ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A court in Kazakhstan has convicted an ethnic Russian woman of inciting ethnic hatred over derogatory references to Kazakhs and calls for the Central Asian country to become part of Russia.
The March 31 ruling ended a trial that threw a spotlight on concerns about Kazakhstan's security following Russia's interference in Ukraine, another neighboring country at the heart of the former Soviet Union.
After delivering the guilty verdict, the court in Almaty handed Kazakh citizen Tatyana Shevtsova-Valova a suspended four-year sentence, meaning she will not be jailed unless she violates the terms of the sentence.
Investigators said that in posts on social networks including Facebook, Shevtsova-Valova called Kazakhs "churki" -- an offensive slur sometimes used by Russians to describe non-Slavic peoples in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- and wrote that Kazakhstan must become part of Russia, like Crimea.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine last year, after deploying troops and engineering the takeover of the regional legislature, in a move denounced as invalid by Kyiv, the West, and 100 nations in the UN General Assembly.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine have raised concerns among Russia's neighbors that it may have designs on parts of their territory -- particularly those which, like Crimea, are home to ethnic Russians.
Kazakhstan is a key partner of President Vladimir Putin's Russia in regional security and trade alliances including the Eurasian Economic Union, and was the last Soviet republic to declare independence in 1991.
But some 25 percent of Kazakhstan's 17 million population are ethnic Russians, most of whom live in northern regions neighboring Russia -- an area where borders shifted repeatedly during the Tsarist and Soviet eras.
At almost 7,000 kilometers, the Kazakh-Russian border is the longest in Eurasia, and parts of it have not yet been officially delimited.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union crumbled and after it collapsed, Russian nationalist groups in both Kazakhstan and Russia often called for referendums on some Kazakh territories' joining the Russian Federation.
With the conflict in Ukraine and Putin's patriotic rhetoric stoking fears along the fringes of the former Russian empire, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has matched Putin's patriotic Russian rhetoric with his own proud emphasis on Kazakhstan's past and its identity as a nation.
On December 15, Nazarbaev congratulated the nation a day before Independence Day celebrations, saying Kazakhstan's independence "is a result of our ancestors' efforts, their blood and sweat, their call to every Kazakh to choose to defend Kazakhstan to the last drop of blood."
Nazarbaev said that in 2015, Kazakhstan will celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate -- a grouping of Mongol and Turkic tribes united by two khans seen as founders of the Kazakh nation.
His words appeared to be a direct answer to a statement by Putin, who publicly said in August that Kazakhs had never had statehood.
Also on December 15, a court in the capital, Astana, sentenced a Kazakh citizen, Yevgeny Vdovenko, to five years in prison for fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists last year in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed since April.
The ruling came as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was in town to participate in a meeting of prime ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping dominated by Russia and China.
Nazarbaev, in power since he was named chief of the Communist Party in Soviet Kazakhstan in 1989, announced this month that he will run in a presidential poll that had been scheduled for 2016 but has been moved up to April 26 this year.