A rising tide of suggestions by Russian commentators and officials that Kazakhstan is becoming Russia’s enemy has simultaneously frightened Kazakhstanis that their country may be Moscow’s next target for aggression and sparked outrage. For many in Kazakhstan, it is not their own country that has become an enemy of Russia but rather Russia has become an enemy of Kazakhstan. Such a remarkable opinion shift in that large Central Asian republic, long viewed as closer to Russia than any other, is captured by a sign carried at a recent street demonstration there. The poster read simply, “Yesterday it was Georgia. Today, it is Ukraine. Will it be Kazakhstan tomorrow?” (Ritm Yevrazii, May 11). Moscow may have hoped to intimidate Kazakhstan with Russian statements that Kazakhstan is on its way to being “a second Ukraine” (see EDM, April 5), but its provocative rhetoric has had the unintended effect of creating a self-reinforcing downward spiral in bilateral relations.
Russian commentators have long been angry at Kazakhstan for its increasingly nationalistic policies, a trend that reflects demographic shifts that have transformed that country from a binational republic, in which Russians and the Russian language played a far larger role than they did anywhere else in Central Asia, into an overwhelmingly Kazakh one. Over the past decade, the government has supported the Kazakh language and the Kazakh nation as a means to build its own authority and to legitimate itself in the eyes of the population (Pravda.ru, April 28, 2021; Caa-network.org, March 25, 2022; see EDM, September 9, 2021, and February 17, 2022). At the same time, Moscow has been alarmed by Kazakhstan’s growing ties with Russia’s geopolitical competitors, China and Turkey. Indeed, Russian concerns about mounting Turkish regional influence have grown especially shrill in recent months (Stopbioweapons.org, May 10, 2022).
But three developments since the start of this year have exacerbated such attitudes in Moscow as well as the response to them in Kazakhstan. First, the Kremlin expected President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government, which Russia supported militarily in January, to be grateful and thus to follow Moscow’s lead. Yet exactly the reverse has happened. Some Kazakhstanis are upset that Russia felt it had the right to intervene in their country at all, and the Tokayev government, as a result, has had to go out of its way to demonstrate it is not Moscow’s puppet. The president’s reaction opened the door to even more anti-Russian statements by Kazakhstani officials and further anti-Russian demonstrations and actions by Kazakhstan’s population (see EDM, January 19; Regnum, April 1).
Second, the Kazakhstani authorities have played up the fact that the country’s investment in national defense now makes it possible to unilaterally stand up to potential opponents without needing to defer to Russia, as had been the case in the past. Emblematic of this were recent celebrations of the 29th anniversary of the formation of the Kazakhstani Naval Forces, during which commanders stressed that their ships, now more numerous than Russia’s on the Caspian Sea, are focusing not only on search-and-rescue and counter-poaching actions but also on the defense of the country (Casp-geo.ru, April 21; Gov.kz, April 2). Such suggestions are popular in increasingly nationalist Kazakhstan; but not surprisingly, they are viewed by Moscow as a threat to its dominance of the Caspian. And some commentators take this a step further, suggesting it indicates that Kazakhstan is ceasing to be an ally and is instead becoming an enemy (Caa-network.org, March 25, 2022; see EDM, June 24, 2021).
However, those first two factors pale in comparison with the third: the impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine on the Kazakhstani government and population. Russian writers have a long list of complaints about how both have responded to the Ukrainian “crisis.” They are upset that Kazakhstan has permitted pro-Ukrainian demonstrations while banning pro-Russian ones (Vk.com, March 5; Stan Radar, April 8), angry that the Kazakhstani authorities have allowed their citizens to organize humanitarian assistance to Ukraine but not to Russian-occupied areas (Lenta, March 28; Informburo, April 21), and furious that instead of banning anti-war protests and eliminating “Russophobes” from the government, the national authorities have allegedly brought more of them onboard and even allowed groups that Moscow views as anti-Russian to form new political parties (Regnum, April 1).
At the same time, Moscow is incensed at the Kazakhstani government’s continued declarations of neutrality on Ukraine, which, the Russian side believes, hides Kazakhstan’s de facto tilt away from Moscow. On the one hand, officials in Nur-Sultan have said that their country’s neutrality will not preclude its willingness to abide by Western sanctions on Russia, and the Central Asian state has not stopped shipping oil to Ukraine along routes that bypass Russia (Informburo, March 3; Interfax, April 1; Antifashist.com, April 28; Pravda.ru, April 25). And on the other hand, leaders of the Kazakhstani parliament have called for international hearings on alleged Russian war crimes in Bucha (Rambler, April 7). Such actions are not those of a friend but an enemy, Moscow-based commentators say; and they undoubtedly will have the additional consequence of sparking more anti-Russian attitudes among Kazakhstanis (Caa-network.org, March 25).
In recent weeks, the situation has deteriorated further. In March, Sergei Savostyanov, a Communist Party deputy in the Moscow city duma, said that “after Ukraine,” Russia must “de-Nazify” six other countries, among them Kazakhstan (Ostrov, March 26). Four of the others—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland—are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), thus making them riskier targets. One—Moldova—adjoins the territory of the Western Alliance and has especially close ties with Romania, a NATO country. Consequently, that appears to indicate that Kazakhstan may, in fact, be at the top of the list. Some observers, of course, might be tempted to dismiss Sevastyanov’s remark as the hyperbolic expression of one individual in the overheated atmosphere of Russia today; but it is clearly more than that judging from the attention it has received. In a lengthy article for Novoye Voennoye Obozreniye, published in mid-April, Vladimir Vinokurov, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, writes that if one considers the pasts of these six potential targets for “de-Nazification” and their current situation, one is forced to conclude that “the chauvinist and nationalist trash that set these countries apart in the past has not disappeared up to now” (Novoye Voennoye Obozreniye, April 21).
Such language will do little to reassure those Kazakhs who fear they are in Russia’s crosshairs and see Russia becoming their enemy, even if they themselves have no wish to become an enemy to Moscow.