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Ukraine War Sparks Suspicion Over Russia’s Designs On Kazakhstan – Analysis

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By Bruce Pannier*

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(FPRI) — For all its years of independence, Kazakhstan has worried about Russian irredentist dreams of Kazakh territory. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such concerns seem well-founded. They have heard such threats coming from Russian officials and some Russians in Kazakhstan for all the years that Kazakhstan has been independent.

On March 26, 2022, Sergei Savostyanov, a deputy in the Moscow City Duma (Council), released a statement supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as necessary to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. Savostyanov said Russia should further ensure its security by taking similar measures in the Baltic states, Poland, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. Some would consider Savostyanov’s comments ludicrous, but Kazakh officials take such remarks seriously since Russian designs on Kazakhstan have been repeated for 30 years.

In a May 1992 interview with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, addressed comments from a congress of Russian people’s deputies in Moscow that Kazakhstan’s Guryev Province (now called Atyrau) and Tselinograd Province (now called Akmola) were “ancient Russian territories.” Nazarbayev said, “Any border claims on Kazakhstan, and indeed any other (former Soviet) republic mean inevitable bloodshed.” Nazarbayev added that he would never allow any part of Kazakhstan’s territory to be “removed.”

He also noted, “In Kazakhstan 35 percent of the population is Russian and 40 percent is Kazakh.” Nazarbayev did not mention that most of that Russian population lived in northern areas of the country and at that time represented the majority there.

With a new constitution being drawn up in 1992, the debate on the state language polarized small sections of the Russian and Kazakh populations of Kazakhstan. The Russian side wanted Russian language to have official status, while the more nationalist elements among the ethnic Kazakh population found it demeaning that any other language besides Kazakh would have such status.

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A group in Kazakhstan called the Slavic Movement spoke out in February 1992 about a “purposeful state policy of ousting the Russian-speaking population from the republic’s territory” and called for ethnic Russians to be the heads of administrations in areas that were predominantly populated by Russians.

Calls for Kazakh Territory to Join Russia

Throughout the 1990s, there were Russian and Cossack groups in Kazakhstan who called for areas in northern Kazakhstan to join Russia. Boris Suprunyuk from the northeastern Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk was the leader of one such group, the Congress of Russian Community, and he was the chief editor of the independent newspaper Glas. Suprunyuk pushed ethnic Russian demands for greater rights and autonomy.

He was charged in 1993 with violating Article 60 of the criminal code, “intentional public dissemination of opinions and ideas undermining confidence in and respect for Kazakh people and stirring ethnic discord.” Suprunyuk ignored the initial summons and was finally arrested in April 1994. He was found guilty in September that year and sentenced to two years in prison, but the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan and the Russian Duma issued a series of statements asking for access to Suprunyuk and accusing Kazakh authorities of violating the Treaty of Friendship. Suprunyuk was found guilty in September 1994 and given a two-year suspended prison sentence, but a different court overruled that sentence in November and dismissed the case.

Russia also pressured Kazakhstan when Fedor Cherepanov, the ataman of the East Kazakhstan Province Cossacks, was kidnapped in October 1994. Cherepanov was calling for either greater autonomy for East Kazakhstan or its incorporation into Russia. Russia urged Kazakh authorities to find and free Cherepanov.[1] He later reappeared, claiming to have escaped his captors (though there are reports the Kazakh government paid a ransom for his release), and left for Russia before year’s end.

Nikolai Gunkin, the ataman of the Semirechye Cossacks, was arrested in late October 1995 as he attempted to register as a political candidate in the December parliamentary elections. Gunkin was charged with organizing an unsanctioned meeting, which “Gunkin described as a religious procession,” but Kazakh authorities said was a meeting of Russian nationalists. The Union of Russian Cossacks issued a statement calling for Gunkin’s immediate release. The Russian Ministry for Nationalities Affairs and Regional Policy said Gunkin’s arrest was an “attempt to hold elections to the Kazakh parliament (scheduled for December 9) without considering the interests of Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking population.” Then, the Russian Duma adopted a resolution of support for Gunkin that voiced concerns about the “violations of rights and freedoms of both ethnic Russians and Russian citizens in Kazakhstan.”  Gunkin was released after three months and in February 1996 was accusing Kazakh authorities of implementing a policy of “genocide against ethnic Russians.”

On April 23, 1996, Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article by Nobel Prize-winning writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he argued that parts of Kazakhstan naturally and historically belonged to Russia. Kazakh authorities banned the newspaper after that, and members of the Kazakhstani Writers’ Union filed a suit against the paper, saying the article was an infringement on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan.

In early 1997, Russia approved the use of Cossack formations to help guard the country’s border with Kazakhstan. Beksultan Sarsekov, the secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, criticized the move saying it violated the Kazakh-Russian border agreements and pointing out that Russia was providing these Cossacks with uniforms and weapons.

Then, in November 1999, Kazakhstan’s security service arrested 22 people in the northeastern city of Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk) who were plotting a coup. The group called itself “Rus,” and it was led by Viktor Kazimirchuk, who called himself Viktor “Pugachev,” after the 18th century Cossack leader who led a revolt against Catherine II. The group intended to seize the administration of Oskemen, declare it Russian territory, and appeal to Moscow to declare it a part of Russia.

