Few people now would recognize the name Viktor Kazimirchuk but it has undoubtedly returned to the thoughts of some people in Kazakhstan lately, including President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Since pro-Russian separatists started their activities in eastern Ukraine, there has been speculation about which, if any, of the former Soviet republics might receive the Kremlin's unwanted attention next. Invariably Kazakhstan, still with a sizeable population of Russian/Slavic people, is among the first mentioned.
But Kazakhstan differs from the other potential candidates because there already was an attempt by Russian separatists to seize an area in Kazakhstan.
Moscow-resident Viktor Kazimirchuk was arrested and convicted in the Central Asian country for being the leader of a Russian separatist group nearly 15 years ago.
According to investigators and security officials, in late 1999 and early 2000, Kazimirchuk and his small group called "Rus" planned to take over the administration of Kazakhstan's northeastern city of Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk), near the Russian border, declare the region Russian territory, and appeal to Moscow to incorporate the area into the Russian Federation.
Some dismissed the charges against Kazimirchuk, or Viktor "Pugachev" as he preferred to be called -- after the 18th century insurrectionist who led a Cossack revolt against Catherine II. They pointed out that the 22 people in the group, 12 of them Russian nationals, were mostly young, and when the group was detained their weapons consisted of a few grenades, hunting rifles, ammunition for automatic weapons, and some Molotov cocktails.
Kazimirchuk's group could not have been more obvious about what they intended to do. A newspaper in the Russia's Siberian city of Omsk published reports on the activities of "Rus" in Kazakhstan before the group was detained. Some people claimed Kazimirchuk and some of his band openly spoke about their plans on the streets of Oskemen.
Appeals From Moscow
Kazimirchuk claimed he had support from the Russian population in northern Kazakhstan and from officials in the Russian government, though he did not name anyone specifically. However, the Russian government did take an interest in the situation around Kazimirchuk and his group.
The Russian Embassy in Kazakhstan offered to hire Moscow attorneys for the accused, Russia's ministries of Foreign Affairs and CIS* Affairs tried to have the Russian national repatriated and Russia's human rights commissioner at the time appealed to President Nazarbaev to show compassion for the group as their trial date approached.
After the detention of Kazimirchuk's group, Aleksandr Shushannikov, a leader of the now defunct Russian nationalist group in Kazakhstan "Lad," was quoted in an interview as saying that "the population here has gotten to the point where any extremist in the region who describes himself as a defender of the Russian people can count on the support of the entire population of East-Kazakhstan province."
Shushannikov was exaggerating quite a bit but he hit a sensitive nerve for Kazakhstan's government, which had feared moves from the Russian and Cossack population in northern Kazakhstan. Roughly one-third of Kazakhstan's population was Russian/Slavic at that time and most were in the northern regions near the Russian border.
A 'Bright Path' For Returnees
There were groups like Lad, and Cossack groups in the 1990s that openly spoke about sectioning off their territories and joining Russia.
Many believed then, and still do believe, that the main reason President Nazarbaev decided to move Kazakhstan's capital in 1997 from the pleasant mountains of Almaty in the south to Astana in the frozen steppe land of the north was to cement Kazakhstan's hold over its northern regions where the Russian/Slavic population was at least equal to the ethnic Kazakh population.
The move forced many unhappy ethnic Kazakh government officials to relocate to the new northern capital.
Kazakhstan's government also used a repatriation program to bolster the ethnic balance in the north.
Not many years after independence Kazakhstan started the "Nurli Zhol" (Bright Path) program for the Oralman.
An Oralman is an ethnic Kazakh who was living outside Kazakhstan, and usually outside the U.S.S.R., when Kazakhstan became independent in late 1991.
Many such Kazakhs moved back to their "homeland" from China and especially from Mongolia.
In March this year, an official order was issued that all the Oralman who returned were to be settled in the Akmola, Atyrau, West-Kazakhstan, Kostanay, Pavlodar, North-Kazakhstan, and East-Kazakhstan provinces.
With the exception of Atyrau and Akmola, all those provinces border Russia.
More than a few people saw the move as being prompted by events in eastern Ukraine.
That order has just been rescinded and the Oralman can now settle in any of Kazakhstan's 14 provinces.
RFE/RL's Kazakhstan Service, Azattyq, spoke with the deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's Committee for Migration, Aslan Karzhaubaev.
He explained the original reason for restricting the Oralman to northern regions was the tendency of those repatriated to settle in southern regions where the population was already dense. But after a review, he said, the Oralman were free to settle wherever they wanted in Kazakhstan.
Zamirichuk's Eerie Remarks
Because this tale started with Russian separatists in Kazakhstan it will end with them also.
Viktor Kazimirchuk was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but was released from prison in Kazakhstan in 2006. He returned to Russia and in December 2007 gave an interview to the Zavtra.ru website, which had printed some of Kazimichuk's appeals to Kazakhstan's Russian population before the Rus leader was arrested.
What the Russian separatist said then is eerie when viewing the situation in eastern Ukraine today.
Zamirichuk claimed there was discrimination in East-Kazakhstan not only against Russians, but against Russian speakers, whom he claimed accounted for 70 percent of the population of the province.
"The opinion of everyone was that we did not have anything in common with Kazakhstan, that this was Russian territory and that the situation was like that, say, in the Pridnestr [Transdneister], or in Crimea, which up until now is located in Ukraine," Kazimirchuk said.
Kazakhstan is far more prosperous now than it was 15 years ago and many of the Russians who have stayed are far more integrated into the society of the country.
But Russians/Slavs still account for about one-quarter of Kazakhstan's population and that puts President Nazarbaev in an unenviable position where he must appease the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan and simultaneously be careful not to provoke any of the Russian population into appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Yerzhan Karabek