Russia may have lost most, or nearly all of its former preeminent position in shaping the outside world’s perception of the other CIS countries and all the events and processes occurring in them.
Yet such a supposition, true or not, is not relevant to Kazakhstan. The most basic information and insights about the Central Asian nation’s politics and social situations intended for a global audience have been and are being formed, in one way or another, based on the stereotyped views of those consciously or unconsciously involved in promoting Russia’s vision of Kazakhs and their country. But that is not what is actually the most important about Moscow’s power to narrate to the international public about Kazakhstan in a dominant way, or to block other narratives on this topic from forming and emerging. Of even bigger concern now is the Kremlin being taking proactive steps – through the use of a kind of curved mirror image formation method – to substantially distort the picture of the processes that take place in and around Kazakhstan in the eyes of the foreign audience. The aim here apparently is to increase the vulnerability of official Nur-Sultan to Russian pressure – up to a critical level, should the need arise – and to give the Kazakh ruling elites a clear understanding of this. All of that is a reality almost no one in the West pays any attention to as of yet. At least, outwardly it looks so.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal concerning Kazakhstan seems to lay in making another Belarus out of the Central Asian republic through drawing it into a ‘Union State’. Here it’s only about how things may develop in the event of the implementation of a soft scenario by Moscow. About other options that the Russian side can take, one can only guess. But right now is a pretty bad time for implementing any new integration initiatives designed, say, on the model of the Community of Belarus and Russia. People in Moscow are certainly well aware of it. And therefore tasks they have now set about to accomplish with regard to Kazakhstan can apparently be formulated as follows: first, to create and maintain a ‘smokescreen’ designed to hide the true state of relations between the Russian and Kazakh sides in order for Russia to be able to freely use Kazakhstan’s help in evading Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its ongoing invasion of Ukraine; and, second, to carry out diverting and deceptive propaganda maneuvers aimed at weakening the alternative Kazakh political forces’ and groups’ capacities for scaling up the competition for power in order to provide, in turn, assistance to the Kazakhstani current ruling regime.
Now let’s have a look at circumstances in which such scenario should have become a matter of necessity and how it is now being implemented. That’s where the reliable key to understanding and interpreting the situation that has been developing in the relationship between Moscow and Nur-Sultan and the Kazakh politics lay.\
Let’s start with the first of those two tasks. The Kremlin is well aware of the importance given by the American and European political circles to maintaining good relations with the current ruling regime in the Central Asian country due to its acting as a guarantor of the inviolability of the terms of contracts with the Western multinational corporations for the development of the largest hydrocarbon deposits in Kazakhstan. Therefore it seems to be appropriate for the Russian side to believe that even if something is wrong, the West wouldn’t just include Kazakhstan in the category of rogue States. And with that, perhaps, it is difficult not to agree. Otherwise, how would one explain why didn’t the West impose any sanctions on Kazakhstan after the Bloody January of 2022, as well as following the December events of 2011? After the similar 2005 Andijan uprising, the European Union and the US Congress indeed imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan. It’s about three tragic events similar to each other. As a result, sanctions were imposed on Uzbekistan, but not on Kazakhstan. How such a selective approach could be explained? The answer to that question lies on the surface. Oil and gas business is too serious a matter to be left to chance. Based on that kind of factors, Moscow would want to use Kazakhstan as, so to speak, a ‘window to the West’ for Russia. Which is fine, but it must be important for the Russian policy and decision makers to disguise and hide their intention and practice of using the Central Asian nation as such, while creating the appearance of proving, that the Kazakhs are ‘betraying their EAEU and CSTO allies’, and threatening them with some punishing measures in response to this. The Russians would have gotten away with all of this, if it wasn’t for their overly show-offy efforts carried out to that effect. As Confucianism teaches, ‘going too far is as bad as not going far enough’. In this respect the following story seems to be significant.
Beginning in early August, the Kazakh public opinion became embroiled in debate over a post from former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Vkontakte page about Kazakhstan being ‘an artificial state’. This verbal attack, although later it has been announced as being a fake, did not and still does not surprise anyone in the Central Asian country, since previously its politicians and ordinary citizens had repeatedly heard such things from the lips of Russia’s other high-ranking officials and MPs. There seems to be no point in listing all of them, when it would be enough to mention only one name – Vladimir Putin. In 2014, he ‘called into question the legitimacy of the post-Soviet state of Kazakhstan while ordering the Kazakhs to be on their best behavior when it came to serving Russian interests’. Putin specifically said: “The Kazakhs had no statehood”.
