The year comes to an end. It, even according to Russian media, has turned out to be quite ‘rich’ in a variety of incorrect statements by representatives of the Russian Federation regarding Kazakhstan. It feels like what happened just a year ago is repeating on Kazakhstan again.
In the second half of last year, Russia was subjecting, through its media forces, Kazakhstan to all kinds of information attack – ranging from threats disguised as persuasion to outright threats of interference in its internal affairs – unless the Central Asian nation agrees to abandon its pro-Western foreign policy and support for the Kazakh nationalists. That campaign reached a crescendo in December 2021.
It is now December 2022. A situation of déjà vu develops around Kazakhstan. This time, the only difference is that threats that accompany them appear, in the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, to be so much more convincing.
A new spin of whipping up passions about Kazakhstan’s becoming a problem for Moscow was put by Dmitry Drobnitsky, a political analyst who recently appeared on one of Russia’s most popular political talk shows, ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’, on the state-run TV channel Rossiya. “Let’s note that the next problem [after Ukraine] is Kazakhstan because the same Nazi processes that were happening in Ukraine could begin there”, he warned, invoking the Kremlin narrative that Ukraine has a Nazi government. In Kazakhstan ‘there are also many Russians’, Drobnitsky said, pushing the audience into thinking that they supposedly could be the targets of prejudice. The show host, Vladimir Solovyov thoughtfully agreed with the speaker, saying that ‘we have the longest border with Kazakhstan’, and yes, there are ‘a lot of Russians’. It should be noted that this is not the first such incident. If to speak in essence, millions of common ethnic Kazakhs in the country were already irritable and fatigued by endless tirades from Russia about alleged ‘xenophobia against Russians’, the notion that ‘Kazakh territory historically belongs to Russia’, and now ‘Nazism in Kazakhstan’.
So it is not surprising that there was a strong backlash from the Kazakhstani side. The Kremlin responded to this in a rather strange way. Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told the Astana television channel Khabar 24 that he had not watched Vladimir Solovyov’s show program and did not know who Dmitry Drobnitsky was. “Political analysts like him in no way reflect the Kremlin’s official position. And you should keep that in mind – there is no need for you to listen to them or watch them”, Peskov said.
That is roughly what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on the same Astana television channel Khabar 24 while commenting on Russian ambassador Alexei Borodavkin’s media statement about ‘the radical nationalist tendencies’ in Kazakhstan and the need for the Kazakh President ‘to carry out tough measures to curb these tendencies’. Some Kazakhstani observers felt that it was about the Kremlin’s official position voiced by Alexei Borodavkin. Being aware of this, Russian Foreign Minister made it clear that in this context, one should not focus on the words by anyone, except the Kremlin master. Sergey Lavrov said in particular that “relations between our countries are to be determined by Presidents [Putin and Tokayev], and only by them”.
It would seem that the rules of the game have been defined. This does not, however, stop some other members of the Russian political, intellectual and media elites from giving full vent to their imperial instincts and talking about Kazakhstan whatever they want. According to Peskov, ‘there are different people, and there are different points of view’. This is, as noted by Vladimir Solovyov, ‘in order with our vision of freedom of speech’. “He [Dmitry Drobnitsky] is not a civil servant. Dmitry has his own vision [regarding Kazakhstan] – whether anybody likes it or not”, the talk show host said. In simple terms, it all (those two people’s words) means, “Our opinion makers used to say and they will say about Kazakhstan whatever they want. You just have to put up with any of this and stay quiet”. It would be not bad, should it have been sufficient to prevent the country from further problems. But it seems not.
Everything points to Moscow’s preparation for a new aggression – this time, against Kazakhstan, Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian television journalist and a former member of the Russian State Duma, warned. “They [Putin’s propagandists] live in ignorance of the reality, it is hostile to them. They have their own world, where the ‘invasion of Kazakhstan’ and ‘taking Astana in three days’ is ripening. Let me remind you that not a single propagandist ever speaks out without clear instructions from the presidential administration and without approval by it. So this is not a fantasy of a single idiot, but quite specific plans”, he said. Below is one of those statements Alexander Nevzorov has in mind.
Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, said, “With friends like it [Kazakhstan], one doesn’t need any enemies. We in the Urals and Siberia begin to see Kazakhstan as a second Ukraine. We just can’t do anything about it right now. What’s next depends on how the special operation in Ukraine develops”. That really says it all, doesn’t it?
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’. According to Russian political scientist Arkady Dubnov, Putin is still dreaming of Northern Kazakhstan and want to gather Abkhazia, Donbas, the North part of Kazakhstan and other territories under the auspices of Moscow.
But why should the Russian leadership long for accession of new territories to Russia while some constituent parts of Russia herself remain poorly developed and scarcely populated? Involuntarily, a historical generalization comes up here.
In 1980, Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew issued a warning that Australia was in danger of becoming the ‘white trash’ of Asia. He made those comments at the time when Australia was experiencing inflationary pressures and high unemployment. Such a blunt judgment did not remain unnoticed in the country. In 1987, Australia’s then-prime minister Bob Hawke said that Mr. Lee’s comments were ‘not an overstatement’. In 2007 Mr. Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate at the Australian National University. But by then, he admitted that he had changed his view of Australia.
When he was being asked if he still stood by his earlier sentiment, Singapore’s founding prime minister said, “There are some words sometimes that… all said in the heat of an argument, which perhaps at that time was warranted. [But] … you have changed”.
Well, Mr. Lee’s grim prognosis that the Australia could become the ‘white trash’ of Asia did not come true. Instead of it, Russia’s Primorski Krai (the Primorye Territory) seems to be becoming the one. Here, you can judge it for yourself.
In the Far Eastern Federal District, i.e. on the Pacific outskirts of the Russian Federation, the entire population is only seven million people – one person per 1 square kilometer. That negative demographic situation stands in stark contrast to accelerating ‘Easternization’ – Asia’s rise. The Russian Far East, which includes the Primorye Territory, could potentially be picked up by the rapid dynamics of East Asian development. But this is not happening yet. So Primorsky Krai and the neighboring Khabarovsk Krai, surrounded by 4 countries – China, Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taiwan – with the total volume of GDP of USD 23 trillion, have still not been picked up by a truly dizzying dynamic of East Asian economic development.
Should such a scenario play out, it would probably give Primorsky Krai the opportunity to acquire a status in Russia similar to the status of California in the United States – the most populous and economically strongest American state. But the Russians and other ethnic groups of European origin, which form the bulk of the Russian Far Eastern population, obviously find it uncomfortable to be surrounded by the highly populated Asian countries. Otherwise how we may explain the fact that the number of residents of the Primorye Territory and the Khabarovsk Territory, which have the most favorable economic environment among the subjects of the Russian Federation, grew progressively in 1959-1989 and has been steadily declining over the last thirty years? And here’s a proof: between 1989 and 2020, the population decreased from 2,258,391 to 1,895,868 in Primorsky Krai; and from 1,824,506 to 1,315,643 in Khabarovsk Krai. And this at a time, when the external borders with Asian neighbors have remained open for more than three decades. But in these seemingly favorable foreign economic circumstances, Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai continue to be subsidized regions.
There is only one way out in this situation – to activate economic cooperation with those four neighboring East Asian countries. The Kremlin seems to be encouraging it. But Moscow’s words and deeds are at variance, that is why there is no result. On paper: the Far Eastern subjects of the Russian Federation are territories of advanced development. But in reality, depopulation persists in these regions, people continue to leave there. Those who remain where they are want changes – positive changes. Moscow cannot provide them yet.
Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst