Speaking during a joint news conference with Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev following the talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 10, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan “uphold the principles of the supremacy of international law, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states”. It sounds good. No one would argue with that.
The oddities of relations between the Kremlin and the Ak Orda
Yet in fact that statement appears to be nothing more than a diplomatic wordplay, especially as it relates to Moscow’s attitude towards the Central Asian country. Because hardly a week passes without public insults and humiliations by Russian high-ranking officials directed toward their Kazakh counterparts, without distortions of the facts of the Kazakh history and without claims on the territory of Kazakhstan by Russian MPs. All that has happened and is happening despite the fact that Kazakhstan perhaps has always been and is the most non-confrontational (with respect to Moscow) ex-Soviet country.
This situation is due in part to the Central Asian nation’s long-lasting dependence on the Russian language, and the Russian media’s uncontested dominance in the Kazakh information field. Any attempt to start changing things implies vulnerabilities that those opposing such reforms can exploit. It should therefore come as no surprise that not one of those Russian politicians who had insulted the high-ranking Kazakh officials was formally banned from entering Kazakhstan, and not one of those Russian media outlets which had promoted territorial claims to the Central Asian State was blocked in the country.
Back in 2013, Galymzhan Dugalov, a representative of Kazakhstan’s ministry of industry and new technologies, admitted that the national information security situation remained ‘disappointing’. Then he didn’t elaborate on who was threatening the information security of the country, but just merely described ‘the openness of the national information space and the popularity of foreign media, including Internet resources, TV and the press’ as the main threat to it. Commenting on the issue, Dosym Satpayev, director of Kazakhstan Risk assessment group and a member of the presidium of the Kazakhstan Council on international relations, pointed to the danger that the dominance of the Russian media in the Kazakh information field could be used by the Kremlin against the Ak Orda [Presidential Palace, the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan, located in the capital city of Nur-Sultan; it here means ‘the Kazakh leadership’] at any moment in the event of a sharp deterioration in relations between Kazakhstan and Russia. Such an assumption has proved to be quite true in less than a decade.
The emergence of new challenges for Nur-Sultan
Back in December 2020, an article appeared in the Turkish-language press entitled ‘Russia launched a hybrid war against Kazakhstan, according to the scenario tested earlier in Ukraine‘. It should be recalled that at that time several members of the Russian State Duma made territorial claims against the Central Asian country, stating that Northern Kazakhstan had been ‘a great gift from Russia’. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry firmly rejected these statements, making it clear official Nur-Sultan was not ready to put up with them. But that only seemed to make Russian MPs attack Kazakhstan more. Evgeny Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy and a member of the Central Political Council of ruling United Russia party, said that if Kazakhstan was believing that it had not received ‘gifts’ from Russia, then it must be treated differently. Then the Russian Federation’ll ‘have to request that they be returned, as you took them unlawfully’. In particular, Evgeny Fyodorov said the following: “Do you want to leave, Comrade Nazarbayev, Tokayev and [the ones in] the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. All right, take your suitcases, return the territories, the city of Verny (Almaty) and everything else, and leave. They would say: “Where might we go if there would be no territories left for us”. Our answer: What does this have to do with us? Get out of our house. You ‘nitshebrody’ [‘vagrants and beggars’, ‘trash’, ‘homeless people who beg for alms’; in a word those who do not have the right to their own land], rented an apartment from us, then you decided to break up with us – that being the case, get out of our house, get out of the city of Verny. Isn’t it logical?”. Thus, members of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, mainly from the ruling party, not only made territorial claims against Kazakhstan, but also covered the country’s first and second Presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and its foreign ministry with vicious insults. Yet that verbal abuse was left without response from Nur-Sultan. It has been and still is difficult for the Kazakh public to understand the underlying reasons for those rhetorical attacks against their nation and their leadership, and they may be left with the distressing impression that the country’s officials did not manage to display consistency in defending national sovereignty and dignity from those impudent demarches by Russian MPs. It is, as of now, clear that the verbal arguments between the Russian MPs and the Kazakh foreign ministry that took place in December 2020 have witnessed the emergence of new challenges for Nur-Sultan – the emergence of their first wave, to be exact.
Be that as it may, the Moscow politicians who had created such a situation and the Russian media which had seized the opportunity to spin a huge scandal out of it, had the final say. And this gave reason for the Turkish press to say that Russia had just ‘launched a hybrid war against Kazakhstan, according to the scenario tested earlier in Ukraine’.
