OSKEMEN (UST KEMNOGORSK)/Kazakhstan, May 14 (The Conway Bulletin) - Yerkimbek Ayazbayev pointed at the billboard sitting on the top of the local government headquarters in this town in north-east Kazakhstan.
He read the slogan, written in both Kazakh and Russian, aloud: “Unity is the guarantee of success.” It had the ring of a Soviet-style mantra.
Under orders from central government, officials in northern Kazakhstan are urgently pressing this message home. They’re nervous because events in Ukraine have shaken up the former Soviet region’s fragile ethnic divisions.
Ayazbayev is a man with a mission. He runs the local branch of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a government-backed body representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s myriad ethnic groups, which numbered over 120 at last count.
It’s the job of Ayazbayev, an ethnic Kazakh, to drive home the mantra of ethnic harmony. He does this, seemingly, with the zeal of a true believer.
“We’re a multi-ethnic state and let’s say so proudly,” he said.
Russians equal around 25% of the population nationwide, but here in Oskemen over two-thirds of people are ethnic Russian. Oskemen is the Kazakh name for the Soviet city of Ust Kamenogorsk.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 73, is hugely popular with Russians in Oskemen, but they are divided about the community’s prospects in the looming post-Nazarbayev future.
While the older generation is happy to stay in Kazakhstan, many of the younger ethnic Russians see their future over the border.
Student Anna Prokayeva plans to go and study in Russia. “I don’t want to come back to Kazakhstan,” she said. “This is my homeland, and no-one’s discriminating against me but I think I’ll feel more comfortable there.”
This story was first published in issue 184 of the weekly Conway Bulletin newssheet. For more subscription information, please click here