On 2 December, Sputnik Kazakhstan, Russian state-owned news agency’s unit in the Central Asian country, laid out an interview with Russia’s ambassador to Astana, Alexei Borodavkin, on its website. Some of the things the official representative of Moscow had said during that conversation caused quite a stir in the Kazakhstani society.
This is not surprising, since among other things, he pointed out that it was a matter of concern that in Kazakhstan, ‘the radical nationalist tendencies are becoming more and more visible’. “With a strong popular mandate that the President has got, tough measures for tackling all kinds of extremist, nationalistic appearances will be carried out. If there is a need (a request), we will help”, Alexei Borodavkin added. It almost seems like Russia’s ambassador to Kazakhstan takes the trouble of providing official Astana with a blueprint for Government action concerning ‘the radical nationalist tendencies’, which ‘are becoming more and more visible’, in his view.
Anyway, he was here the least like an ambassador talking about the country of his stay. Some Kazakhstani observers felt that it was about the Kremlin’s official position voiced by Alexei Borodavkin. Shalkar Nurseitov, a Kazakh political scientist, noted the following: “The [Russian] ambassador says Russia doesn’t like a rise in the number of nationalists, i.e. patriotically-minded citizens, in Kazakhstan. But the growth of patriotism is our internal affair. The ambassador’s statements can [therefore] be regarded as interference in internal social and political processes. The Kazakhstanis do not have to like America, China and, say, the Russian Federation. The growth of anti-Russian sentiment is being observed not only in Kazakhstan, but all over the world, this is an appropriate process”. He noted, however, that a strong public backlash to the [Russian] diplomat’s words should also be understood as reaction ‘to the behavior of our politicians, who are not committed to confronting [and countering] Russia’s intentions to decide how we should act not only internationally, but also domestically’.
At one point public anger over the Kremlin envoy’s statements on the radical nationalist tendencies in the Central Asian country and the need to take tough measures to curb them became so serious that Yerlan Koshanov, chairman of the Mazhilis (Lower House) of Parliament of Kazakhstan, and Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, had to comment on the matter.
“I have carefully acquainted with the interview by Alexei Borodavkin. There actually are a few points which do not line up with his status and do not work for good. Mr. Borodavkin is a very experienced diplomat, we have known him for a long time. But he should not suit himself to propagandists and political experts. There is xenophobia in Russia itself [just] as well as in other countries”, Kazakh Parliament speaker said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not support such an opinion, though without entering into polemics with the Kazakh MP. In an interview with the Khabar 24 TV channel, he insisted that Borodavkin ‘have never pronounced the words that some media outlets in Kazakhstan are attempting to attribute to him’. According to him, such statements do not reflect the position of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the ambassador himself. After having attempted to deny what is self-evident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put forward a conciliatory motto which states: “Relations between our countries are to be determined by Presidents [Putin and Tokayev], and only by them”.
Upon this, Sergey Lavrov seemed to feel that was enough on this topic. But the questions remain, and in particular as to why Russian high-ranking officials dealing with Kazakhstan cannot (or do not want to) understand what some ordinary Russian political scientists and experts have long been understood. Here what about this said Yevgeny Spitsyn, a Moscow-based historian and political analyst, who cannot be suspected of sympathizing with Kazakhs: “The Kazakhs (in response to our accusations of Russophobia) quite reasonably say: “Do you really think that only anti-Sovietism is the breeding ground for Kazakh nationalism? How about your Russian chauvinism, your people like Zhirovsky and Matveichev? Do they not generate a response on our part?” I throw up my hands and admit: they do”.
The situation between the two parties to the dispute is more complicated than it appears at first. What Yevgeny Spitsyn was talking about seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Kazakh observers cannot but worry that Russian Ambassador to Astana at times behaves as though he have been sent to seek out the flaws of the Kazakh domestic policy and make them public through the Russian media outlets.
In the February 7 interview with Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Alexey Borodavkin also did not fail to talk in a judgmental tone about Kazakh nationalism which, under the present circumstances, manifests itself almost exclusively in the form of speaking out for strengthening the status of the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan. Russian Ambassador to Astana commended Kazakh authorities on their efforts in fighting back the so-called ‘primeval nationalism’. It would seem the Kremlin representative now should be satisfied with the way things are turning out after the violent protests earlier this year in Kazakhstan.
The situation with the Russian language in the Astana corridors of power has now returned to the earlier state, once described by Ivan Shchegolikhin, a prominent ethnically Russian Kazakhstani writer, as follows (‘I will not seek victories’, Prostor, #1, 2008): “By the way, today there are only two States in the world where the highest authorities are performing all of its activities through Russian language. These are Russia and Kazakhstan”. Nowadays no one seems to be talking about the switch of the Kazak language to Latin alphabet. In a word, things seem to be going the way Russian ideologues would like them to go. But no, there is still talk in Russia of ‘the Kazakh nationalism’, a holdover expression from the Soviet era. It can feel like a reiteration of what happened in 2021.
In the second half of last year, Russia was subjecting, through its media forces, Kazakhstan to all kinds of information attack – ranging from threats disguised as persuasion to outright threats of interference in its internal affairs – unless the Central Asian nation agrees to abandon its pro-Western foreign policy and support for the Kazakh nationalists. That campaign reached a crescendo in December 2021.
Ukraina.ru, in an article entitled ‘Flirting with nationalists can lead to the collapse of the Kazakh [ruling] power’ and published on December 9, quoted Nikita Mendkovich as saying: “If the draft law [legislative amendments on visual information, which reinforce the use of the Kazakh language in advertising and signage] is rejected, it will mean that the authorities have realized the problem and are trying to solve it… If the [Kazakh] government continues to pander to extremists and neo-Nazis, we can talk about a threat to the [Kazakh] government itself. All of this might mean that the issues of foreign and domestic policy of Kazakhstan will be dealt with not by Tokayev and the current generation of elites, but by someone else”.
On December 29, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev signed those legislative amendments. At the very beginning of New Year, there was an attempt to overturn the system of government in Kazakhstan, according to the official reports.
It is now December 2022. This time, Moscow, judging by the words of Russia’s ambassador to Astana, Alexei Borodavkin, expect Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to carry out ‘tough measures for tackling all kinds of extremist, nationalistic appearances’ in Kazakhstan. But what is really behind this demarche of the Kremlin?!
Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst