As Kazakhstan heads for a snap presidential election, strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev is making no secret of his reasoning for an early vote: he wants to both reinforce support for the government to help it weather an economic downturn and to disarm “nationwide alarm” about the potential threat of “internal discord and external conflicts.”
Nazarbayev’s attention these days is primarily fixated on Kazakhstan’s northern borderlands with Russia, long tipped by scaremongers as a potential target of a Kremlin land grab.
The president and his team are warily watching Ukraine, which is currently grappling with a separatist conflict that officials in Kyiv and the West insist Russia is stoking. The tenuous position Ukraine now finds itself in has filled officials in Astana with a desire to reinforce the loyalties of Kazakhstani citizens living in towns and cities along the country’s meandering 7,000 kilometer border with Russia. In some of these areas, ethnic Russians outnumber Kazakhs. Nationwide, Kazakhs make up two-thirds of the population, Russians a fifth.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.