Kazakhstan: Independent Kazakh YouTube Bloggers Inflict Crushing Defeat On Mme Balayeva’s Information Ministry – OpEd


Newsweek, in a piece, entitled “Russia’s Saber-Rattling Against Neighbor Risks Drawing China’s Ire”, quoted Kate Mallinson, an associate fellow at Chatham House, as saying: “The bellicose rhetoric has led to the perceived risk of a Russian invasion into Kazakhstan’s northern territories… The risk of an invasion into northern Kazakhstan, where most of the population is Russian, remains a likelihood. But, in our view, [it] is mitigated by the new alignment between China and Russia and China’s leverage over its vassal state partner, Russia. It is also unlikely while Russia is still on the offensive in Ukraine”.

This point of view on the prospects for the development of the situation in Russian-Kazakh relations seems to be shared by the author of the above-mentioned article, Aadil Barr. In justifying that way of seeing things, he refers to the following circumstances: “Kazakhstan’s ambivalent position on the Ukraine war has since turned the pro-war commentators against Astana. Dmitry Steshin, a journalist with the pro-Kremlin media outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda, compared the demographic situation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan in April 2023, suggesting that Moscow has a “historical right” to the northern regions of the Central Asian country”.

Statements like the one made by Dmitry Steshin, are regularly being heard in Russia. But does this mean that, as Kate Mallinson claimed, ‘the risk of an invasion into northern Kazakhstan, where most of the population is Russian, remains a likelihood’? Well, forming the answer to this question depends on how one judge things related to it. 

First, an argument by Kate Mallinson about ‘northern Kazakhstan, where most of the population is Russian’ does not hold true anymore. In none of the four provinces of Northern Kazakhstan do Russians make up half or more of the population. Ethnic Kazakhs constitute an absolute majority in two of them, in Pavlodar and Akmola provinces, and a relative majority in one, Kostanay province. Only in the North Kazakhstan province do Russians make up a relative majority, which, however, is being rapidly lost.

Second, it is quite conceivable that Northern Kazakhstan on its own has been and still is of little interest to Russia. The region can be compared with neither the Donbas which used to be the heart of Ukraine’s industrial economy, nor the Crimean Peninsula on which the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based. In the event of its annexation by Moscow, the Russian Federation would get another depressed and donation-dependent region with a shrinking and aging ethnic Russian (Slavic, European) population, which, besides that, does not already form a majority.

Of course, now, based on the experience of the last two years, one can expect anything from the Russian Federation. So by and large, nothing can be ruled out. Yet common sense suggests that the odds of Russia attempting to ‘invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan’ in the foreseeable future are quite low.

When talking about Kazakhstan, Russian policymakers and decision-makers and, at their suggestion, pro-Kremlin propagandists seem to be seriously concerned not so much about the situation of Russians in the northern part of this Central Asian country, but about President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev starting to rapidly lose his base of support within the Kazakh population. In recent weeks with the water flooding several areas in Kazakhstan, he has heard, judging by the comments on social media and in forums, as much negativity in his address, as his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, probably had not heard even in his 30-year-long tenure. Against this background, some Kazakhs demand that he step down. Here and here are just some pieces of evidence of it.

Russian political strategists and propagandists who until recently were building him an image of a pro-European politician who mends fences with the West to the detriment of Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia have set aside their ‘masks’ and started to speak quite differently. Their new narrative may be summarized as follows: the West is trying to remove the current President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to block the possibility of parallel imports for Russia. Some of those Russian political strategists and propagandists go even further and claim that “Tokayev is a product of Moscow” and “The fact that Kazakhstan, at the very least, helps Russia bypass sanctions is, I repeat, not the country’s State policy, but Tokayev’s personal merit. If he leaves, all this will be over”.

In other words, there comes an understanding in Russia that the Kremlin propagandists’ ability to manipulate public opinion in Kazakhstan has declined dramatically,  and they have to reckon with the need to alter their rhetoric regarding the Central Asian nation. This change seemingly puts not only the Russian side but also official Astana in quite a pickle. Here there is a need to provide some necessary clarifications.

The current Russophonic Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, replaced Nursultan Nazarbayev as Kazakhstan’s leader in March 2019. Nursultan Nazarbayev, in his own words said in March 2019, was always thinking about the future and trying to train and prepare a new generation of politicians to replace him. “And here is the conclusion I came to. And [I am sure that] this conclusion is right. So let’s elect Tokayev as the [next] president, and we will be supporting him [for the good of Kazakhstan]”, he then said. Judging by what foreign media wrote (Putin “supported Tokayev’s rise to power”), Nazarbayev’s decision about nominating and electing Tokayev as the [next] president seems to have been previously negotiated and agreed with the leadership of Russia. One can suggest that in this case, platforms for the agreement were that each side could get what they most value: for the Kremlin, it was the rise of the most Russophile Kazakh politician as the [next] president in Kazakhstan; for Nursultan Nazarbayev, preserving the Senior zhuz elite’s monopoly on power in his country.

