Kazakhstan’s vast territory is no “gift” from Russia, and its statehood dates back to Atilla the Hun and Genghis-Khan, its president said in early January.
Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev responded to provocative statements by Russian lawmakers that could alienate Moscow’s oldest and most loyal ally at a time when the Kremlin could become an international pariah.
The spat began in December when an outspoken Russian lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, doubted the very existence of Kazakh statehood before its Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes became part of czarist Russia and then the USSR.
“Kazakhstan simply didn't exist, northern Kazakhstan was uninhabited,” Vyacheslav Nikonov, a lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party said on December 10 on the federal Channel One. “And, actually, Kazakhstan's territory is a big gift from Russia and the Soviet Union.”
Nikonov’s pedigree made his words sound especially ominous. His grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov of bottle-bomb “cocktail” fame, was a Soviet foreign minister who signed a 1939 pact with Nazi Germany to partition Poland in a step that triggered World War II.
Days after Nikonov’s diatribe, another Russian lawmaker urged Kazakhstan to “give back” its heavily-industrialised north. It has a sizable ethnic Russian population.
“If you don't consider it a gift – give it back, because you took it illegally,” said Yevgeny Fyodorov, who heads the National Liberation Movement, a grassroots movement that idolises Russian President Vladimir Putin and advocates for the restoration of the USSR.
Both lawmakers echoed what Putin said last June about territorial “gifts” to ex-Soviet republics.
"If a certain republic joined the Soviet Union, but got lots of Russian lands, traditionally, historic Russian territories, but then decided suddenly to leave this Union, well, it should leave with what it had come with. Without dragging gifts from the Russian people away with it."
Shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin told a pro-Kremlin youth group that Kazakhstan's first President Nursultan Nazarbayev “created a state on a territory that never had a state. Kazakhs never had any statehood, he created it.”
It took Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor a while to respond, and he chose his words carefully.
“Nobody from outside gave Kazakhs this territory as a gift,” President Tokayev wrote in an op-ed published in Kazakh newspapers on January 5.
Observers are worried that the Russian lawmakers’ statements are paving the way for an actual annexation.
“Such statements are not an impromptu improvisation, they just voiced what has already become a mainstream ideologeme in the Kremlin,” political analyst Dosym Satpayev, based in Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, told TRT World.
“First, such words are seen as a heresy, then – as radicalism, and then they become acceptable and are acted upon – just like in case with Crimea, about whose 'return' a string of Russian politicians talked since the 1990s,” Ukrainian analyst Aleksey Kushch told TRT World.
The invasion could be “a factor of scaring, punishing and restraining the democratic transformations the Kremlin hates so much,” Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based Central Asia expert, told TRT World.
Plummeting oil prices and cancerous corruption made living standards hit a new low in Kazakhstan in recent years. The government increasingly squashes criticism and opposition. Dozens of protesters were detained on Sunday following a parliamentary vote with no opposition candidates on the ballot.
Kazakhstan covers a chunk of Central Asia and southern Siberia five times the size of France, but only 18 million people live there. Its arid steppes and northeastern mountains, however, strategically border Russia and China, and its Caspian shelf has immense hydrocarbon reserves.
The nation has become Beijing’s westward transport hub, but cheap Chinese exports have proved disastrous to its agriculture and industries.
“Now we export everything from China, even meat,” Talgat Atajanov, a businessman in Almaty, told TRT World. “Even apples, and this is really humiliating in this city,” he said referring to Almaty’s name that means “father of apples.”
Ethnic Russians have historically dominated factory jobs here, and the de-industrialisation hurt them especially hard – triggering nostalgia for the Soviet era and Moscow’s rule.
“There are always pro-Russia sentiments, considering there are no jobs at all,” an ethnic Russian native of the western city of Aktau told TRT World. She refused to provide her last name because she fears persecution.
Her city is a Cold-War chimera created in 1961 for mining and enriching uranium. Aktau depended solely on water desalinated at a nuclear-powered plant, and ethnic Russians accounted for more than a half of the population.
After the Soviet collapse, they started leaving in droves, and these days, ethnic Kazakhs dominate the city of 200,000. But many don’t speak Kazakh.
“There is no discrimination of Russians here,” the resident said.
Communist Moscow used Kazakhstan’s territory to test nuclear weapons, launch spaceships and implement miscalculated socialist experiments.
Two famines caused by an attempt to forcibly turn Kazakh nomads into settled farmers in 1921-22 and 1930-32 killed up to a half of them, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to western China.
“If it wasn’t for that event, our nation could have been many times bigger than today,” Tokayev wrote in the op-ed. “Qualified experts should conduct systematic research and, respectively, the state should access the issue of the famine.”
Unlike the Baltic states and Ukraine, Kazakhstan has never lambasted Moscow or demanded reparations for Soviet-era social disasters. Despite his cautious, legalese tone, Tokayev’s words may pave the way for future claims.
Stalinist Moscow violently reshaped Kazakhstan’s ethnic landscape by deporting hundreds of thousands of former political prisoners and entire ethnic groups, including Chechens and Germans that had lived along the Volga River since the 18th century.
As a result, at the dawn of their independence, ethnic Kazakhs were not a majority, and the government tried to attract “oralmans,” or ethnic Kazakhs from China, Afghanistan and of Central Asia.
But three decades after the Soviet collapse, Kazakh elites remain highly Russified, and Russian is the predominant language of communication in urban centres and among some 130 ethnic minorities.