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An Old Refrain: Russian Lawmakers Question Kazakhstan's Territorial Integrity, Statehood


Russian President Vladimir Putin glances at Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev at a session of the 16th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum in Omsk on November 7, 2019.

Many Kazakhs are likely upset and perhaps a bit worried by some of the comments and actions heard in Russia recently that have questioned Kazakhstan’s existence as a country.

Since December 10, two deputies from the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, have described Kazakhstan's current territory as being a “gift” from Russia, echoing remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that “Kazakhs never had any statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, Duma deputy and head of its Education and Science Committee, appeared on The Great Game program on Russia’s First Channel on December 10 for a show dedicated to the anniversary of the signing of the Belovezha Accords on December 8, 1991, that dissolved the Soviet Union.

Nikonov said that when the Soviet Union was created in 1917, “Kazakhstan simply did not exist as a country, its northern territories were basically uninhabited,” and that areas “further down south [in present-day Kazakhstan], most of the territories were basically given as a gift to [the Kazakhs] by the Soviet Union, by Russia."

The next day, an activist from Russia’s Patriot movement hung a banner on the gate of the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow that read “Northern Kazakhstan is Russian land.”

Nikonov later posted a message on Telegram that said, “I believe that the interests of Kazakhstan were fully observed when defining the borders of the Kazakh [Soviet Socialist Republic], which became the borders of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” and added: “I take this opportunity to once again express my warmest feelings to the brotherly people of Kazakhstan.”

It could have ended there. But it did not.

Another Duma deputy, Yevgeny Fedorov, appeared on the BELRUSINFO program on YouTube on December 13.

Fedorov agreed completely with Nikonov’s statement that the territory of Kazakhstan was a "big gift from Russia."

Fedorov went on to depict Kazakhstan as an ungrateful recipient of that gift.

“It's one thing that a kind Russian person gave you a gift and you appreciate it and are friends with him. But another thing is if you spit on him, as in this case the Kazakh Foreign Ministry did [on Russia],” Fedorov said.

Fedorov said the decisions of the 1991 Belovezha Accords were illegal, that Kazakhstan was technically “leasing” Russian land, "and in fact, we (Russia) have only one limitation -- a moral limitation,” and that “the last argument for the moral plan fell away after the statement of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry."

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry did object to Nikonov’s remarks.

It would be easy to consider the statements by the Russian deputies simply as bluster and dismiss them as fringe sentiments. But this is far from the first time Russian officials have made comments that brought into question Kazakhstan’s claim to statehood and sovereignty.

Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Marat Syzdykov met with Russia’s temporary representative in Kazakhstan, Aleksandr Komarov, on December 12 to express Kazakhstan’s “bewilderment” at Nikonov’s comments.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement about “provocative attacks” that “cause serious damage” to relations between Kazakhstan and Russia.

Bakhytbek Smagul, a deputy in Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, commented on Nikonov's comments on his Facebook page, saying, “Russia is great and does not need new lands.”

“Moreover, the Russian population is not [large] enough to cover the largest [country] in the world,” and pointed out that Russia’s State Statistics Committee reported after the 2010 census that "8,500 towns and villages [in Russia] had disappeared from the map and another 19,000 are counted but are empty."

It would be easy to consider the statements by the Russian deputies simply as bluster and dismiss them as fringe sentiments. And the banner hung outside the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow could be described as nothing more than the act of a misguided “patriot.”

But this is far from the first time Russian officials have made comments that brought into question Kazakhstan’s claim to statehood and sovereignty that also seemed to raise concerns about Russian intentions toward Kazakhstan.

Ultranationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has advocated for Kazakhstan’s incorporation into Russia; Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in a gulag camp in Kazakhstan, also questioned Kazakhstan’s statehood; and Russian writer and political dissident Eduard Limonov was jailed in Russia in 2001 on charges of plotting a separatist coup in northern Kazakhstan.

As mentioned earlier, Putin said first that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev had “created a state on a territory that never had a state,” adding, "Kazakhs never had any statehood, [Nazarbaev] created it."

Putin’s remarks were all the more ominous as they came just months after Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and lent support to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

And it is not just these statements that give many in Kazakhstan a reason to be worried.

The greatest threat from separatists that independent Kazakhstan has faced came from Russians and Cossacks in northern Kazakhstan along the border with Russia in the 1990s.

There were several groups in northern Kazakhstan, particularly in the northeast, calling for unification with Russia. Some even believe the decision to move Kazakhstan’s capital from the southern city of Almaty to the north's Astana (now Nur-Sultan) was prompted by fears that Russia may one day agree with the separatists and incorporate some areas of northern Kazakhstan into Russia.

Viktor Kazimirchuk was the leader of a secessionist group. At the time, the threat was serious enough that he was taken into custody by Kazakh officials and, in June 2000, sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was, however, released in 2006 and allowed to move to Russia.

The deputy chairman of the Duma’s Committee for CIS Affairs and Eurasian Integration, Viktor Vodolatsky, referred to Nikonov’s remarks on December 14 saying: "The Russian Federation recognizes the sovereignty of the Republic of Kazakhstan within the boundaries within which it exists…[and] for us Kazakhstan is a friendly state with which we have signed many agreements and treaties."

But even if people such as Nikonov and Fedorov can be dismissed as fools or officials whose opinions do not reflect the views or policies of the Russian government, the fact that such statements continue to be made after nearly 30 years of independence for Kazakhstan is concerning.

Some in Kazakhstan look at the annexation of Crimea, as well as the separatists in eastern Ukraine that are supported by Russia, and wonder if their country will be next.

The relationship between Moscow and Nur-Sultan is strange considering Russia is probably Kazakhstan’s strongest ally and, within the Commonwealth of Independent States, Kazakhstan is Russia’s strongest ally.

Despite those facts, Kazakhstan continues to harbor a nagging worry about losing some of its territory, or even its sovereignty, to this close ally.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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