In 2021, its scope expanded into a large-scale campaign of anti-Kazakh propaganda. In the period from August to December last year, Russia was subjecting Kazakhstan – through the media forces and political circles close to the Kremlin – 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. Thus the second wave of above-mentioned challenges emerged. This time, the Kazakh officials commented in conciliatory terms and a soothing tone on some of the claims by the Russian side, nothing more. But it did not help. The flames of the information war, imposed on Kazakhstan and its ruling regime by the Russian side, had been fanning steadily from August through December 2021. What infuriated the representatives of Russia most in that period was a bill that provides that public signs, signposts, announcements, notices and advertisements should, as a rule, be in Kazakh. Ukraina.ru, a Russian project run by the state-owned Russia Today news agency and conveying Russia’s official stance, 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, a political analyst and expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, as saying: “If that bill 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 some other people”.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed the bill into law on December 29, 2021. Those ‘other people’, according to Mr.Mendkovich’s logic, were not long in coming and attempting to overturn the existing system of government in Kazakhstan. That happened at the very beginning of 2022 and marked the third one of increasingly dangerous waves of new challenges for Tokayev’s administration.
But is there much point in speaking of Russia having something to do with the emergence of public disturbances Kazakhstan faced in early January? No. As there is no direct evidence linking Moscow’s representatives to it. However, there are two factors that one cannot but pay attention in considering all that happened before a tumultuous week across Kazakhstan in early January.
How the government is supposed to protect Kazakhstan’s image, if it hasn’t managed to defend itself?
First. Last year, Kazakhstan became a target for full scale and intensive informational attacks by the Russian media forces for the first time in decades. Nothing like this had ever happened before during 30 years of relations between the two countries. This led to questions: why this had not happened to the Central Asian nation long before that and why it has happened in Mr.Tokayev’s third year in office, and what the Kremlin’s bigger play is in the context of evolving events? A brief analysis of relevant statements made at political talk shows aired on Russian television, and reports and articles published in Russian print and electronic media has shown that then the Russian political, intellectual and media elites weren’t happy with the social and political situation in Kazakhstan and the policy of the Kazakh authorities. Much of the blame for such a state of affairs in the neighbouring country was attributed by those Russian polticians, experts and journalists to its government and president. They were reproaching Mr.Tokayev for, among other things, ‘being a weak figure and not being in full control of the situation in the country’, as well as for ‘allowing anti-Russian nationalists to further strengthen their positions in the governmental system’. At the same time, the largest Russian news agencies and various periodicals were covering that topic under the quite eloquent headings: “Who did give the go-ahead for the “the Russian question” to be finally resolved”, “How did Kasym Tokayev deal with the “Russian issue”, “Those nationalists in Kazakhstan’s power, who are set against Russia, have been named”, “Defiantly Russophobic moves by the Kazakh authorities immediately after Mishustin’s visit”, “Kazakhstani system of power are being joined by nationalists obsessed with the idea of the “Great Turan”, “Political scientist spoke about the Kazakh authorities’ flirting with nationalists”, “Leader of the “language patrols” is found to have had connections with Kazakhstan’s president”, and “Kazakh nationalist Akhmetov has been warned of danger from [the Kazakh] ministry of information”.
By the end of the 2021, there was already talk in Russian media of a growing risk of regime change in Kazakhstan in the light of the policies challenging interests of Moscow and its commitment to a so-called ‘Russian World’ that extends beyond the borders of modern Russia. Given all the above and in view of the predominance of Russian media over their local counterparts in Kazakhstan and their leading role in shaping public opinion in the Central Asian country, those ‘some other people’, seeing rallies against fuel prices throughout the nation in early January, may have been tempted to ‘hijack these peaceful demonstrations’ and ‘attempt to overturn the government’. This so-called ‘third force’, made no political statements to the public, and just sought, to judge by their actions, to further destabilize Kazakhstan, as if to reaffirm the Russian experts’ claims about Mr.Tokayev ‘being a weak figure’ and ‘not being in full control of the situation in the country’. According to the formal statement by Kazakh President, its militants, who had captured 9 regional centers and Almaty, abandoned their plans to seize the presidential residence after having learned about the arrival of the Russian military transport aircrafts to the capital of Kazakhstan. In other words, their offensive actions ceased right after they learned that a Russia-led military alliance stepped in to support the regime in power.
Second. During the last year, the information war, waged by the Moscow politicians and Russian media against Kazakhstan and its high-level officials and directly observable by the Kazakhstani society as a whole, and especially the latter ones’ being unprepared to publicly defend their country’s good name, as well as the reluctance by some of them to respond to gratuitous insults from the Russian side in their own address, further reduced national governing bodies’ already low – due to the social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic – popularity. Thus, for instance, the Russian press had the arrogance to hold the Kazakh government agencies, or even the current Kazakh President responsible for being connected to Kuat Akhmetov, the organizer of the so-called ‘language patrols’ in Kazakhstan, even after the Kazakhstani Prosecutor-General’s Office had opened an investigation against the latter one for inciting ethnic hatred. Here is another example. Ukraina.ru, in an article entitled ‘Mendkovich: There are Nazi accomplices in the government of Kazakhstan’, quoted Nikita Mendkovich as describing Kazakh minister of education and science Askhat Aimagambetov as ‘a well-known Nazi accomplice’. Thus, Russian politicians and political experts, and media persons availed themselves of insulting and offensive language as regards the Kazakh governmental policies on nation-building, as well as Kazakhstan’s the highest authorities and high officials.
