The issue of xenophobia against Russian-speaking citizens of Kazakhstan raised by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his article on the Russian-Kazakh relations entitled ‘Russia and Kazakhstan: Cooperation Without Borders’ that had recently been published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, appeared to stir public opinion in the Central Asian nation. Some regard this step as a pretext used by Moscow to interfere in their country’s internal affairs, while others view it as an appropriate reaction on the part of the Russian Federation to what is going on in the Kazakhstani society. It should be recalled that Sergei Lavrov in his article said that some cases of xenophobia against Russian-speaking citizens of Kazakhstan “are the result of special info tactics from the outside aimed at fomenting nationalism and discrediting cooperation with Russia”.
Gaziz Abishev, a Kazakh political scientist, believes that Kazakhstan’s cooperation with Russia “is being discredited not only from the outside (albeit from the outside, too), but also on the part of the Russians themselves, including high-ranking officials’.
And here’s what Dariga Nazarbayeva, a Kazakh lawmaker and daughter of Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, said in this regard: “But how do Kazakhstanis feel about the increased attention being paid by high-level representatives of the Russian Federation and its mainstream media to a single aspect of our country’s life? I mean those Kazakhstanis who candidly believe that peace and harmony in inter-ethnic relations are the main areas of successes achieved during the nation’s 30 years of independence. Members of over one hundred ethnic groups live peacefully in our country today. The status of the Russian language is enshrined in the Constitution of Kazakhstan, and we highly appreciate its importance. Education in many schools, colleges and universities is carried out in Russian. Millions of [ethnic] Russians in Kazakhstan do not see any ‘xenophobia’ in their environment. The same could be said about Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, Tatars, Germans and members of many other ethnic groups living in the country”.
She also pointed out that “cases of xenophobia’ sometimes occur in Russia, too”. Dariga Nazarbayeva expressed regret that such a reaction to individual cases of nationalism in [Kazakhstan’s] daily life had come from the highest levels [of power] in Russia. According to her, there are very many Kazakhstanis who have been surprised and upset by this. “Sergei Viktorovich [Lavrov] writes that ‘some incidents are the result of special info tactics from the outside’. It seems to me that the Russian official reaction to such cases just proves that the sabotage work of foreign agents, if any, has achieved its goal. Here’s what is doubly regrettable”, she added.
Feedback by Dariga Nazarbayeva did not go unnoticed in the Russian Federation. Arkady Dubnov, an independent Russian expert on Central Asia and Afghanistan, in his article entitled ‘Lavrov’s defense: Why are the recent public statements of the Russian minister about Kazakhstan dangerous?’ and published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper, noted that “even the eldest daughter of the First President of Kazakhstan, Dariga Nazarbayeva, hardly hid her irritation, commenting on Lavrov’s words: “Cases of xenophobia’ sometimes occur in Russia, too”…
This line of reasoning doesn’t run counter to the true state of affairs, because acts of racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance actually are quite common in Russia. According to opinion polls, up to half of the ethnic Russian population in the country hold prejudiced views towards people coming from non-European countries and some ethnic groups, commonly referred to as ‘blacks’, or ‘those having slanting eyes’. The Russian political, intellectual and media elites seem rather unconcerned by this kind of information. The absence of consistent statistical data on the extent of racist and xenophobic acts in Russia indicates the limited importance the Russian authorities attach to this problem.
It is therefore not surprising that the level of xenophobic language in Russian mass media and political discourse has lately risen to alarming levels. The racially discriminatory words and phrases by leading Russian politicians and Moscow television celebrities towards such [East] Asian looking people as Buryats, Kalmyks, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs have had the effect of legitimating hatred within the minds of certain ethnic Russians leading to a rise in hate crimes. One cannot claim that the Russian authorities do directly promote radical xenophobia. But there is reason to believe that this has been done and is being done by them in an indirect way.
