Prague, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From the 1950s until sometime in the mid-1980s, Russians were the largest ethnic group in the then-Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, outnumbering even Kazakhs. But by the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, Kazakhs accounted for 39.7 percent of the republic's population, while Russians had fallen to second place with 37.8 percent. And since Kazakhstan became an independent state in late 1991, the Russian share of the population has plummeted as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians emigrated to the Russian Federation, either to escape discrimination or in search of employment. In 2002, Russians in Kazakhstan numbered just 4.5 million out of a total population of 14.8 million.

One of the key factors that has impelled Russians to leave Kazakhstan has been the enhanced role granted to the Kazakh language. Even before the collapse of the USSR, the Kazakh Supreme Soviet passed a law in 1989 designating Kazakh the state language. Russian was granted special status as a language of interethnic communication among other minority ethnic groups such as Ukrainians, Tatars, Belarusians, Uzbeks, and Koreans. The Kazakh Constitution adopted in 1995 similarly states that Russian may be used together with Kazakh in all state organizations and local government.

Reality, however -- according to many of Kazakhstan's Russians -- is very different. They point out that a separate law on the media requires that a minimum of 50 percent of all TV and radio broadcasting by both state-controlled and private TV and radio stations must be in the Kazakh language.

Many Russians perceive the efforts to enhance the role of the Kazakh language as discrimination against the Russian language. Paul Goble, an expert on interethnic relations in the USSR, says, "Because most of the ethnic Russians who live in Kazakhstan today came to Kazakhstan when it was still part of the Soviet Union, these ethnic Russians had an expectation and continue to have an expectation that they will have complete linguistic equality with the local population. Indeed, in Soviet times, ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan -- as elsewhere -- enjoyed a preferential system of linguistic access and rights. Any effort to reduce that status, even if to reduce it to a position the Kazakhs would view as one of equality, is therefore viewed by some ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan -- and even more by Russian nationalists in the Russian Federation -- as an attack against ethnic Russians and as a form of inequality, even if all that is happening is a movement toward greater equality in linguistic rights."

In addition, Russians, most of whom cannot speak Kazakh, are routinely discriminated against in employment, education, and medical care, and are underrepresented in both parliament and government.

Yurii Shevtsov is a member of the Compatriot Party, one of at least two parties formed to defend the interests of the Russian minority.

"As far as the problems of Russians in Kazakhstan are concerned, I can say, yes, the rights of Russians are abused. Let's take the example of the Mazhlis [ed.: the lower house of the Kazakh parliament]: despite the fact that Russians make up 32 percent of Kazakhstan's population, Russian representation in the Mazhlis is very low."

Neither the Compatriot Party nor the Russian Party of Kazakhstan succeeded in complying with the requirements set last year by the Ministry of Justice for reregistering political parties. Those requirements included collecting signatures of support from the population of all the country's 14 oblasts and major cities. This was difficult if not impossible for the Russian parties, because the Russian population is concentrated in the north and northeast of the country, whereas there are very few Russians in the south.

Most Russians in Kazakhstan are primarily concerned with everyday questions such as linguistic discrimination, and simply demand that they be treated as equal to, and enjoy equal rights with, the Kazakhs. But some Russians go further, arguing that the northern regions of Kazakhstan where the population is predominantly Russian should be granted autonomous status and broad self-government.

Such demands are anathema to the country's overwhelmingly Kazakh leadership, which systematically rejects all complaints that Russian speakers are discriminated against.

Kazakh diplomat Bolatkhan Taizhan tells RFE/RL, "I've heard a lot, mainly from the Russian media, or Russian-language press in Kazakhstan, about the abuse of rights of the Russians -- or Russian-speaking population -- in Kazakhstan in favor of Kazakhs." But he says, perhaps "one should talk not about abusing the rights of Russians in Kazakhstan, but about Kazakhs getting the same rights as Russians in Kazakhstan. Why I am saying that? All office work in the government is in Russian. It is not a secret that in Almaty, the former capital, in Astana, the current capital, and in all major cities across Kazakhstan the Russian language is dominant over Kazakh. The number of Russian schools is several times greater than the number of Kazakh ones," he says. "The situation is similar with kindergartens and universities. How can you talk about the abuse of Russians in this kind of situation?"

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)