He kind of set a new standard in treating Kazakhstan and Kazakhs for the Russian political, intellectual and media elites. The model given by him took root in Moscow. Here are a couple of examples of it from the relatively recent past. Appearing on Russian state television in December 2020, Russian MP Vyacheslav Nikonov said: “Kazakhstan simply did not exist, northern Kazakhstan was not inhabited at all and today’s Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. 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 territorial claim. A direct, distinct territory claim”. By the way, Evgeny Fyodorov rightly noted that his fellow MP, Vyacheslav Nikonov, was saying nothing other than what Putin had said before.
If to follow such logic, so it would be necessary to admit, that in the above case, Dmitry Medvedev has also not been out of line. Well, except that the controversial text in the post on VK, ascribed to him, directly accuses the Kazakh authorities of genocide against [ethnic] Russians, indicates that the territory of Kazakhstan (just as well as the territory of Georgia) must be returned to Russia, and claims that Moscow is ‘getting ready to undertake the next move to restore the borders of our homeland’. Amid the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions, such wordings have been taken more than seriously by politicians and the public throughout the post-Soviet space and beyond, which apparently is why reactions to the post by Dmitry Medvedev have been so violent. In an interview given to BBC Ukrainian Service, the second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, claimed that Moldova, Kazakhstan and Georgia would be next after Ukraine to be attacked by Russia. Giga Bokeria, chairman of the European Georgia opposition party offered this opinion in that regard: “I don’t know if he was hacked or was drunk, maybe someone really hacked and wrote all that, but the point here is that everything written here is a condensed form of what Putin, Medvedev and their propaganda have been serving up regularly”.
The post in question appeared on Medvedev’s VK account on August 1 and was removed within about 9 minutes. It was sreenshotted and placed online by Russian TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. Her post immediately went viral.
On August 2, Medvedev’s aide, Oleg Osipov denied the ex-president of Russia had written the post, adding that it appeared on the account after it was hacked. On August 3, he himself made a similar statement in relation to that post. It would seem that the matter is closed. Yet the fact that the controversial text in the post on VK, ascribed to the Russian ex-president, is quite in keeping with what Russia’s political community and propaganda are often saying about Kazakhstan’s statehood, and he himself remains active in the public field like nothing happened, and the fact that screenshots of the above post were distributed by TV personality and former presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who, according to Maxim Shevchenko, a well-known independent Russian journalist, ‘has just become a mouthpiece for the [Kremlin] authorities’, and ‘her [Telegram] channel, it’s just [a kind of Russian state news agency] RIA Novosti,… it is clear that this is [done] for money’, and she was first to speculate that Medvedev’s account had been hacked, give rise to the thought that we have been dealing with a kind of political staging – presumably the one set up by the Kremlin political strategists.
This supposition also might be backed by some other indirect accounts. Thus, Glavred.info reported as follows: “GeneralSVR, a Telegram channel, claims that there was no hacking of the [Telegram] page [belonging to Medvedev]. ‘A few days ago, Medvedev was given a ‘proposal’ – on behalf of Putin – to prepare a radical text for publication in social networks on the topic of recreating the USSR and the unjust status quo, with a denunciation of unfriendly neighbors. The text had been prepared and yesterday morning was submitted for approval to the Presidential Administration, where [Sergey] Kiriyenko [deputy chief of staff to Russian President], had been acting as the initiator [of the above proposal] on behalf of the President. It was almost immediately approved with no edits. The only thing that has not been agreed [in advance] is the [supposed] time of publication… Medvedev himself is already lamenting that he fell victim to intrigues among the President’s entourage and blaming Kiriyenko and his son, who is directly related to VK, for everything’, it is said in the report”.
Judging by the feeble reaction from the Kazakh ruling circles and those close to the authorities to the post in question, it may be assumed that the groups near power and political technologists working for the Ak Orda were aware of what was actually going on, and therefore the policy and decision makers in Nur-Sultan were not caught short at the time of its publication. In the Kazakh segment of social media, it, by contrast, sparked outraged reactions and heated discussions, with their atmosphere setting influenced some Ukrainian and western politicians and journalists’ perception of the situation in Kazakhstan resulting from the above story with Mr.Medvedev.
So, for example, Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific Section at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, addressed these words to his counterparts in Kazakhstan: “To the attention of my Kazakh colleagues with regard to Medvedev’s latest post: … I believe that the threats to Kazakhstan have increased significantly, the trend to ‘correct mistakes’ [made by Moscow before and during the collapse of the USSR] is rising. The question of whether Kazakhstan would do something with this [threat] remains open. As of now, I see no real signs of it. Nor do I see even any hints on such a development”.
While Evan Gershkovich, a WSJ reporter, seems to have a different opinion about Kazakhstan’s preparing for alleged threats from Russia. So here is what he said in this regard: “They [the Kazakh policy and decision makers] are worried, extremely worried about what I think everybody has seen as an increasingly erratic government in Moscow… Since the [Russian] invasion [of Ukraine] US diplomats have gone to Central Asia multiple times. So what we’re seeing is not necessarily this massive geopolitical realignment, but sort of Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia hedging its bets”.
Shelby Holliday, his colleague in WSJ, completed Evan Gershkovich by saying: “The war in Ukraine also has changed how Kazakhstan is thinking about its security. In January, when violent anti-government protests broke out in Kazakhstan, Tokayev called in Russian troops to restore order. But now that Russia has invaded a former Soviet state and neighbor, [Kazakh] officials are rethinking their strategy. Not only has the country boosted its defense spending, it has agreed to strengthen military cooperation with China, according to China’s Ministry of Defense. It also struck a deal with Turkey, a NATO member, to jointly produce attack drones. Kazakhstan also had visitors from the US, including a top US commander”.
In addition, several previously Evan Gershkovich reported, citing an unnamed Kazakh official, that Kazakhstan was significantly increasing its defense spending and seeking closer ties with NATO countries amid fears of Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions spreading beyond Ukraine. According to this report, the Central Asian country will commit an extra 441 billion tenge ($918 million) to its defense budget, a nearly 1.5-fold increase over last year’s budget of $1.7 billion, part of the additional funds will be spent on strengthening its military reserves.
The appearance of this news in the American newspaper looks like a challenge to Russian dominance in Central Asia. But those who made such a ‘leak’ of information might have wanted to achieve just this effect. When viewed from Kazakhstan, the latter version seems more credible and convincing. At least, it’s just the way this author see it. And here is the reason for that. The views and opinions expressed by the above mentioned representatives of Ukraine and the West appear to be mostly a reflection of the way they want (in Yurii Poita’s case) or expect (in WSJ journalists’ case) Kazakhstan and Kazakhs to behave in the context of the ongoing crisis between Russia, on one hand, and Ukraine and the West, on the other. They do not seem to be quite aware of Russia’s cyber and informational capabilities to project power and ideas into Kazakhstan and the Kazakh society.
The Russian media industry still has significant control over the Kazakhstani information space. In this regard, not enough has changed in Kazakhstan since Soviet times. The local mainstream information has been and still is determined by the Russian standards of worldview to a large degree. Here are some examples of how this manifests itself. During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western countries, as is known, saw a sharp increase in harassment and violence against [East] Asian people and communities. The media outlets of all countries in the Asia-Pacific region followed that situation closely. As to the press and television in Kazakhstan, they essentially ignored it, probably because the Russian media had chosen to bypass the topic. It did not become a subject of wide discussion even after it emerged that the Kazakh students had been racially harassed and insulted by local youth for racially-motivated reasons in one of the Western countries. There was also no information about official Nur-Sultan’s request to that country’s authorities to ensure the safety of its citizens. The whole story did not seem to surprise anyone. And the regrettable thing is, there have been no public attempts at drawing lessons from it. If it was about something important not only to Kazakhs, but also to all other citizens of Kazakhstan, it would have gained a lot more attention. The reason for all of this probably is that in the conditions of Moscow’s informational domination, the country’s titular population got used to looking at their own situation through Russian eyes. This is one side of the coin.
The other side is that Western journalists and writers tend to see what was and is happening in the Central Asian country through Russian eyes, too. This way you now can get information, as well as misinformation. This can be the case, for example, with talks about Kazakhstan’s taking a tougher stance against Russia by rethinking its alliance with Moscow.
Well, we’ll continue this conversation another time, with focus on the second of the above-mentioned two tasks.