It was an amateurish attempt that a newspaper in Omsk, Russia, had been reporting on before the group was arrested. When members of the group were detained, they had only a few weapons, mostly hunting rifles. But their intent was more than enough for Kazakh authorities, who rejected requests from the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan to hire lawyers for the accused and from Russia’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and CIS Affairs to repatriate Kazimirchuk. Kazimirchuk was sentenced to 18 years in prison, and the other members of his group received prison sentences ranging from three to 17 years. Kazimirchuk was released in 2006 and moved to Russia the following year.

In December 2007, he gave an interview to the Russian website zavtra.ru, claiming there was discrimination against Russians and Russian-speakers in East Kazakhstan Province. In remarks that seem chilling in hindsight, Kazimirchuk said, “The opinion of everyone was that we did not have anything in common with Kazakhstan, that this was Russian territory, and that the situation was like that, say, in the Pridnestr [Transdneister], or in Crimea, which up until now is located in Ukraine.”

Renewed Calls for Kazakh Integration into Russia

Kazakhstan’s parliament voted in 1994 to move the capital from Almaty to Akmola (later called Astana, now called Nur-Sultan), and the transfer was finally completed in December 1997. In between, Kazakh officials fended off many questions about the reason for moving the capital from scenic mountains in the southeast to the windswept steppe of the north. They repeatedly denied it was a response to those in northern Kazakhstan who were calling for unification with Russia, but many suspected, and still suspect today, that this was the primary motive. In a November 1996 speech, President Nazarbayev denied this was the reason, but he remarked that his country reacted to calls, such as “Kazakhstan into Russia” and “Cossack lands to Cossacks,” the same way that Russians would react to “Sakhalin and Kurile islands to Japan.”

The demographic in Kazakhstan has changed over the last 30 years, and ethnic Kazakhs are now more than 63 percent of the population and efforts by authorities to convince ethnic Kazakhs to move into northern areas of the country have also altered the demographics in these regions.

The ordeal with Kazimirchuk and his Rus group marked the end of open calls for unification with Russia from Russian groups inside Kazakhstan, and comments about such things from Russian officials in Russia were less frequent.

On August 29, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin said President Nazarbayev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state,” and reiterated, “Kazakhs never had any statehood, he (Nazarbayev) has created it.” Putin made that statement less than six months after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, which re-opened the door in Russia for comments about part or all of Kazakhstan belonging to Russia.

Moscow City Duma Deputy Savostyanov is a member the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Earlier in March, a video made in January was posted showing the leader of the party, Gennady Zyuganov, saying that northern Kazakhstan was historically Russian territory and that Russia needed to “protect the Russian-speaking population against the “national arbitrariness that is happening in Kazakhstan.” Zyuganov also said Russia should take control of the Baikonur cosmodrome, military testing grounds in Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan’s uranium industry. The uranium industry is a particularly bold demand. Kazakhstan’s uranium production was minimal when the Soviet Union collapsed, but since 2009, Kazakhstan has been the world’s leading producer and exporter of uranium.

On December 10, 2020, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Russian Duma deputy and head of its Education and Science Committee, said on a Russian television program that when the Soviet Union formed in 1917, “Kazakhstan simply did not exist as a country, its northern territories were basically uninhabited.” The following day, an activist from Russia’s Patriot movement hung a banner that read “Northern Kazakhstan is Russian Land” on the gate of the Kazakh embassy in Moscow.

On December 13, 2020, another Duma deputy, Yevgeny Fedorov, told the BELARUSINFO program that the Belavezha Accords that dissolved the Soviet Union were illegal and Kazakhstan was effectively “leasing” Russian land.

Ukraine War Intensifies Kazakh Concerns

The worries about Russian designs on Kazakhstan appear to be growing. On March 28, Kazakh Deputy Prosecutor General Bulat Dembayev warned citizens to be careful what they posted about the “conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine” on social networks. “Some users of social networks, including from among the citizens of Kazakhstan, publicly commenting on the ongoing events, post separatist calls regarding the integrity of the territory of our country,” and Dembayev reminded them, “Deliberate actions aimed at inciting ethnic hatred, public calls to violate the integrity of Kazakhstan” are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

On March 10, Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi responded to Zyuganov’s video by pointing out that it was two months old, that Zyuganov was the leader of an opposition party, and that opposition parties often “express an opinion that differs or even contradicts the official position of authorities.” Tleuberdi said Kazakhstan would not file a formal complaint over Zyuganov’s video.

On March 29, Tleuberdi said that he would not respond to Savostyanov’s statement about denazifying Kazakhstan, either. Tleuberdi asked, “I, as minister, will answer to (Moscow city) deputy Savostyanov?” Tleuberdi can downplay the significance of these comments, but it is troubling that Russian officials continue to make them. And even more so since there has been no effort from Putin or any other Russian official to put an end to it.

When Russian State Duma Deputy Mikhail Delyagin blamed Azerbaijan for violating the ceasefire in the Karabakh region on March 27, he made the outrageous suggestion that Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Azerbaijan’s oil industry. On March 29, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Delyagin’s statement “in no way corresponds and cannot correspond to the official line of the Russian Federation” and called on Delyagin to “control his emotions and refrain from making such statements, more over in regard to our partners, and Azerbaijan belongs in the category of partner-states.”

Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s partner-states, but no Russian official is being rebuked for making comments about taking Kazakh territory.

[1] Aleksandrov, Mikhail, Uneasy Alliance: Relations Between Kazakhstan and Russia in the Post-Soviet Era, 1992-1997 (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 120.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

*About the author: Bruce Pannier is a longtime journalist and correspondent covering Central Asia. He currently writes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s blog, Qishloq Ovozi, and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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