The ABC Of Kazakh Politics: Why Is Astana So Reluctant To Protect Kazakhstan And Kazakhs Against Insults From Others? – Analysis


Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Western media haven’t ceased convincing their readers and listeners in Central Asia’s, and, above all, Kazakhstan’s, being gradually estranged from Russia.

Those promoting such an idea have found themselves caught flat-footed; some among them have even seemed somewhat bewildered by the fact that all five Central Asia’s leaders agreed to attend this year’s military parade in Moscow and take upon the role of top-level foreign politicians, sitting alongside Russian militaries [who have been fighting in the war] and applauding Putin’s speech about a ‘sacred struggle for the motherland’. Here is how Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, describes how all this has been happening: “In all likelihood, with the exception of Japarov, the Central Asian presidents initially managed to politely decline the invitation to Moscow. But when Putin called them, it became not only difficult to do so, but also dangerous”.

 But even after that, the tendency to see Central Asia, and first of all Kazakhstan, as a region, and as a country, getting away from Russia seems to be continuing in the Western media. More and more this sounds like indulging in wishful thinking. Take, for instance, the latest Spectator article by Norman Davies, a professor emeritus at University College London, – ‘How Russia lost Kazakhstan’

Here I’d like to first start off with saying a few words about some of the peculiarities of foreign press coverage on the theme of Kazakhstan. While many Western authors have been consistently negative about Russia’s policies towards the post-Soviet region, they don’t stop seeing Kazakhstan and Kazakhs through Russian eyes. Hardly anybody from among those foreign experts and journalists specializing in covering the topic of how the situation in Kazakhstan has been developing, masters the Kazakh language. In this connection, it should also be borne in mind that language proficiency is necessary, but it is not enough for getting a grasp of internal political and social processes in Kazakhstan. One must have an in with the traditional Kazakh way of thinking to be good at understanding the core of those processes. We’re sorry if we said something not quite pleasant for someone. But that’s how it is. 

The bulk of the issues which have been and are being most intensely discussed among ethnic Kazakhs making 70 per cent of the Kazakhstani population have been and are getting zero media coverage in Russia as well as in other foreign States. Instead there are a lot of distorted perceptions about Kazakhstan and Kazakhs in the Western media taken over from the Russian sources. 

Thus, Norman Davies writes that ‘Almaty means ‘father of the apple’. However, that interpretation of the name of Kazakhstan’s former capital invented by Russian-speaking people a long time ago and now almost forgotten, has absolutely nothing to do with the Kazakh meaning of this word. And its use by anyone now is nothing more than demonstrating a serious lack of awareness of the Kazakhstani matter.

Norman Davies’ view of things concerning Kazakhstan would seem to be justified merely in so far as it identifies China as the greatest non-regional partner of the Central Asian country. Here is what else can be said: It is too early to speak about ‘how Russia lost Kazakhstan’. Just those who reside outside Kazakhstan and even the post-Soviet space could most probably be tending to think and judge this way. As of now, no other power has proven the ability to challenge the Russian influence in Central Asia, and specifically in Kazakhstan. This is a fact that is obvious to all those intimately familiar with  the existing situation and relationship between Moscow and the elites in the Central Asian capitals. 

However, one can agree that even if one day Russia may lose its control and influence in that region, there will be no one but China to take up the baton, metaphorically speaking. Other scenarios seem unlikely. But at the moment, Russia is far from being willing to give up the enormous political, economic, cultural and informational clout over Kazakhstan and its neighbors it has amassed over decades. Russia has two advantages over any other power potentially willing to be involved in the new Great game in Central Asia.

First. A significant part of the trade turnover between Kazakhstan and the far abroad goes through Russia. And the bulk of the other four Central Asian countries’ foreign trade goes through Kazakhstan. Therefore, the Kremlin, it hopes, by controlling Kazakhstan, controls the whole of Central Asia. For the Kremlin, there may be virtually no risk of serious loss of influence in the Central Asian region, as long as Astana remains heavily dependent upon Russia in carrying out its foreign trade activities and keeps the other four Central Asian countries similarly dependent upon Kazakhstan.

Second. Russia has been and remains involved in all of Kazakhstan’s major political processes and political events over at least the last two and a half centuries, most often seen playing a decisive role in providing solutions to the issue of who should rule the Kazakh land, Kazakhstan. The last time it did so was in January, 2022. Here’s how then things happened, in chronological order. 

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.

Let’s now turn our attention to the chain of events that preceded the January 2022 unrest in the Central Asian country., 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, 2021, 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 2022, there has been an attempt to overturn the system of government in Kazakhstan, according to the official reports. Well, it looks like the Russian side first wanted to see a change in the presidency in Astana and then, when there was a real possibility of that occurring, turned around and came to the aid of the current Kazakh president, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. On the other hand, the whole story is apparently meant to be considered by the Kazakh elites as a good warning from Moscow.

