In August, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced that the capitol of the country would be moved several hundred miles north, from the green city of Almaty, where the presidential palace stands against a background of snow-capped mountains, to the bleak and windy steppes of north-central Kazakhstan, to the present city of Akmola. The official reasons for the move included a more central location, limited building space in Almaty, environmental pollution, and geology—moving away from the southeastern mountainous corner with its earthquakes to the much safer north-central region. The many fault lines in the hills and valleys around Almaty are not nearly so dangerous as the explosive fault line in the population itself, the division of the country into Kazakhs and Russians. Here lies the potential for more disaster than the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Most Westerners cannot find Kazakhstan on a map, and its 17 million people are less than three percent of the world’s population. The country appears to have the third largest oil reserves in the world, making its citizens potentially as rich as the Saudis, since Kazakhstan also has vast deposits of coal, copper, and gold. Kazakhstan’s larger neighbors—China, Russia, and Turkey—are all aware that here is a treasure chest guarded by a very few people who are deeply divided among themselves and who have weak loyalties to their new leaders.

This huge area is ripe to be fought over. Already Russia’s ultranationalist Zhirinovsky has promised to take it over, and even Solzhenitsyn says northern Kazakhstan, its predominantly Russian population, and its minerals are rightfully Russia’s. In late October, he received applause and cheers when he told the Russian parliament that Kazakhstan should be brought back under Russian sovereignty.

When President Nazarbayev said the capitol should be closer to the industrialized north, he was also closer to the true reasons for moving. He not only plans to move the presidency and several ministries to Akmola, but also wants to put other ministries in other northern cities. The move would be a transparent attempt to spread the overwhelmingly Kazakh government apparatus into overwhelmingly Russian-dominated territories. The government is already preparing some parts of the north for Kazakhs migrating in from other countries where they took refuge from communism.

Leonid Brezhnev set up Kazakhstan for its present troubles. Brezhnev served the Communist Party for two years in Kazakhstan. When he ascended to power in Moscow, his Kazakh comrade D.A. Kunaev began to accumulate power as first secretary in Kazakhstan and the first Kazakh ever to sit on the Politburo. By 1981, Kazakhs had been appointed to 60 percent of the republic’s cabinet posts. Kunaev cashed in politically on his loyalty to Brezhnev and the party. He was rewarded by massive funding for public works and by more nomenklatura positions for Kazakhs. Brezhnev effectively gave the government of Kazakhstan to the Kazakh minority. Kunaev did not survive perestroika, but his legacy did.

The division between the Kazakh and Russian peoples lies beneath a tranquil surface that has barely rumbled in the past 60 years. The government denies that the fault is deep or dangerous. But denial no more disproves its existence than the presence of new buildings in San Francisco disproves the San Andreas fault. Like the San Andreas, the Kazakhstan ethnic fault line, however peaceful at the moment, is obvious to the eye.

First, people think of themselves and advertise themselves not as Kazakhstanis, citizens of a country, but as Kazakhs and Russians, and occasionally as Germans, Uighurs, Poles, Koreans, or Ukrainians. Of 56 personal ads in a recent issue of the Capitol’s largest paper, Karavan, 75 percent identify the advertiser as “Kazakh” or “Russian” or “European.” Language differences do not cause this division, since all the ads are in Russian, and finding a Kazakh under 70 who does not speak Russian requires a long search, generally among the rural yurts and herdsmen. In the “We Look for Work” ads, ethnic labels are a small percent but are not uncommon.

Anyone who regularly visits government offices also sees the fault lines. The higher you go in the bureaucracy, the clearer the divisions. Cabinet ministers are Kazakh. The powerful first deputies who influence policy are Kazakh. Almost all the presidential and vice presidential advisors are Kazakhs. Kazakh ministers and deputy ministers generally outnumber Russians by five to one. Department heads who actually get the work done may be Russian or Kazakh. Positions that offer opportunities for large bribes and “service fees” are usually Kazakh. This is true from high government offices to the notorious and universally despised traffic police, the Gai, who stand along city streets and flag cars at random for “document checks.” Their black-and-white-striped batons are moneymaking wands.

