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Putin Downplays Kazakh Independence, Sparks Angry Reaction

"'No statehood,' you say?!" Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) reacts during a handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Shanghai, China in late May.
"'No statehood,' you say?!" Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) reacts during a handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Shanghai, China in late May.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked furious reactions among Kazakhs by belittling the history of their state.

"The Kazakhs never had any statehood," Putin said during a meeting on August 29.

He credited Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev with creating "a state in a territory that had never had a state before."

Putin suggested it was to the Kazakh people's advantage to "remain in the greater Russian world," which has developed industry and advanced technology.

Putin's remarks, made during a question-and-answer session at the Kremlin-sponsored Seliger youth camp, came just days after a firebrand Russian politician suggested Moscow should turn its attention to Kazakhstan once it is finished dealing with Ukraine, where Kyiv and the West accuse it of supplying arms and troops to a pro-Russian separatist effort.

QUIZ: How Much Do You Know About Kazakhstan?

Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- who has built his political fortune on outrageous nationalistic and racist rhetoric -- noted there were many cities in Kazakhstan with Russian names.

Senior Kazakh lawmaker Maulen Ashimbaev said Putin's remarks about Kazakhstan's statehood was "wrong."

Ashimbaev said Kazakhstan's statehood dates back to the Golden Horde in the 13th century.

The lawmaker, however, cautioned that Putin's comments should not be taken out of context.

The comment must have been impromptu and not from a prepared statement, Ashimbaev suggested to reporters in Astana.

Ordinary Kazakhs, however, were less forgiving.

Some took to social media, calling for people to "send a history book to Putin" to educate him about Kazakh history.

Others vented their anger at the president and Zhirinovsky.

"Putin...has lost control over his tongue after his facelift," Kazakhstan_Online tweeted.

A comment posted on social media by "Kazakh" from Astana referred to Putin as "Putler" -- a disapproving nickname for Putin since Russia's internationally unrecognized annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March:

"Putin said that Nazarbaev still is healthy and alive. If we continue with Nazarbaev's policies Putin wouldn't touch us. But if we try to be independent-minded like Ukrainians, the same fate would wait us too. So we should not develop our economy, language, statehood.... Nazarbaev teaches this to the young generation. We should forever remain as slaves. Putler wants obedient, quiet, foolish slaves."

A similar comment was posted by an anonymous reader on the website of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service:

"Putin made it clear that Kazakhs' statehood depends on loyalty to Russia. And he thinks it's to Kazakhs' advantage. If there is no loyalty, no statehood… If they didn't reckon with the Ukrainians, what can we expect? So, what Zhirinovsky said wasn't empty rhetoric, it was a political program."

Prominent Kazakh political pundit Aidos Sarym warned that Russia would lose its "only ally in Central Asia" if Russian leaders were to continue such rhetoric.

He said many Kazakhs view Putin's "baseless and ignorant comments as a challenge and insult."

"Besides, Putin's words about Nazarbaev being 'healthy and alive' seem like a thinly veiled threat personally directed at the Kazakh president," Sarym added.

Sarym added that "it's as if you praise a person as a great son and father, then you call his children mongrels and his ancestors bastards."

Nazarbaev himself appeared to take umbrage at Putin's comments. Shortly afterward, he threatened to leave the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, saying Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose threats to its independence.

Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Kazakhstan?

Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Kazakhstan?

Test your knowledge!

RFE/RL correspondent Merkhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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