A man in northern Kazakhstan has reportedly been sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail after he called for part of the country to break away and become part of Russia.
Russian news agency Sputnik reported on December 5 that a court in the North Kazakhstan Region ruled that Igor Chuprina had violated two laws — one on disseminating propaganda undermining the country’s territorial unity and another on inciting interethnic hatred through his social media posting.
The trial underlines the enduring anxiety provoked in Astana by the roiling conflict in Ukraine, whose government remains mired in a war with Russian-backed militias in the east of the country seeking independence or possible unification with Russia. Northern Kazakhstan has a substantial ethnic Russian minority.
The court in Petropavlovsk found that in September 2014, Chuprina used his cellphone to log into social media website VKontakte, a Russian analogue of Facebook, and posted disparaging posts about Kazakh people. The posts reportedly lasted until May 2015..
The messages “provoked negative reactions and social tension, and fueled conflict and the emergence of a type of anti-constitutional civil and political conduct, expressed as incitement to ethnic hatred, and also constituted a potential for compromising the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the court ruling noted, according to Sputnik’s report.
Those responding to Chuprina’s thread on the VKontakte page are also being investigated, Sputnik reported.
When Chuprina embarked on his social media campaign, he was living in the village of Sokolova, some 30 minutes drive from the border with Russia. Although there are some anecdotal accounts of pro-separatist sympathies among sections of the ethnic Russian population, it seems far from evident that Chuprina was engaged in anything more than an online ruckus, as opposed to actively organizing separatist activities.
Speaking in his last address to the court on November 18, Chuprina apologized for his postings and argued that he had been led astray by other internet users.
“My topic was immediately derailed. They suddenly sent me these maps of a nationalist character in which they showed regions of Russia incorporated into Kazakhstan. At that moment, I failed to appreciate the provocative nature of these internet users and so I got into a dust-up with them,” Chuprina was cited as saying by RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has made no secret of his disdain for the current government in Ukraine and has continued to treasure his warm relations with Moscow, so the prospects of the Kremlin inciting separatist emotions in Kazakhstan appear remote.
All the same, Kazakhstan’s authorities are taking active measures to nip any problem in the bud.
In July, for example, the General Prosecutor’s Office declared that it had ordered a block on 94 websites suspected of inciting extremism and separatism.
It hardly helps that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has at times acted as the separatism propagandist-in-chief. In August 2014, only one month before Chuprina is alleged to have begun posting his separatist-themed messages, Putin noted in an aside that Kazakhstan had only a short history of statehood, as if to imply that the country’s borders should not be considered wholly inviolate. He may have compounded many concerns when he quipped recently that Russia’s border "doesn't end anywhere” — a joke, but not one that raised much laughter from Chisinau to Tbilisi and Kiev to Astana.
Astana has responded to such remarks in part with a public relations campaign aimed at cementing Kazakhstan’s centuries-old claim to statehood.
And prosecutions like those of Chuprina, and Igor Sychev in 2015, are intended to reinforce the message at the ground level.
For all these efforts, there is still the overpowering impact of outside media to contend with.
“First of all, there is the influence of Russian media, which can without restrictions broadcast on our territory,” Arman Shurayev, who was general director of private broadcaster KTK for seven years through to 2014, told Central Asia Monitor in a recent interview.
Shurayev also complained about the activities of First Channel Eurasia – a station jointly owned by the Kazakhstani state and a Russian TV channel.
“ORT-Eurasia, which is subsidized out of Kazakhstan’s budget is advancing what I would call an anti-Kazakh line. You could talk here about the spinelessness of our regulators and, most notably, the Information Ministry,” Shurayev said, referring to the recently instituted government department.