Russian officials are depicting the Kazakhstan steppe town that hosts the world’s oldest space-launch facility as marching in lockstep with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – much to the outrage of many Kazakhs.
Dmitri Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, wrote in a March 9 post on Twitter that Baikonur residents had been involved in displays of support for what Vladimir Putin has dubbed a “special military operation.”
The post featured photos of cars and residents forming the letters “V” and “Z,” which have become unofficial symbols of support for the invasion, as well as a photo of Kazakh youth waving Russian flags.
Rogozin called it “a demonstration in support of V.V. Putin and the armed forces of Russia.”
That Moscow is using the town as a propaganda tool is uncomfortable for Kazakhstan, where authorities are stressing their neutrality in a bid to dodge direct sanctions and avoid further igniting local passions surrounding the bloody, escalating war.
The town’s complicated legal status gives Nur-Sultan limited room for maneuver, however.
According to a bilateral agreement, Baikonur “is endowed with a status corresponding to the city of federal significance of the Russian Federation, with a special regime for the safe operation of facilities, enterprises and organizations, as well as the residence of citizens” for as long as the Kazakh government leases the launch facility to Russia.
While the city’s mayor is jointly appointed by the presidents of both countries, it is Moscow that proposes the candidate.
Rogozin’s post caused a wave of anger on social media, where many users said they believe local students had been unwittingly drafted into the demonstration.
Responding to one Facebook post calling for Kazakh authorities to investigate the rallies, the regional education department said that Kazakh government-controlled educational institutions in the town had not participated in the rally.
Instead, the participants were affiliated with Roscosmos and Russian-controlled schools in the town, the education department said.
The Kazakh government had not been notified, it claimed, characterizing the March 9 demonstration as one “in support of peaceful residents.”
In any other Kazakh city, notifying local authorities is a bare minimum for anyone that wants to hold a rally without risking arrest.
Decision-makers in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, surprised some by permitting a 3,000-strong March 6 rally peace rally on the same day that the Kremlin cracked down on protesters taking to the streets of Russian cities.
Baikonur activist Marat Dauletbayev enjoyed no such lenience.
He was detained for staging a one-man picket against Russian aggression in Ukraine in his hometown on March 4.
After being held for two hours and tested for drugs, he was released with a warning, he wrote on Facebook, adding that his demonstration was partly motivated by the fear that Russia might one day invade Kazakhstan in a similar fashion.
“I do not want the war to come to my Kazakh land and for Russian soldiers to destroy and kill my people,” Dauletbayev said.
Russia is doubtless unimpressed by Kazakhstan’s tightrope walk over Ukraine.
In January, a Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization mission swooped in at President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request and helped his government restore control amid Kazakhstan’s worst unrest since independence, departing later that month.
On February 22, after Putin recognized two separatist states in eastern Ukraine, one of his leading propagandists, Russia Today editor Margarita Simonyan, excoriated Nur-Sultan for failing to follow Moscow’s lead.
“Why did we save them, you ask?” Simonyan wrote on Facebook, in a post about Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi’s refusal to countenance such a move.
Kazakhstan came under Russian verbal fire again last week. Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the communist party in Moscow’s tightly controlled state duma, claimed fantastically on March 6 that Russia’s southern neighbor was hosting nine biological weapons laboratories controlled by “American agents” just across the two countries’ shared border.
Tleuberdi on March 10 dismissed the remarks, noting that they had not been broadcast on Russian state channels and citing Zyuganov’s official status as an opposition figure.
The foreign minister likewise waved away comments made by Zyuganov back in January that called on Putin to take measures to protect Russian speakers in Kazakhstan from the government’s alleged Russophobia.
Tleuberdi explained that during Tokayev’s visit to Moscow last month, Putin assured him that he had no claims whatsoever to any of Kazakhstan’s territory.
Daniyar Moldabekov is a journalist based in Almaty.