Behind-the-scenes tensions between Kazakhstan and Russia over the war in Ukraine spilled into awkward exchanges at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, where discussions strayed beyond the economy into geopolitics.
Vladimir Putin used the platform to advance the sweeping claim that the entire former Soviet Union was “historical Russia.”
Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of one of its neighbors, the Russian president’s June 17 remarks could hardly fail to arouse alarm in other former Soviet states – like Kazakhstan, whose president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was sharing the stage with Putin.
Tokayev used the occasion to push back hard against territorial claims made on Kazakhstan by some Russian commentators, and to re-state his country’s refusal to recognize Moscow-backed breakaway territories of Ukraine.
The UN Charter is the basis of international law, he said, even if two of its principles are at odds: the right of countries to territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination.
“It has been calculated that if the right of nations to self-determination was realized in reality on the entire globe, over 500 or 600 states would emerge on Earth, instead of the 193 states that are currently part of the UN. Of course that would be chaos,” said Tokayev, a former diplomat who was once the secretary-general of the United Nations office at Geneva.
“For this reason we do not recognize Taiwan, or Kosovo, or South Ossetia, or Abkhazia. And in all likelihood, this principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, Luhansk and Donetsk are.”
Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi had already stated in February that recognition of the breakaway territories was “not on the agenda.”
But Tokayev’s clarification in public to his host Putin was a bold re-statement of that position, adopted as Kazakhstan tries to walk a diplomatic tightrope as its ally Russia wages war in Ukraine.
His comments raised hackles in Russia, where MP Konstantin Zatulin responded with thinly veiled threats against Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity.
“They know too well that a whole range of regions and settlements with a predominantly Russian population have had a weak relationship with what has been called Kazakhstan,” he said.
“We say always and everywhere, including in relation to Ukraine: If we have friendship, cooperation and partnership, then no territorial questions are raised. But if that does not exist, everything is possible. As in the case of Ukraine.”
At the economic forum, Tokayev had already expressed his displeasure over “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan” made by some Russian commentators.
He did not name any, but there is no shortage of Russian pundits questioning Kazakhstan’s nationhood, making territorial claims against it, or criticizing it for invented offenses such as supposedly oppressing Russian speakers.
Tokayev may have had in mind a recent tirade by pundit Tigran Keosayan, who accused Kazakhstan of “ingratitude” to Russia after the government cancelled a Victory Day parade last month and urged it to “look carefully at what is happening in Ukraine.”
Keosayan is the husband of Margarita Simonyan, head of the Kremlin-run broadcaster and propaganda machine RT.
Keosayan suggested that Kazakhstan was ungrateful to Russia after it sent troops as part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) contingent under efforts to quell violent civil unrest in January.
Tokayev used a media interview to reject the suggestion that his country was beholden to Russia because of that.
“In Russia some people distort this whole situation, asserting that Russia supposedly ‘saved’ Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan should now eternally ‘serve and bow down to the feet’ of Russia,” he told Rossiya 24. “I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality.”
Speaking at the economic forum, Tokayev expressed his gratitude to Putin, “who today has comprehensively set out the position of the top leadership, the Kremlin” toward Kazakhstan.
“Indeed, we do not have any issues that can be manipulated in one way or another, sowing discord between our nations and thereby causing damage to our people and to the Russian Federation itself,” he said.
But such talk did little to disguise the fault lines that have emerged in the Russo-Kazakh alliance since Russia began waging war in Ukraine.