A sweeping dismissal of high government officials in mid-October only strengthened Kazakh domination. Prime Minister Tereschenko, once sharing power with Nazarbayev as a symbol of unity, was replaced by a Kazakh. At a news conference, the new prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, said Russian flight was motivated by economies, not ethnic conflict. The two, however, are quickly becoming one problem. Government positions often hold the keys to economic resources, since the government remains the major employer and principal owner of the 70 or so giant holding companies that are supposed to privatize industry and business.

Some American diplomats have tried to pass off ethnic strife as Kazakh clannishness. Indeed, their clannishness is the strength that creates a family safety net for many troubled Kazakhs. But it is also exclusive—not only of Russians. In Western Mongolia, where a large number of Kazakhs live, Mongolians complain that once Kazakhs were allowed into an organization, they took over and gave the best posts to other Kazakhs. Yet Kazakhstan’s constitution declares “equal rights for all the citizens in respect to their access to the civil service.”

In the factories, especially in northern Kazakhstan’s industrial region, Russians hold over 75 percent of the best bluecollar and technical jobs. As unemployment grows, particularly in the rural and arid south, Kazakhs are not happy about the number of employed Russians, even those earning as little as $25 or $40 a month. Many Kazakh laborers work for much less on collective farms or on ad hoc building crews that employ recent migrants from the countryside. The fact that thousands of Russian workers are leaving for Russia makes little difference to Kazakhs, many of whom do not have the skills for the vacated jobs. Other jobs are disappearing altogether, as industries lose their subsidies and go broke.

Kazakhs often see themselves as victims of history, deprived of culture and education. They want compensation before competition. Before they play with the Russians, who arc generally better educated, have better technical skills, and have more money, the Kazakhs want to level the field. They are hesitant or simply unwilling to compete in any meaningful way—in elections, in the job market, or in the privatization process. Americans who understand the mentality of affirmative action will grasp the Kazakh perspective.

Kazakhstan had elections in March 1994, but only for parliament, and almost half the candidates were nominated by President Nazarbayev. Foreign observers and the foreign press overwhelmingly judged the elections unfair—from campaigning to vote counting. The president also appoints the cabinet ministers, oblast officials, and city mayors. Under the latest reshuffle, a member of the presidential apparat would be assigned to each oblast to oversee the local government’s work.

The president’s grand promises of privatizing government business and moving assets and earning power into the hands of citizens have also become increasingly hollow. Early in the privatization effort, the president’s leading advisor, Korean- American Dr. Chan Young Bang, said the work was a severe disappointment. The original plan and later versions relied on placing state enterprises under large holding companies in order to prepare their management, bookkeeping, and production for privatization. Ambassador William Courtney continues to justify a big American aid effort (the United States provides over 80 percent of foreign aid to Kazakhstan) by citing President Nazarbayev’s edicts and rhetoric and accepting small progress as a token of bigger things to come. The most recent change of cabinet ministers and prime minister, like previous housecleanings, was done in the name of reform. At a January meeting contractors for USAID, most of whom work closely with the Kazakhstani government and nonprofit organizations, were significantly more pessimistic about the results than Ambassador Courtney. Perhaps the new officials will quicken the pace of privatization, but the character of government and its policies is not likely to change until Nazarbayev allows the citizens a really free choice of representatives and president. The more he supports affirmative action for Kazakhs, the less likely it is that a free election would return him or his parliament to office.

Some of the consultants who hand out and take home American aid try to paint the ethnic conflict in politically correct terms. Eric Rudenshiold of the International Republican Institute has argued that Russians have a “Western belief in exploiting profits from the land’s natural resources” while “ethnic Kazakhs are often opposed to the further rape of their homeland.” Few things have raped the landscape more thoroughly than Kazakh sheepherding. But even Rudenshiold’s false distinction leads him to conclude that the main obstacle to privatization is “the transfer of property and resulting empowerment of non-Kazakhs.”