Then it was probably supposed that the Kremlin, taking advantage of the Russian TV’s and the internet resources’ unchallenged dominance in the Kazakhstani information field, would help create Tokayev the image of a Kazakhophile leader in the eyes of his ethnic Kazakh co-citizens. The Russian political strategists and media, as far as can be judged, still are trying to work towards that end. But that activity by them now appears to be efficient only concerning foreign observers and authors and seemingly has little or no impact on the opinion of the ethnic Kazakh public. And here are the prooves.

Eurasianet’s Justin Burke, in an article entitled “Kazakh president uses language to deliver a surprising message to Russia: Russian officials unprepared to hear Kazakh”, said: “At the customary, post-meeting press conference [along with Putin], Tokayev said little that was new, yet his delivery marked a notable departure from the past. He opened his remarks in Kazakh, not Russian”. And the VOANews’ Navbahor Imamova, in a report entitled “Newly Assertive Central Asia Rejects ‘Russia’s Backyard’ Label”, said: “Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev bewildered Vladimir Putin and his entourage when, during a November 9 briefing in the Kazakh capital, he addressed the visiting Russian president in his native tongue”.

The situation appears quite different if you look at it from a Kazakh perspective. 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 an open mouth’, and even ‘President Tokayev sees the situation in his country through the eyes of Russian propaganda media’. Therefore, it is not surprising that the above case when viewed from Kazakhstan, might look like a ‘performance’ staged by the Kazakh authorities – on the advice of the political strategists and in agreement with their Russian counterparts – ‘to prove’ the Kazakh leader’s Kazakhophileness. It brought a lot of comments from the Russian media and Russian political experts giving the impression of Tokayev as a Kazakhophile leader.

Meanwhile, this event did not attract much attention in the Kazakhstani media. This suggests that the Russian media’s influence on the shaping of public opinion in Kazakhstan, at least, among ethnic Kazakhs has been drastically curtailed.

The difference between the Nazarbayev administration and the Tokayev administration, when it comes to working with public opinion and media resources, is that the former was always trying to keep the Kazakh public thought under the ideological control of the State with the help of the concepts and ideologemes, based on the unifying ideas, while the latter has given that up, entirely relying in this regard, in all likelihood, on what the influential Russian internet edition Lenta.ru described as follows: “Kazakhstan absolutely does not control more than half of the television network and almost the entire book market, not to mention the Internet. The information environment [in the Central Asian country] now is quite friendly to the authorities of Kazakhstan solely thanks to the support of Moscow, which protects the republican elites”. But now since the Kazakh public thought’s representatives have gone, so to speak, into free swimming, it is them who are becoming the leaders of thought in the Kazakh, or the Kazakh-speaking public space. 

In this situation, the Russian media may be affecting the information environment in Kazakhstan with benefits for official Astana only at the minimum level. They still, as once Rakhat Aliyev, former son-in-law of the first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, said, can cause considerable instability in Kazakhstan, exerting a destructive impact on public opinion. However, their capacity to keep the information environment in Kazakhstan quite friendly, as once Lenta.ru noted, to the Kazakh authorities, even if that were the case, is anyway no longer a reality. Of all the forms of media, the video channels on YouTube and other social media platforms, that broadcast in Kazakh, now are indisputably the most popular in Kazakh society, particularly of course in the Kazakh-speaking community. It is them who are now opinion leaders in Kazakhstan.

On YouTube and other social media platforms, there aren’t any topics on Kazakhstani life on which it would be impossible to hold conversations or discussions. The Nazarbayev administration at one time seriously feared the influence of social networks on Kazakh social thought. It now appears it wasn’t for nothing. So, the Internet, along with social media, and blogs, has become Kazakhstan’s just only territory of unlimited free speech.

The recent sharp rise in popularity of blogs and social networks amid severe flooding in several areas in Kazakhstan has provided an impetus for serious consideration of what has been happening lately in the Kazakh information field.  A number of the Kazakh bloggers who have been covering those events and publishing their videos on platforms like Telegram, TikTok, and YouTube,  have been not only the main newsmakers but also the obvious and indisputable leaders of public opinion throughout the period from late March through the first ten days of April.

The Kazakh state and pro-government media outlets, which are contracted by the State through the Ministry of Culture and Information headed by Mme Aida Balayeva to promote State information policy at the Republic and local levels have then been hardly noticeable for much of the general public. Those days, there has been plenty of criticism leveled at the Kazakh President and his administration. The gravity of the situation is such that there has been talk that Kasym-Jomart Tokayev is suffering a PR defeat. If this is the case, then the speech should go specifically to the failure of State information policy, it should also go about the independent Kazakh bloggers having inflicted a crushing defeat on Mme Balayeva’s Culture and Information Ministry.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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