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The West Got Used To Seeing Kazakhstan Through Russian Eyes – OpEd

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In light of recent developments in the Republic of Kazakhstan, there have been many articles and reports in the newspapers, radio and TV around the globe which have begun with the words “The protests and subsequent violence in this Central Asian country came as a surprise”, or “Kazakhstan unrest surprised everyone, even Russia”. Well, there has to be an explanation. And it seems to be self-evident: the public abroad, and even in Russia, know little about Kazakhstan and experience a distinct lack of objective information about the social and political processes in that nation. All over the world, the news stories that constitute information products concerning Kazakhstan, continues being prepared on the basis of stereotyped Russian tradition of seeing Kazakhstan and Kazakhs. 

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Many things have changed in the last thirty years on Kazakh soil. At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was the only one of the constituent republics where the titular ethnicity was a minority. A situation, whereby the constitutionally sovereign Soviet socialist state (in the case of the Kazakh SSR) was a Russian (European) entity in its core areas, lasted for decades. The famine of 1932-1933 rendered Kazakhs a minority within Kazakhstan, and only after the republic gained independence in 1991 did Kazakhs recover a demographic majority within their own country.  As a result, it ceased to be a predominantly Russian (European) state entity. Now Kazakhs constitute the majority of the population almost everywhere in Kazakhstan. This nation isn’t what it was. 

Therefore the vision for it would seem to have to be changed to match circumstances prevailing in the country. Yet the Russian political, intellectual and media elites, apparently, have got a completely different opinion on this matter. As one might suppose, they along with propagandists and followers of the ‘Russian world’ want everything, concerning their vision for Kazakhstan and Kazakhs, to remain as it was in the Soviet period.

This is what comes of sticking to such a policy. With respect to the task of understanding the evolving specifics of Kazakhstan and its indigenous population, Moscow and its self-appointed experts on Kazakhs and their country are still largely guided by the rule they themselves have established, which may be described as follows: “They can only be what we want them to be”. For instance, Russian Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of the eminent Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, known for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany, comparatively not long ago called Kazakhstan’s territory ‘a great gift from Russia’. Then Evgeny Fyodorov, yet another State Duma deputy and a member of the Central Political Council of ruling United Russia party, more clearly articulated what is meant by ‘a great gift from Russia’. He called the titular ethnic group of Kazakhstan, the Kazakhs, ‘nitshebrody’ (‘vagrants and beggars’, ‘trash’, ‘homeless people who beg for alms’) who do not have the right to their own land. 

Literally, Evgeny Fyodorov said: “Take the Kazakh Constitution off from the territory of Kazakhstan and Kazakh laws from the territory of Kazakhstan!.. What I’m talking about now is a direct territory claim. A direct, distinct territory claim”.  

After what had recently happened in Kazakhstan, prominent opinion leaders from among the Russian MPs and media celebrities began to even more arrogantly speak out about the Kazakhs and to even more deliberately cast doubt on them having the rights to their own State and their own land. Biisultan Khamzaev, a member of the State Duma Committee on security and anti-corruption, spoke in favor of holding a referendum on ‘the reunification of Kazakhstan with the historical homeland – Russia’. “Central Asia is Russian land! There are discussions on the internet about the possible reunification of Kazakhstan with Russia […] I support the holding of a referendum in Kazakhstan on reunification with its historical homeland – Russia”, – he wrote in his Facebook account.

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Vladimir Zhirinovky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (that received 13.14% of the vote in the 2021 elections), said that from now on, ‘Kazakhstan should be headed by an ethnic Russian [president]’, as the Kazakhs ‘do not have their own territory’ and ‘they have no experience in State building’.

And here’s how Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper known for its critical coverage of President Vladimir Putin’s government, described comments on the subject by the boss of the Kremlin’s main weapon in an information war with the West: “RT’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan came out with a colonialist and racist statement of the type we have come to expect from her. “Of course, we should help. We should definitely help. But some conditions must be set: Recognize Crimea as Russian; Return to using the Cyrillic alphabet; Make Russian the second state language, as it is in Kyrgyzstan; Leave Russian schools alone and not lie to the boss; Drive out anti-Russian NGOs; and Institute a coherent fraternal domestic policy that excludes games with the Nazis”.

For those who do not speak the language of Russian propagandists, ‘the boss’ here means Putin, while ‘the Nazis’ likely refer to Ukraine”.

Tens of millions of voters, readers, listeners, and viewers all over Russia stand behind those Russian MPs like Nikonov, Fyodorov, Khamzaev and Zhirinovky and media bosses like Simonyan. Their comments on the subject have been and are being crucial in shaping the contours of Russia’s public opinion on Kazakhstan and Kazakhs. The situation is compounded by the fact that in recent years Central Asian issues have become more and more pressing for the Russian Federation due to a new Great Game unfolding in the region. In the context of this development, Kazakhstan has been gaining importance and much attention in many countries. Yet nothing changes in Russia with regard to the need to develop a better understanding of internal political and social processes in Kazakhstan. From early this year, there’s been a great lot of talk about the Central Asian country in Russia. There’s been an enormous variety of comments and opinions offered by a huge variety of politicians, public figures and bloggers posing as big experts on knowing this nation and its people.

Hardly anybody from among experts and journalists in Russia 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. 

In Russia, there are no such widely qualified experts on Kazakhstan, since Moscow has not yet seen the need for having them. 

Therefore, Russian authors addressing the Kazakh topic generally have no other choice, but to seek basic knowledge and information on Kazakh issues from people like Zhirinovsky, who once lived in Kazakhstan and remains always ready to stuff his co-citizens’ minds with racial and cultural prejudices towards its indigenous population. 

The pieces by the latter ones, in turn, become the primary sources on Kazakhs and their country for Western journalists and writers (and not only for them), as it seems like even those of them, who are now permanently based in Almaty or Nursultan, tend to see what was and is happening in the Central Asian country through Russian eyes. 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 have been many publications presumably inspired by the traditional Russian Zhirinovsky-style vision of Kazakhs and their country and focused on portraying a negative image of them.

It is quite possible that this situation has developed simply on the basis that the ethnic Kazakhs have consistently been reluctant to have frank conversations with Western journalists, making no difference between them – speaking Russian and looking like Russians – and their Russian counterparts.

*Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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