And almost no obstacle was placed in the way of such an Internet- and television-based aggression by Russia into the Central Asian country’s information field. There had apparently not been a readiness by the Kazakhstani side to deal with such a development. Anyway, Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Nur-Sultan’s efforts aimed at strengthening the position of its State language and its initiative meant to create the Organization of Turkic States presumably led to a marked deterioration in relations between Kazakhstan and Russia and induced the Kremlin – as Dosym Satpayev had forseen many years ago – to use the dominance of the Russian media in the Kazakh information field against the Ak Orda. In doing so, the Russian side’s apparent aim was to manipulate the Kazakhstani public opinion in order to foment dissent between the country’s Kazakh and non-Kazakh populations appealing mainly to the ‘national feelings’ of the citizens of ethnic Russian (Slavic, European) origin and to erode the confidence of both sides in their government’s efforts to ensure harmony between the various ethnic groups and equality for all people in society irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliations. And they succeeded in creating and increasing distrust among those communities for each other and in weakening public confidence in State authorities and officials. Particularly striking was and still is the rise in disrespectful – not to say arrogant, even utterly disdainful – attitude towards the Kazakh statehood and the territorial integrity and independence of Kazakhstan among the country’s ethnic Russians. Here’s just one example of such mindset taken from “Russian Intervention in Kazakhstan Renews Concerns About Ethnic Separatism (foreignpolicy.com)”, an article by Casey Michel, an investigative journalist: “Ethnic Russians born and raised in northern Kazakhstan suddenly began describing their country to me as a “Bantustan” and a “virtual” country: as something cobbled together by Soviet politicians rather than an actual country that deserved sovereignty and recognition. Another person told me if things fell apart, he’d side with Moscow over the Kazakh government. Much of this was predicated on the outright chauvinism (or racism)—the belief that Kazakhstan was hardly deserving of full, sovereign independence or equality with the Russian state”.
On the other hand, the fact of some high-ranking Kazakh officials having been sitting ducks of a sort, who could be attacked by the Moscow politicians and Russian media with total impunity and their not having managed to protect Kazakhstan and themselves from Russian defamation, caused further frustration and disenchantment among the ordinary ethnic Kazakhs over Kazakhstani authorities’ capacity to act. They began wondering: how the Kazakh government is supposed to protect Kazakhstan’s image, if it hasn’t managed to defend even itself from Russian libel about ‘Nazi accomplices’ among its members?! All of this, in turn, could have contributed to a kind of self-alienation of those people from both the picture of societal well-being and stability drawn by the authorities, and the very system of public administration in the country.
Based on the foregoing, the version that the above-mentioned two factors could have made a distinctive contribution to the development of events which culminated in a stormy week across Kazakhstan in early January appears to be admissible.
Making a 180º turnaround in less than 5 months?
There is now a need to say just a few more words on the way things are shaping up out here (i.e. in Kazakhstan) after what happened in early January. The Russian side seems to consider the essence of what has been and is being carried out by the Kazakh authorities following last month’s unrest as indications of success in Moscow’s efforts to make Nur-Sultan abandon its pro-Western foreign policy and support for the Kazakh nationalists.
In an interview with Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week, the Russian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Alexey Borodavkin quite confidently said that the Steppe Eagle exercise, an annual multilateral military exercise hosted by Kazakhstan with U.S., NATO, and regional forces, would ‘no longer fly in Kazakhstan’. At the same time, he 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. Mr.Borodavkin commended Kazakh authorities on their efforts in fighting back the so-called ‘primeval nationalism’. The Kremlin representatives would have to have their reasons for being pleased with the way things are turning out after the violent protests earlier this year in Kazakhstan.
Talk about Kazakhstan’s pursuing the real multi-vector policy and its playing a key role in establishing the Organization of Turkic States seems to have ceased in Nur-Sultan. Kazakh President Tokayev, who, according to the Russian press, almost had not resorted to the use of the Russian language, speaking in the annual message to the people of Kazakhstan in last September, spoke only Russian during his first televised interview since the January crisis. Doesn’t it seem like a kind of making a 180º turnaround in less than 5 months? In the light of that situation, the Russian press claims that ‘[Kazakh] nationalists and Russophobes will not take root [in Kazakhstan] under Tokayev’. Well, hardly would anyone argue with that.
Yet on the other hand, Russian MPs have continued to blame Mr.Tokayev, while resorting sometimes to the use of invidious comparisons with the Nazi regime, for allegedly providing support to [Kazakh] nationalists. Within the country, there are also a certain amount of people, very disapproving of him. Last Sunday, hundreds of men and women came out for a rally in the Republic Square in Almaty to commemorate those who had been killed during the unrest in January. There were demands for the current Kazakh President’s resignation. Protesters brought placards, some of which were bearing the following phrases: “Tokayev, step down. The whole country hates you”, “The one who ordered to shoot to kill cannot be the leader of the nation”. In a word, the situation in the country still remains fragile and sensitive.
*Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst