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Desovietization. Moscow is losing Kazakhstan's support due to the war in Ukraine

Kazakhstan's high-ranking officials, up to and including President Tokayev, normally loyal to Russia, have begun making harsh statements after the start of the war, particularly to the effect that Kazakhstan would not help Russia circumvent sanctions but would help Ukraine with humanitarian supplies; that the recognition of the separatist LNR and DNR should not be expected from the republic; and that (at least) an international investigation into the events in Bucha was necessary. Kazakhstan also announced it would not hold a Victory Day parade this year (formally, to save on costs). Although the country is still trying to maneuver carefully between Moscow and the West, the war in Ukraine seems to have buried the former «multi-vector» strategy.

  • Kazakhstan renounces multivectorism

  • Anti-Moscow public sentiment

Kazakhstan renounces multivectorism

For many years, while Nursultan Nazarbayev was the perpetual president of Kazakhstan, the country publicly talked about «multivectorism,» that is, an attempt to consider all interests in foreign policy affairs. In order to render the republic attractive as a partner, not as a piece of land, for a large number of other countries, Nazarbayev invited a huge number of foreign investors to Kazakhstan - from Russia and China to the European countries and the United States. It was thought that if one of the partners misbehaved, the rest of them would reign it in, acting in turn as an insurance of sorts for the country. And it worked until the annexation of Crimea. At the time of the annexation, Kazakhstan refused to condemn it, but did not openly recognize Crimea as a part of Russia and merely stated that the referendum should be treated «with understanding.» But what worked in 2008 when South Ossetia and Abkhazia were not recognized became impossible in 2014. Russia seemed to be building a neo-empire, and there remained few decisions Kazakhstan was able to make on its own. The «multivectorism» turned into conformism.

Kazakhstan refused to condemn the annexation of Crimea, but did not openly recognize Crimea as a part of Russia

At the same time, Kazakhstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union, which had been invented back in 1994 by Nazarbayev, but which quickly became a new way for Russia to put pressure on its neighbors. Kazakhstan continued trading with other countries, but political faux pas began to occur: say, a map of Ukraine without Crimea would appear in Kazakhstan textbooks (and Kyiv would send a note of protest to Astana), or Putin would suddenly declare that «Kazakhs had no statehood» until Nazarbayev became leader. For his part, the Kazakh «national leader» declared that Russia is a «God-given neighbor,» and the republic itself became extremely sensitive to economic sanctions against Moscow (in particular, the exchange rate of the tenge regularly collapsed along with the ruble).

With Nazarbayev's departure in 2019 and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's assumption of the presidency, the relationship between the two countries began to change. Moscow began making more frequent claims to Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan after Nazarbayev), and high-ranking politicians began questioning Kazakhstan's sovereignty over its northern lands (only Eduard Limonov had had the audacity to make such statements before).

The tensions peaked in connection with the «language patrols» invented by blogger Kuat Akhmetov: Moscow considered the requirement for sales staff in stores to speak to Kazakh-speaking citizens in Kazakh as «Russophobia,» and pitted Solovyov and all the other Russian propagandists against Kazakhstan. In turn, the Ak Orda (an analogue of the Kremlin palace) took retaliatory steps: blogger Yermek Taichibekov, who actively promoted rapprochement between Kazakhstan and Russia, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for «inciting ethnic hatred» (for Russian propaganda this figure was an important element producing information noise if necessary), and official Nur-Sultan ramped up its participation in alternative associations like the Union of Turkic peoples, where Turkey plays the main role.

Yermek Taichibekov, who called himself a Russian imperialist, is serving seven years for inciting ethnic hatred
Yermek Taichibekov, who called himself a Russian imperialist, is serving seven years for inciting ethnic hatred

The key events took place in early January 2022, when Kazakhstan saw the most massive protests in the country's history, ending in riots and the deaths of more than 200 people. According to experts, the popular protest was replaced by an attempted coup, and President Tokayev, who never got his own team, called in a CSTO peacekeeping contingent to oppose the Nazarbayev clan and its allies. Russia provided a significant part of the military assistance, but it was not alone in helping to «restore order.» That, however, did not prevent the pro-government Russian commentators from stating that Kazakhstan now owed Russia a debt. This talk became louder after the start of the war in Ukraine - and it was assumed that Kazakhstan, at least out of a sense of gratitude, and at most due to the «God-given» nature of its neighbor, would support Russia's aggression.

But something went wrong. First, Kazakhstan allowed a large rally in support of Ukraine, and then Nur-Sultan announced it would deliver humanitarian aid to Kyiv. Public statements followed, the most high-profile one being an interview with Timur Suleymanov, first deputy head of President Tokayev's administration, which he gave in Brussels to Euractiv. «Despite the fact that we are part of the EAEU, we are also part of the international community. Therefore, the last thing we want is for secondary sanctions to be applied to Kazakhstan by the United States and the EU,» Suleymanov said. «We are an independent state, and we will abide by the restrictions imposed on Russia and Belarus.» The deputy head of the Tokayev Administration also said Kazakhstan would be calling a war a war, and the republic will not recognize Crimea, LNR, DNR or any other constructs invented by Russia.

«We are an independent state, and we will abide by the restrictions imposed on Russia and Belarus»

Although Suleymanov did not say anything new, the interview, as a complete set of points, caused dissatisfaction on the part of Russia. Russia tried to downplay the impact of the interview by invoking the notorious concept of «multivectorism»: immediately after the interview was published, Tokayev and Putin talked on the phone, and the next day the National Security Committee announced the arrest of a «foreign intelligence spy» who had been «preparing an attempt on President Tokayev's life» and had also been engaged in spreading «anti-Russian propaganda» and on top of that was a drug dealer. It was probably a curtsey in favor of Moscow (the detention itself was a typical informational «canned food», and the detainee ended up being an ex-journalist and lawyer), but its credibility still raises some questions.

Besides, the impact of Suleymanov's interview could not be minimized by catching a multi-talented villain, as similar statements were made by Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi and later by Tokayev himself. In the article called «Turbulence Across Eurasia Will Not Slow Kazakhstan's Progress» published by the American magazine National Interest the president of Kazakhstan once again called what is happening a war and said the country respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But that's not all: on the day of the vote to remove Russia from the UN Security Council, Maulen Ashimbayev, speaker of Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, called for an international investigation of the war crimes in Bucha – an audacity hitherto unheard of!

Speaker of the lower house of the Kazakh parliament called for an investigation of the war crimes in Bucha

On the same evening, Kazakhstan voted against removing Russia from the Security Council. Formally, this looks like a multivector approach, but rather suggests that Kazakhstan is not yet ready for drastic moves. The streamlined wording on the need to investigate Russia's human rights violations in Ukraine is in fact an «abstention» position when it is impossible to vote that way. At the same time, the continuing statements of the highest state officials about Kazakhstan's position on Ukraine suggest that Nur-Sultan's attitude towards Moscow has changed after all. Maybe it is a «God-given neighbor», but it has become toxic - especially taking into account the fact that a significant part of Kazakhstan's financial reserves is located on the territory of Western countries, and secondary sanctions on Tokayev and his administration are now absolutely unnecessary.

In addition, Russia clearly went too far in demonstrating its anything-goes policy within the EAEU: since the beginning of the war, it has made a few more public statements regarding the northern territories of Kazakhstan (in particular, there were calls to «de-nazify» them), and halted for a minimum of two months the operation of the offshore berths belonging to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium in Novorossiysk, through which 80% of Kazakh oil had been loaded for delivery to other countries. Allegedly, because of storm damage, but Kazakhstan certainly views it as an element of blackmail, particularly during future elections.

Anti-Moscow public sentiment

There is another important element that has brought adjustments to the rhetoric of official Nur-Sultan: the country's public mood. After the January events the Ak Orda has to take this into account, at least formally. Moods are agitated: there are incidents across the country almost every week with supporters of the Russian aggression being exposed, and it is no longer possible to ignore them.

A significant part of Kazakhstan's civil society sided with Ukraine at the outbreak of war, and the abovementioned rally in Almaty in support of Ukraine on March 6 drew nearly two thousand people – quite a lot for a country where rallies were de facto banned just a couple of years ago. According to some accounts, a profane Putin chant was one of the semi-official slogans of the event, and it may have scared the officials to some extent, because all the subsequent rallies in support of Ukraine were invariably cancelled. But the slogans «Glory to Ukraine!» and «No to War!» have also been also heard at rallies with different agendas, and the support for Ukraine has been expressed in other ways. Several public activists and organizations have organized collection of humanitarian aid to the residents of Ukraine and the Ukrainian military, and the Kazakhstan authorities have not said a word against it. Moreover, a hunting season has been declared on cars with the Z logo: car owners are being fined an average of 3-4 thousand rubles or admonished, and the symbols are immediately discarded.

The police make the car owners remove the Z symbols from their cars  Source: Caravan portal
The police make the car owners remove the Z symbols from their cars Source: Caravan portal

Skirmishes between supporters and opponents of the Russian aggression have occurred off road. At the end of March, assistant director Artem Shchurov was fired from the Lermontov Theater in Almaty for writing on his Facebook page «Happy New Year without the Nazis» (March 22 is the day of the vernal equinox Nauryz: in Kazakhstan it is actually equated with the New Year holiday). A probe was initiated against Lyubov Panova, a presenter at the radio station Europe Plus Kazakhstan. Lyubov Panova was investigated under Article 174 of the Criminal Code («incitement of hatred») after her comment to the effect that in response to the Kazakh people's indignation she and her supporters would «welcome Uncle Vlad» (Panova was also fired from the radio station). Civic activists and journalists identify aggressive pro-Russian commenters on Instagram as well, forcing them to apologize. The General Prosecutor's Office, which usually intimidates the opposition, is also active - it suddenly issued an official statement about the responsibility of those who would call for the violation of the country's territorial integrity.

There are a lot of people in Kazakhstan who seriously consider themselves part of Russia. According to opinion polls inside the country, at least a third of Kazakhstanis fully agree with the Russian point of view on the war in Ukraine (i.e. that Russia is «fighting the Nazis» and «conducting special operations» there), a direct consequence of the domination of Russian television in the republic. The same civil activists are launching petitions demanding a ban on Russian TV broadcasts in Kazakhstan, but apparently, it's impossible to implement (the only cable operator in a small town of Shakhtinsk that dared to do it lasted only half a day). Just as it is impossible in principle for Kazakhstan to distance itself from Russia: a 7,500 km common border leaves no chance for that. Moreover, since April 11, Kazakhstan has fully restored overland communication with Russia (which was closed for more than two years because of the pandemic), so that the border regions of the republic, obviously, will interact with their foreign counterparts even more closely, including the exchange of views.

Kazakhstan is too tied to Russia and has long been adjusting its economy and ideology to match the Russian ones. And now, in a situation when its own society is divided and there's a need to make a choice in the foreign policy arena, the authorities of the republic find themselves in an extremely uncomfortable position. However, official Nur-Sultan has no other choice but to try and continue maneuvering carefully. Yes, Moscow now has neither the means nor desire to conduct an aggressive policy in relation to Kazakhstan, but the situation in the country is far from being monolithic, and any attempt to loosen it from the north will be a huge stress-test for both the republic's leadership and society. In such conditions Tokayev and his entourage will do everything to stay afloat and avoid conflicts.

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