Despite Ambassador Courtney’s guarded optimism, President Nazarbayev’s political strategy has been to consolidate Kazakh control in the wake of independence. To do it, he has centralized power and created an organizational structure that mimics the communist system of central command. The number of businesses scheduled for privatization has dropped from 5,000 last year to 1,500 today. Western accounting firms advising on privatization say the businesses finally put on the auction block were the dregs. In September, Courtney admitted he was troubled by the slowdown. Even more troubling were indications that the 70-plus giant holding companies would not sign off their holdings in the marketplace and distribute the country’s wealth. The holding companies themselves may be sold as giant conglomerates. The American embassy’s economic officer quickly recognized that the conglomerates would be large enough to act as monopolies in many areas.

Since independence the government has tried to avoid an open discussion of Kazakh-Russian tensions. The official line was that harmony reigned. Russians saw it otherwise. Shortly after independence, they got slapped in the face with new laws and ethnic slights, such as the Program for the Development of Kazakh and Other National Languages. It called for converting public record-keeping into Kazakh, which was scheduled to begin in some areas as early as 1993. In November 1993, when the country had a division of Britain’s Lonrho print its new money, Russians who traded in their rubles found not a word of their language on the new bills, not a trace of their art, not the face or name of an ethnic Russian. It was as if all American currency were suddenly printed in Spanish or our only printable heroes and heroines had names like De Soto, Cortez, Serra, and De Leon. (The Spanish were not the first to settle America, and neither were the Kazakhs the first to occupy Kazakhstan.)

Last year Sherkhan Murtaza, a Kazakh member of parliament and Chairman of the Kazgosteleradio Committee, told other deputies that the country had no single citizenry. It had “Kazakh peoples” and “representatives of peoples living in Kazakhstan.” When officials occasionally commented on the thousands of Russians moving to Russia, they always noted that some were coming in and that net migration was positive. Only in August did the government statistical office publish figures that reflected what everyone already knew.

The figures showed an average net out-migration of 156,000 people per year, or about one percent of the population. Birthrates for Russians had fallen steeply and neither Russians nor other European minorities were having enough children to replace themselves. The Kazakh birthrate had fallen too, but remained well above replacement level. With some 23,000 Kazakh immigrants moving in from other countries, including China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, the annual increase since 1990 has been 2.6 percent a year. In June, the Almaty Kazakh Radio Network announced that 60,000 of the 100,000 ethnic Kazakhs of Mongolia were now in Kazakhstan.

Russians in the capitol of Almaty, a city created by Russians from a Russian fortress and whose name at independence was quickly changed from the Russian Alma Ata, say that in the last ten years the once predominantly Russian city of 1.2 million has become mainly Kazakh. Apartment prices plummeted in the winter of 1993-94, mainly because of the steady outflow of Russian “ooezhayooshis” or leavers. Both Russians and Kazakhs believe the real reason for moving the capitol north is to extend Kazakh influence. If the move really happens and the government spends $15 to $50 billion on transporting masses of paper and conference tables and the households of bureaucrats when the average pension is less than $20 a month, the government will have to show great benefits, especially to the poor citizens of the heavily Kazakh southland.

Like many timid leaders trying to create a revolution without the clamor of discussion, President Nazarbayev speaks of unity while presiding over schism. At a conference of state organs in May 1993, the president declared that civil peace and ethnic harmony were the “first goal of political work” and proposed that the population unite in Kazakhstani patriotism. Patriotism is earned by governments, not declared by independence movements or desperate politicians.

Today I observe no signs of Kazakhstani patriotism. I see no house or apartment window flying the Kazakhstani flag, no matter what the occasion. The ratio of American to Kazakhstani flags hanging from car mirrors and fixed to windows or stamped on T-shirts must be greater than 500 to one. A country with diversity but without patriotism is a country by survey rather than character. Its character is that of a fault zone accumulating stress.

The first signs of trouble in this country came in December 1986, when Gorbachev dismissed D.A. Kunaev, a Kazakh, as first secretary of the Communist Party and appointed Genadii Kolbin, a Russian with no ties to Kazakhstan. Mobs of Kazakh students, Komsomol members, and volunteer militia armed with knives and sticks beat up Russians in the streets of Almaty. The eruption dissipated only when Russian factory workers began to mobilize and Moscow’s still strong military threatened to take over. Today, President Nazarbayev has not achieved his “first goal of political work,” and the underlying causes of the riots remain.

