ZOiS Spotlight 14/2024

Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians: Worried, But Neutral?

by Beate Eschment 10/07/2024

Little is known about the Ukrainians in Kazakhstan. Yet they were one of the world’s largest Ukrainian diasporas until 2022. Their relations with Russian fellow citizens of this multiethnic state inform their attitude towards the war against Ukraine, which differs from the position of Ukrainian communities elsewhere.

Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 2022: After Russia's attacks, around 2000 people protested in support of Ukraine, chanting pro-peace slogans and expressing their anger at Vladimir Putin. IMAGO / UIG

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

In both Western Europe and Kazakhstan itself, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a surge of interest not only in the country’s Russian citizens and their attitude towards the war, but also in the ‘relokanty’ – Russian nationals who fled here in the face of war and the threat of mobilisation. By contrast, little is known about Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians who, according to official figures, form the country’s fourth-largest ethnic group and were one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas globally until 2022. Who are they? What is their position on the war, and what does this mean for Kazakhstan?

Weak ethnic identity

Ukrainians arrived in Kazakhstan in several waves from the end of the 19th century onwards – mostly as farmers and factory workers but also as deportees. Indeed, in 1926, they made up 13.8% of the population, but this had fallen to just 2% (approximately 387,000 people) in 2021. It is estimated that only around half the country’s Ukrainians were born in Kazakhstan. Many still have family connections with their historical homeland. Ukrainian activists themselves describe their sense of community as weak. The Ukrainian ethnic identity is poorly developed, principally because in the Soviet era and since Kazakhstan gained its independence, Ukrainians did not see themselves as distinct from the much larger Russian population (2021: approx. 3 million). Comments made in 2023 by an older woman who is active in a Ukrainian organisation are fairly typical: ‘Whether someone was a Russian or Ukrainian was never discussed back then.’ And another woman adds: ‘Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians are one nation.’ In the doctrine of the Soviet era, this reflected an understanding of the three nationalities as ‘civilising’ Europeans who belong together. Following independence, there were shared concerns about possible marginalisation and Kazakhisation.

In today’s Kazakhstan, most people consider knowledge of the mother tongue to be a central element of ethnic identity. In the 2021 population census, however, only 19.9% of those citizens who identified as Ukrainians stated that Ukrainian was their first language. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Eastern Ukraine confronted Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians, for the first time, with the question whether and how they should position themselves in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine and to what extent their relations with their Russian fellow citizens might be affected. Their answers obviously did not contribute to the formation of a separate ethnic identity. One of the few rallying points for Ukrainian ethnic identity is the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who spent 10 years in exile in Kazakhstan; the Shevchenko monument in Almaty is the focus of remembrance and, currently, demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine.

Positions on the war

The low level of ethnic identification and differentiation from their Russian fellow citizens is currently reflected in the positions adopted by many of Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians towards the war. However, as only Russians and Kazakhs were interviewed for the few opinion polls conducted on this topic to date, reliable quantitative data on this issue are lacking. The following observations are based on various conversations in Almaty and Astana in 2023 and 2024, supplemented by online media.

‘We are all worried about our families in Ukraine, but we don’t talk about the war because that would cause arguments and discord’ and ‘I am neutral’: these two statements appear to be typical for Kazakhstani Ukrainians. There are obviously pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian voices as well, but many do not adopt a position at all. In that sense, Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians differ markedly from the large and old-established Ukrainian diaspora communities in countries such as Canada, the US and Poland, with their overtly pro-Ukrainian stance. Avoidance of the topic and neutrality are the preferred positions and are often adopted by Kazakhs and Russians in Kazakhstan as well.

Based on the findings of the opinion polls conducted among these groups, a particular susceptibility to pro-Russian positions among Ukrainians may also be assumed. Irrespective of ethnicity, this attitude was particularly prevalent among viewers of the Russian TV channels that are very popular with Russian-speaking Kazakhstanis. Television is seen as an information source for the older generation – and Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians are a noticeably ageing demographic group. Linear TV channels from Ukraine are not available in Kazakhstan.

Common to all Ukrainians is concern for the victims and dismay at the destruction in their historical homeland. However, some also criticise developments in Ukraine, such as Ukrainian nationalism, which was encountered during their last visit home and disliked. Statements such as these are heard: ‘It’s sad to see what has become of Ukraine; it had all the right conditions in place’; or: ‘They should never have provoked the Russian bear’.

Consequences for Kazakhstan

Despite some isolated reports of long-time Ukrainian and Russian neighbours suddenly no longer speaking, the war seems to have had little impact overall on the peaceful interethnic relations that are so important for a multinational state such as Kazakhstan. However, it is a rather different story with the Ukrainians’ attitude towards the Russian relokanty, whom they tend to avoid. Some Ukrainian refugees also report having been verbally abused by relokanty.

In contrast to the situation during the Chechen wars more than 20 years ago, the Ukrainians’ family ties to the war zone have not acted as a magnet for refugees. Granted, most of the refugees who have come here already had personal links to Kazakhstan, but the long and expensive journey following the suspension of direct flights has prevented a large number of arrivals. At the end of 2022, there were reportedly around 7,000 Ukrainian refugees in Kazakhstan, compared with some five million in Europe.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has adopted an international position that is as neutral as possible but not directed against the Russian Federation. Public protests or pro-Russian statements by Ukrainians in particular are not known to have occurred. There were several pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, not sanctioned by the regime, mainly in spring 2022 and mostly involving Kazakhs as well as an unverified number of younger Ukrainians, who were also responsible for a (now dwindling) wave of donations for Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine, then, has had little effect in mobilising and building the identity of Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians and is not a cause of major tensions with their Russian fellow citizens. What seems to be emerging instead is a position that differentiates between the ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and the states of Ukraine and the Russian Federation and their citizens, on the other. This would also suggest that the Kazakhstani Russians’ attitude is less pro-Russian than is currently claimed in an increasingly emotional debate. Along with questions about the extent to which factors such as the state’s nationalities policy or fear of repression play a role in the positions adopted by Kazakhstan’s Ukrainians and Russians, this topic requires further research, particularly in the north of the country.

Dr Beate Eschment is a researcher at ZOiS and an expert on Central Asia.