But even without that, Astana behaved and still behaves in a respectful manner to Russia and everything Russian, which cannot be said of the behavior of Russian politicians, public figures and celebrities in relation to Kazakhstan and Kazakhs. The latter easily allow themselves to use the foulest insults against the neighboring Central Asian country and its indigenous people. The lack of an adequate reaction by official Astana to this kind of behavior from those representatives of Russia’s political and media establishment apparently leads to the emergence of copycat behavior among non-Kazakhs in other CIS countries and even in Kazakhstan itself. And again, either there’s no reaction to such actions from official Astana, or the Kazakhstani authorities are starting to react only after the relevant publication of journalists, bloggers and others about them.  

Thus, “after the appearance of [relevant] publications by Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the police launched two criminal cases, one of them against Pavel Bondarenko, a former employee of the department of the penitentiary system of the Atyrau region, and the second against Maxim Yakovchenko, a resident of Uralsk”. Pavel Bondarenko urged ‘Putin to take Uralsk away’ from Kazakhstan and called Kazakhs ‘primitive apes’. Maxim Yakovchenko, a native of West Kazakhstan province, had issued the following comment in social networks: “URALSK, PETROPAVLOVSK, PAVLODAR, ETC. SHOULD BE GIVEN TO RUSSIA”. He next had called the Kazakhs ‘monkeys’. In the autumn of that year, he was charged under Penal Code, sections 174 (‘inciting hatred’) and 180 (‘separatism’). Maxim Yakovchenko left for Russia. The latter was declared wanted and detained on December 1, 2022, in Rostov-on-Don. As reported by the press, Maxim Yakovchenko has been granted refugee status in Russia and can’t be extradited. There is one more thing which needs to be said. In open access, there is no information about what the case against Pavel Bondarenko was resulted in.

Here is an example of a somewhat different kind., which is indicated by (a Russian internet media project that monitors and translates articles published in foreign and Western media into Russian, and is part of the state media group Russia Today) as an Uzbekistani media outlet, just recently published an article entitled ‘How were the Kazakhs brought to the human level’. The very title of this piece says it all, so further comment is unnecessary. This website somewhat earlier also decided to solidarize with the main-stream Russian TV channels in fighting Kazakh nationalism and to express contempt for the Kazakhs, describing them as a culturally backward people: “Is there even one town built by Kazakhs in the last 1000 years?”. These are not the only cases has covered the matter of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs in a biased manner. Thus, the website, in one of its articles, said: “There are practically no Russians today in the upper echelons of the Kazakh elites, yet even ordinary people do not see a future here [in Kazakhstan], especially for their children”. It begs the question, “Well, does that mean the position of Russian people in Uzbekistan is different?”. The objective answer is: that is hardly the case. 

If some media outlet within Kaznet (kz) wrote or said something similar to the above about Uzbekistan and Uzbeks, official Tashkent  would immediately require from Astana that action be taken to put an end to this, and it  would lose its license and be stopped. And in this particular case, official Astana did not and still does not manifest itself. There is an impression none of that was written by about Kazakhstan and Kazakhs is relevant for it; and that in case of such stories, its representatives  start taking action only when  those incidents receive some public attention and become the subject of discussion in the country or, at least, in the city where they happened. 

Why is Astana reluctant to protect Kazakhstan and Kazakhs against insults from others? Here is something to think about, if one considers that, according to some experts in Kazakhstan, ‘in our country a huge number of officials are still in the grip of colonial thinking and watch Russia, the Russian ideology and media with open mouth’, and even‘President Tokayev sees the situation in his country through the eyes of Russian propaganda media’. While Russia – as a state, a country, a nation and a society – project its own specific system of values primarily onto the Kazakh elite circles. There it, if to call things by their proper name, is accepted to despise everything [East] Asian, while marginalizing Asians (Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks and their like) themselves living in the Russian Federation, and to love everything white Western, even despite the current confrontation between Russia and the West. 

And it must be said, Russian authorities often believe that racist insults against people of [East] Asian origin – i.e. those like Kazakhs, Buryats and their kind – should not be perceived as something offensive. Here is a vivid example of this. In July 2021, Anfisa Chekhova, a famous Russian socialite, TV host and model, compared Buryat women with ‘bomzhikhi’ (it means unpleasant looking female vagrants, sunk to the depths of poverty and squalor). Buryat ombudswoman for human rights, Yulia Zhambalova, asked the investigative committee of Russia to check Chekhova’s speech for possible violations of law. In September that year, Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media) told Yulia Zhambalova: “Anfisa Chekhova’s statements do not contain signs of extremist speech actions aimed at inciting ethnic hatred”.

Such an attitude, in view of the above, appears to find its continuation in Kazakhstan. The negatives of that kind of practice in Russia for its Central Asian neighbor are not only that it leads to the emergence of copycat behavior among non-Kazakhs in other CIS countries and even in Kazakhstan itself, but also it kind of pushes the Kazakh ruling regime to pay more attention to the interests of Russians than to those of Kazakhs themselves. This apparently in part explains why Astana is so reluctant to protect Kazakhstan and Kazakhs against insults from others. 

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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