Indignation is brewing in nationalist quarters in Russia over Kazakhstan’s recent decision to abstain on a Moscow-proposed UN Security Council resolution to condemn airstrikes against Syria by United States, Britain and France.
The total failure of the resolution was something of a diplomatic bungle for Russia. Eight of the 15 members of the Security Council — 10 of which are non-permanent — voted against the resolution on April 14. Four abstained and three voted in favor. Russia managed to get China and Bolivia onside. Kazakhstan, which claims Russia as its fastest ally, was one of the abstainers.
The resolution was never going to pass since all the countries directly involved in the airstrike are permanent Security Council members and have a veto privilege. But the failure to get even symbolic broad support is embarrassing for Russia, hence the irritation at Kazakhstan.
The strategic partnership between Russia and Kazakhstan has ostensibly deep roots. Both countries are close military partners and fellow core members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet analogue of NATO. They are also founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Less tangibly, the leaderships of the two nations fundamentally share a worldview, predicated on suspicions of the West (occasional for Kazakhstan, extremely strong and frequent for Russia) and unease at the type of political convulsions that first brought about the Syrian crisis.
Kazakhstan’s behavior at the UN has, therefore, come as a surprise. To some people in Moscow, at least.
The grumbling has been muted so far at the official level. Konstantin Kosachov, the chairman of the committee for international affairs at Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, referred enigmatically to his discomfiture at “one of the positions” in the Security Council, a sly dig at Astana.
Some commentators in the Russian press, meanwhile, reminded readers that it was Moscow that lobbied on Kazakhstan’s behalf for it to secure the presidency of the Security Council as a non-permanent member. The presidency, which started in January 2017 and will conclude at the end of 2018, was seen as Russia’s way of guaranteeing a friendly voice in this important international forum.
On the Evening with Vladimi Solovyov, a political discussion show on Rossiya-1, Russia’s main state-run television station, a typical cast of conspiracy-minded commentators speculated ominously that Kazakhstan is playing a double-game — playing footsie with the West while carrying on with Russia.
“Should we expect the next Maidan in Kazakhstan?” mused Solovyov, referring to the political unrest that toppled the government in Ukraine in 2014.
Coming from such a prominent media figure — one of the Kremlin’s most favored on-screen cheerleading provocateurs — the very suggestion sounds toxic, considering that events in Ukraine eventually led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and then its deep involvement in the Donbass conflict.
The remarks about supposed two-timing were inspired not just by the UN vote. Many in Russia have taken umbrage at Kazakhstan’s recent moves to shed use of the Cyrillic alphabet for the Kazakh language and President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent overtures to the Trump Administration. Kazakhstan would argue that forging a wide spectrum alliances is a logical extension of its much-vaunted multi-vector foreign policy, but in the current international climate, Russian foreign policy hawks appear to take the view that this is no time for subtle diplomatic positioning.
Such talk is inspiring a backlash from Russia skepticism-inclined elements inside Kazakhstan, particularly among the political community sometimess dismissively described as “national-patriots,” who are often given to describing Russia as an aggressor nation.
“In Russia, they have really started beating on Kazakhstan for its position on Syria. We can expect trouble. It would be better to have normal enemies than friends like these,” wrote Twitter user Rinat Balgabayev in a good illustration of the irritation caused by Russian complaints.
That message got a response from a user called Abdulla Migranov: “Now they are going to start with PavlodarNash!”
This was a reference to the KrymNash (Crimea is Ours) meme that was on everybody’s lips in Russia following the annexation of the peninsula.
Journalist Serik Maleyev argued in an article that Kazakhstan should avoid getting embroiled in Russia’s foreign escapades.
"Should Kazakhstan, just for Russia’s sake, get drawn into a confrontation with the West, our main trade and economic partner, just so it can end up with a bare ass, or should we just stick to our more balanced and reasonable position?” Maleyev asked, before concluding: “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”
Another pragmatic commentary on the issue was volunteered by Alexander Haldey, who wrote in a piece on Russia-based political analysis website REX that Kazakhstan was acting out of pure self-interest. Moscow is offering Astana little more than the prospect of returning to its former role as a subject in a broad imperial vision, but Kazakhstan is eager to forge its own path and identity, Haldey said.
“In politics there are no friends … there are only interests,” he said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.