Civil wars in countries like this are not started by massive uprisings, but by fringe groups who start fighting that soon forces the rest of the population to take sides. Kazakhs have a number of ultra-nationalist groups. In late December, one of these groups held a rally in front of the presidential palace commemorating their people who had died in the 1986 riots. One speaker drew loud applause when he noted that the population of the capitol was now 46 percent Kazakh and would be over 50 percent by the year 2000. Their Russian fringe opponents are the descendants of Cossack warrior settlers who built the fort city Verni, which later became Almaty.

Last October, Kazakhs kidnapped the leader of the Kazakhstani Cossacks (descendants of the Russian Cossack troops who led the colonization of central Asia over 150 years ago). The kidnappers immediately demanded that the Cossacks be thrown out of civilian and military government posts and deported to Russia. Ethnic Russians appealed to Russia for help, and the Russian foreign ministry demanded a maximum Kazakh effort to free the victim and punish his captors. The incident raises the very real prospect that there is a trigger that will bring “Mother Russia” to the aid of people she still considers family. The ruling Kazakhs responded to increasing Kazakh rhetoric in December by banning Cossack activity around the capitol for six months. Cossacks, however, continue to demand that Russian be made an official government language alongside Kazakh and that the government hold a referendum to allow people to decide whether to join the Russian federation. In a similar referendum in 1991 the vote was “yes” and the government’s response was “no.”

The country is conveniently divided for a civil war. In southern oblasts, Kazakhs are a 60-90 percent majority. They are buttressed on their southern border by an even deeper reservoir of anti-Russian feeling—Uzbekistan. Uzbeks often refer to Russian as an “infidel language” and to Russia as “Kafirstan” or “Infidel Land.” Uzbekistan has begun eradicating the Russian language from public life, even for Russian-educated Uzbeks. Uzbekistan’s leadership feels it is the true representative of central Asia’s Turkic-speaking people since it is more Turkic than Kazakhstan, where Russians are numerous, and since Turkey has Westernized.

The Russians in northern Kazakhstan dominate that area as thoroughly as Kazakhs dominate the south, and on their northern border lies the industrial belt of Russia’s Siberia. The Russians have already begun to show their discontent. Last August, 2,000 angry pensioners gathered in Lenin Square in the town of Rudny, 125 miles south of the Russian border. They demanded pension payments that were three months overdue. When no one appeared to answer their demands, a squadron of them invaded city hall and forced the mayor into the square, where old ladies beat him with umbrellas and walking sticks.

The more control Kazakh politicians take from Russians, the more responsibility they will have to bear for adding to the crushing economic burden. Russians who cannot leave, or who call Kazakhstan home after three or four generations. or who simply like living there, think increasingly about support from the north. As they see less and less opportunity and economic protection from the government, the more Russian they feel. The Yeltsin regime has taken several moves to encourage both this feeling and the sense that, in a crisis, they would be protected by Russia.

Last September, the Russian news agency reported that Yeltsin’s treaty negotiators in Ukraine insisted on dual citizenship for ethnic Russians. Dual citizenship had been suggested earlier this year for Kazakhstani Russians in what appeared to be a trial balloon. It would be the legal basis for Russian intervention in a crisis in its “near abroad.” As the Russian negotiator in the Ukraine said, dual citizenship “is a basic position of Russia’s policy not only toward Ukraine but also toward the other CIS states.”

Russia has, in fact, recently declared its right to intervene in the affairs of its former republics. Its special envoy to Georgia, for example, Feliks Kovalev, announced that Russia “has no intention of considering ratification” of Georgia’s territorial boundaries “until the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts.” Russia’s treatment of Chechnya has also made Kazakhs feel considerably more threatened.

Clearly, the more Kazakhstan’s government defines the social and political boundaries between Kazakhs and Russians, the less secure its geographic boundaries become. Kazakhstan seems destined to prove that the boundaries of the former Soviet republics are far from firmly defined and that the final survey may require expensive and bloody flagging.