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Kazakhstan: Neighbors Shy Away From Criticizing Russia

  • Michael Lelyveld



Boston, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The dangers of criticizing Russia for its war in Chechnya have apparently become clear to neighboring countries that fear for their own security.

Despite increasingly stern warnings from the United States and the European Union, Russia won expressions of support for its actions in Chechnya this week from both China and Kazakhstan. The statements marked a deep international split over Moscow's ultimatum to Grozny's citizens that they must evacuate the city or face annihilation.

While U.S. President Bill Clinton warned that Russia "will pay a heavy price" for its tactic, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry called it "purely Russia's internal affair," adding that "China understands and supports all Russia's efforts to maintain national unity and territorial integrity."

On a visit to Japan, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev said that "if things are happening in a sovereign state, it should be viewed as a domestic matter." The common thread for China and Kazakhstan is concern with their own separatist movements.

"He may find himself in the same boat," said Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian Studies, referring to Nazarbaev in an interview with RFE/RL.

Last month, Kazakhstan's government reportedly arrested 22 people in Ust-Kamenogorsk on suspicion of planning a coup to set up a separate "Russian land." A store of arms was also seized. Like China, with its Uighur minority and the movement for a free Tibet, Kazakhstan wants to keep its ethnic troubles out of the international arena of debate.

Nazarbaev also opposed any sanctions on Russia, touching another sore spot. Washington recently waived sanctions against Kazakhstan for its sale of MiG fighters to North Korea. The use of sanctions against Moscow is not the kind of example that Nazarbaev wants to see set.

China's backing for the Russian assault on Grozny also comes on the eve of President Boris Yeltsin's trip to Beijing, assuring him of another escape route from diplomatic isolation despite condemnations from the West.

But Russia's campaign in Chechnya may be only a part of the nationalistic fervor that has erupted in the days before elections for the State Duma on December 19.

On Wednesday, Yeltsin signed a postponed union treaty with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Russia seems intent not only on cementing control within its borders but potentially extending them, as well.

The move, which has been primarily sought by Lukashenka, may further blur the line between Russia's internal and external matters.

The reality for the West is that it may have to deal with manifestations of nationalism, whether they come as ethnic crackdowns or expansionist schemes. Both are part of an attempt to "go back to the grandeur that was the Russian Empire," Harvard's Goldman said.

The element of danger in Russia's tendencies is also hard to discount. The country's pre-election violence may not be over on December 19 with a vote for president set for next June. Russia remains an economically endangered country with a resurgent military and a vast decaying arsenal.

As Western opposition escalates along with the war, the worries are increasing closer to Russia. Goldman notes that Kazakhstan's support is likely to stem from its own separatist problems rather than its geographical position. But the exact source of the arms seized in Ust-Kamenogorsk has yet to be determined. Criticism of the war may be safer at a greater distance from Moscow.

Western influence on Russia's behavior also seems to be waning. The process may only accelerate if the Kremlin abandons hope for further loans from the International Monetary Fund. But nationalism feeds on itself. If Russia stretches the ruble next year as planned to cover the depreciated currency of Belarus, further aid may become useless.

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