Here is a vivid example of this. In July this year, 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). And she did it, speaking on television. That way Anfisa Chekhova took a step in terms of promoting the idea of Buryat [and other Asian] women’s inferiority in Russian [white] society. She actually was degrading an entire ethnic group of [East] Asian origin on strictly racial grounds. It caused a storm of resentment among Buryats. Buryatia’s ombudswoman for human rights, Yulia Zhambalova, asked the investigative committee of Russia and Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media) to check Chekhova’s speech for possible violations of law. Responses were received in late September. The one from the investigating authority states that: an inquiry into the incident by the department of the Russian Interior Ministry for the Krasnosel’sky district in Moscow city found that the law had not been broken, and it was thus decided that a criminal case should not be initiated in this respect. Roskomnadzor also did not reveal any signs of violation of the federal law on counteracting extremist activities. And its response is: in the statements by Anfisa Chekhova, there are no signs of extremist speech actions aimed at inciting ethnic hatred.
The famous Russian socialite’s demarche evoked shock and indignation in Buryat society. There were calls to Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Yakuts, and Kalmyks for consolidating their efforts in the fight against that kind of [racist] acts in Russia. However, the Russian authorities turned a blind eye to all that. So it’s no wonder that Anfisa Chekhova, just like Boris Korchevnikov, a host on the state-owned television channel Rossiya-1, who earlier described the Kalmyks [Russia’s another ethnic minority of [East] Asian origin] in the same way on his TV talk-show, is still doing well.
Russian law enforcement practice thus gained an important legal precedent, whereby public verbal acts of degrading treatment and violation of Buryats’ [as well as Kazakhs’, Kyrgyz’, Yakuts’, and Kalmyks’] dignity on racial grounds, should not be taken as breaches of the law. Experience over the years has shown that such incidents have been and still are of very low concern to the authorities responsible for monitoring the observance of legality in Russia. In 2019, Zhanna Mezit and Yuri Salikhov, political consultants from Samara city who had arrived in Elista (capital of Kalmykia republic that is a federal subject of Russia), made derogatory statements about Kalmyk people which were taken as racist insults in Kalmykia and caused a storm of resentment among the autonomous republic’s population (kavkazr.com May 24, 2019). Yet their outrage received no response from the Russian authorities. The latter ones, however, never hesitate to applying the strictest measures that the law provided when something like that happens to ethnic Russians.
The following is the proof of that. The Russian foreign ministry has not long ago banned Isfandiyar Vagabzade, Azerbaijan’s former Ambassador to Belarus, Moldova and Pakistan, from entering the country for 50 years. The decision comes after the ex-diplomat called the Russians ‘pigs’ on camera. MFA of the Russian Federation said Isfandiyar Vagabzade “made public statements on the Internet, inciting ethnic hatred”. It is worth recalling that the latter did it in response to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s earlier statement concerning Azerbaijan and its leadership. In other words, the Russian side has in fact charged Isfandiyar Vagabzade with inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred. That offense is covered by article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code which provides for punishment upon conviction in the form of imprisonment for two to five years. In the case of Vagabzade, it has been decided to introduce a 50-year ban on his entry into Russia, since he has been and still is a foreign national. And it is unlikely that much good will come from seeking his extradiction from Azerbaijan to the Russian Federation.
Here’s another story: “A Moscow court has jailed a popular stand-up comic for inciting hatred in a joke it ruled to be denigrating to ethnic Russians, media reported Monday. Idrak Mirzalizade, who is Azerbaijani but holds a Belarusian passport, made the offending joke on a popular YouTube show this spring, where he told a story about non-Slavs facing discrimination when trying to rent apartments in Moscow” (‘Popular Standup Comic Jailed for Insulting Russians – Reports’).
The message is therefore clear: from the perspective of Russia’s authorities, derogatory statements by ethnic Russians with regard to the people of the Central Asian or Buryat, Kalmyk, Yakut origin and the ones of their kind are not at all an offense under the law, whereas similar verbal acts by non-Russians with regard to ethnic Russians should be seriously punished by law. And they now seem to be seeking to impose their own way of looking at things in this regard on Kazakhstan.
*Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst