BACKGROUND: Russia’s soft power has a tremendous influence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as Russian media continues to set the tone for local discussions and political activities. The most common themes discussed in the media and within political circles include the large popular protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine. These issues are usually perceived as unrelated events, and discussions are often infused with conspiracy theories.
In Kazakhstan’s case, Putin’s remarks last August on Kazakhstan gaining statehood only under President Nursultan Nazarbayev led to outrage in the parliament and among the wider public. Putin also said that Kazakhstan is part of the so-called Russkii mir (Russian world), a term that has gained ominous political connotations because of Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and since Russia-backed mercenaries began fighting for the idea of Novorossiya in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s remarks were followed by those of Vladimir Zhirinovsky two weeks later, when the controversial leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party hinted that, like eastern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan legitimately belongs to Russia. Kazakh commentators are convinced that both Putin’s and Zhirinovsky’s comments were staged and delivered to intimidate Kazakhstan’s political leadership. In response to Putin’s comments, there was a public campaign of unclear origin calling for Kazakhs to send history books to Putin to educate him about Kazakhstan’s past.
In addition to Putin and Zhirinovsky, the head of the “Other Russia” party, Eduard Limonov, has joined the list of notorious Russian nationalists insisting that some of Kazakhstan’s territories should be annexed to Russia. Prior to Putin’s and Zhirinovsky’s recent statements, Limonov’s provocations used to be regarded as outlandish. Today, Kazakhstani experts tend to view all three statements as representing the same Kremlin agenda.
While the discourse about the Ukrainian situation is top-down in Kazakhstan, the reverse is true for Kyrgyzstan. Starting this spring, several mass demonstrations have taken place in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Bishkek. All focused on issues that matter to the Kremlin, although the protestors did not directly link themselves to the Russian state. Demonstrators called for an end to fascism, backed the annexation of Crimea, and mourned those killed defending ”Novorossiya” in Eastern Ukraine. Additional rallies were held in front of the U.S. embassy to call on Washington to stop intervening in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic affairs.
In most cases, the main organizer was a group called Russkii mir. It is unclear whether this movement is a recent creation or existed before the Euromaidan events in Kiev. But the group became particularly vocal only in the past few months. Last month, Russkii mir protested in front of the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, denouncing President Atambayev’s meeting with billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who visited the capital city for a day. Observers have noted that only one participant in the demonstration appeared to be Kyrgyz; the rest were probably ethnic Russians. Ignoring the crowds, Atambayev welcomed Soros.
IMPLICATIONS: Interpretations of the political chaos in Ukraine over the past year have assumed idiosyncratic forms in Central Asia. While discussions in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are provoked by Russian officials and pro-Russian local groups, politicians and political commentators cherry pick events from Ukraine’s recent history and adapt them to their own political agendas. Euromaidan, for example, is often associated with Western support for anti-government forces, not with the shortcomings of the Yanukovych regime. Political parties in Kyrgyzstan, such as Ata-Jurt, rail against Euromaidan, claiming that the U.S. is financing political change in the country, whereas political opposition groups like to threaten the incumbent president with mass protests to overthrow the government.
In Kazakhstan, however, interpretations of Putin’s and Zhirinovsky’s remarks about the country’s territorial integrity and repercussions of the Ukrainian scenario with lost territories do not invoke Euromaidan. The months of protest are largely ignored, even by leading political experts, who believe that Kazakhstan’s lack of civic activism makes it incomparable with Ukraine. Political freedoms under Nazarbayev are much narrower compared with those under Yanukovych’s regime.
Furthermore, in Kazakhstan the fact that Nazarbayev is often seen as the nation’s founder is ignored. Instead, in reaction to Putin’s statement, experts and MPs raced to talk about pre-Soviet forms of statehood on the territory of today’s Kazakhstan. It seems that it is acceptable for Kazaks within Kazakhstan to present Nazarbayev as the father of the nation, but not for anyone outside of the nation to do the same.
Kazakhstan’s worries about the possible proliferation of tendencies toward territorial secession have led to online censorship. Internet forums are closely monitored for any provocative or separatist content. Recently, Kazakhstan’s authorities blocked the website Meduza for running a report titled “The People’s Republic of Ust-Kamenogorsk,” a region in the Eastern Kazakhstan Province which is called Oskemen in Kazakh. The report featured an interview with the head of Rudny Altai, Oleg Maslennikov, who called for the unification of ethnic Russians in one region. Maslennikov compared the alleged oppression of ethnic Russians in Ukraine with a similar situation in Kazakhstan.
In Kyrgyzstan, MPs follow Russia’s lead by increasingly introducing measures to restrict various civic rights. In summer and autumn, the parliament discussed labeling organizations and individuals obtaining foreign grants as “foreign agents,” as well as banning “propaganda” about homosexuality. Both bills are similar to laws passed in Russia. It remains unknown whether the legislative initiatives were the result of Kremlin pressure on Kyrgyz MPs.
Finally, as a result of the Kremlin’s attempts to coerce Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into accepting the politicized concept of Russki mir, tensions in everyday life between the ethnic majorities and ethnic Russian minorities in these countries might be rising again. Although Russians in both countries have felt their privileged status eliminated in the post-Soviet era, Russians still enjoy far greater privileges compared to any other ethnic minority living in Central Asia. When governments adopt ethno-nationalist politics, it is mostly non-Russian ethnic minorities who feel the pressure. Often, they wind up with even fewer options for employment or education. The politicization of ethnicity by the Russian state may lead to future tensions in times of political uncertainty.
CONCLUSIONS: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan demonstrate how the idea of a politicized Russkii mir and recent developments in Ukraine enter public debate through statements by Russian officials, as well as through a more decentralized process initiated by pro-Russian MPs and NGOs. Discussions about what events in Ukraine mean for domestic politics – and Russian involvement – in both countries have assumed idiosyncratic forms and are often infused with conspiracy theories. Subsequently these discussions are politicized and adapted by Central Asian politicians to suit their own political agendas. However, in times of political uncertainty, this may potentially lead to political frictions, as well as tensions between the ethnic majorities and ethnic Russian minorities. In Kazakhstan, this could conceivably take place during the inevitable transfer of power from Nazarbayev to his successor. In Kyrgyzstan, anti-Russian nationalism might be a factor in the next parliamentary and presidential elections.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is an Assistant Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, and an Associate Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons)