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Will Kazakhstan Become Russia’s ‘Next Ukraine’? – Analysis

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Until now, that issue has been repeatedly and publicly addressed in Russia, but not in Kazakhstan itself. Here is just one instance of this.  

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Pravda.ru, which is privately owned and has international editions published in Russian, English, French and Portuguese, raises the issue of whether Kazakhstan will become Russia’s ‘next Ukraine’. And right away, the Russian newspaper itself provides the following answer to it: “Russian President Vladimir Putin has strictly defined for all regimes of the post-Soviet space the framework of loyalty (i.e. the limits beyond which they have not to go) – the local authorities should not be externally controlled and they are not allowed to oppress the [ethnic] Russians. What is happening now in Ukraine is the outcome of the [political] developments that have been unfolded for some 30 years, during which time the United States have made a puppet and an ‘anti-Russia’ project out of the country, with reliance on radical nationalism. This has led Ukraine to collapse, it will move into a new status quo, and it will no longer be allowed to be anti-Russian. Today Russia shows how it will act to ensure its security. A period of time when it has been weakened is over. Kazakhstan needs to understand that flirting with nationalism results in what we all see in the case of Ukraine”.   

The war in Ukraine is getting increasingly vicious. Many Ukrainian cities and towns already lie in ruins. About 10 million Ukrainians – more than the entire population of Hungary, a neighboring country, – are internally displaced or living abroad as refugees. So it turns out, one in four of Ukraine’s inhabitants have been forced to flee their homes and/or even country in fear for their life. The military crisis in East Europe has deteriorated and has become a real threat to international peace and security, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, nobody is able to predict how long this may continue. Peace talks between the warring parties have not as of yet been successful, as they failed to find a basis for consensus. The question of the territory is the most difficult. Based on the existing situation, Russia is laying claim to about a third of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine unreservedly rejects any recognition of Russian control over its territories and keeps insisting on retaining sovereignty over these areas. So there is little hope for a lasting resolution of the conflict there. 

Another thing of note in this regard is that the Russian negotiating team is led by presidential adviser Vladimir Medinsky. He is the one who when speaking at the discussion held at the Federation Council of the Russian Parliament on 30 March 2021, invited its participants ‘to start thinking about how Great Russia’s lands ended up in the territory of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and even Belarus’. Three days later, on 2 April 2021, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, commenting on Medinsky’s speech, said: “There is no such issue on the [Kremlin] agenda. It’s about scientific research”. It now appears that those words by Mr.Medinsky had nothing to do with Russian [academic] science. They have proved to be just the prelude to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

In retrospect, it is clear that at the time Vladimir Medinsky should have been considered the more direct of the two, whereas Dmitry Peskov’s talk was apparently just a smoke screen to not prematurely scare the likes of Ukraine off. Anyway, it is already evident that the current Russian leadership is embarking on a kind of expansionist project developed according to what had been put forward by Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a 1990 essay titled ‘Rebuilding Russia’. With the way things are proceeding right now in Ukraine, one may arrive at the conclusion that Putin indeed has made a start in the task of implementing some of the famous Russian writer’s ideas on the ‘gathering of the Russian lands’ and on the ‘creating of a Russian Union encompassing Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan’. The question now is who will be next. This brings to mind the words said by Peter Eltsov, a Washington based political analyst, back in 2015. Here they are: “Today, with the world’s attention focused on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, we might look to Solzhenitsyn’s writings for a clue as to where Putin’s next aggressive move might be: Kazakhstan.  Solzhenitsyn saw Kazakhstan in the same light as Ukraine, suggesting that it was not really a separate state and that much of its territory is historically Russian”. One might think that these are the words said about the things that are happening just now. With regard to what would happen subsequently, Peter Eltsov then said the following: “Concerned with Russia’s neo-imperialist policies conducted under the pretext of defending the Russkii Mir (the Russian World), the Kazakhs may eventually turn away from Russia, particularly when the era of Nazarbaev ends. No doubt this will have political consequences, possibly involving a military conflict similar to what is happening in Ukraine”. Now, that time has come and the Kazakhs are beginning to experience the effects of those changes anticipated by the American political analyst.

After Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned from the presidency in March, 2019, the then Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, became acting president and won a full term in a snap election in June of that year. During the first 18 months following the start of his presidency, there was seemingly no significant change in bilateral relations between the two countries, Russia and Kazakhstan. However, in December 2020, their relationship began entering a difficult period. Back then, 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’. Those proved to be the first salvos in what was described by the Turkish-language press as ‘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. What was clear was 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 neighboring country was attributed by those Russian politicians, experts and journalists to its government. Some of them went so far as to say that ‘there are Nazi accomplices in the government of Kazakhstan’ and to describe Kazakh minister of education and science Askhat Aimagambetov as ‘a well-known Nazi accomplice’. Yet these verbal attacks, as far as we know, had not raised any protest from Nur-Sultan. Well, now almost everybody in Kazakhstan, let alone Ukraine, is well aware of how risky it can be to let the Russians describe the country’s some official as ‘a Nazi accomplice’. While silence is golden in many cases, in that case it is not. What is now happening to Ukraine is a vivid example of how such name-calling might end up. Especially as the verbal attacks on Kazakhstan by the Russian side are still ongoing, with no end in sight.

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Thus recently, even Rosbalt.ru, an independent media outlet that had been labeled a foreign agent by the Russian government, criticized official Nur-Sultan’s tolerance for Kazakh nationalists.

Are there Kazakh nationalists in Kazakhstan and, say, Kyrgyz nationalists in Kyrgyzstan? Probably, they are there, just as in the Russian Federation (and not only there), there certainly are a lot of ethnic Russians, who are used to call Kyrgyz and Kazakhs (as well as Buryats, Kalmyks, Yakuts and other Russian citizens of East Asian appearance) ‘churkas’ (‘subhumans’). Yet what now are the relations of Kazakhstan’s titular ethnicity with Russians and other Slavs, who live in the country, after what happened during the Soviet period, and in the light of what has been taking place in recent years? It is practically difficult, if not impossible, to give a comprehensive and thorough answer to the question in a few words. That’s a subject which would require separate consideration. But one thing is certain that relations between Kazakhs and Europeans in Kazakhstan are now developing much more harmoniously than those between ethnic Russians and ethnic minorities of [East] Asian origin in the Russian Federation.

However, Russia continues subjecting Kazakhstan to all kinds of information attack, accusing its authorities of supporting the Kazakh nationalists.

In 2015, Vyacheslav Morozov, a professor and political scientist at the University of Tartu, said when and under what conditions Russia could implement a policy of territorial expansion into Kazakhstan. 

Here is his forecast: “As long as… open provocations (for example, outright attacks on ethnic Russians by radical nationalists) can be avoided, the Kremlin will not be able to quickly use the concept of a “Russian world” to justify intervention… Even if Moscow decides to use the slogan of protecting “compatriots”, it will have to ensure the mobilization of Russian public opinion against Kazakhstan first. Before launching a massive propaganda campaign, there will be a need to provide the necessary prerequisites for it”.

Those conditions are already there. Only a matter of time seems to remain unresolved. The question is: what’s next?

*Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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