On March 19, a group of women and men in Petropavlovsk, a city in northern Kazakhstan near the border with Russia, gathered in a conference room to declare the foundation of a People’s Soviet.
The chairwoman recited a bombastically worded agenda with only scant enthusiasm. At times, the people around the table barely appeared to be listening.
Later, another attendee delivered an invective against the history of privatization in Kazakhstan, decrying the sale of collective assets to foreign investors. In the video footage of her remarks posted to the Petropavlovsk People’s Soviet Vkontake page, the woman’s voice is almost entirely muffled by something sounding like an air conditioner unit.
For a week, nobody took notice.
That changed when video footage of the meeting began circulating online at the end of the month. The proceedings were comprised largely of dry bureaucratic matters only occasionally spiced with broadsides against Western decadence. But one moment stuck out. The language read out by the chair is almost identical to those of the resolution adopted at the meeting and uploaded online.
“We men and women, laborers, able and free, hereby declaring our self-rule, our independence and sovereignty from the national corporation that is ‘the Republic of Kazakhstan’ … are reviving the People’s Soviet of Workers of Petropavlovsk in the North Kazakhstan province,” the Russian-language passage reads.
At first glance, the almost comically self-important verbiage feels hard to take seriously. But to some, this felt like a troublingly familiar picture. After all, the Russian-engineered separatist movements that cropped up in eastern Ukraine in 2014 were also initially spearheaded by marginal eccentrics with dewy-eyed memories of the Soviet era.
The charge against the Petropavlovsk Soviets was led by BASE, a YouTube account with heavily anti-government leanings. BASE framed its indignation as an attack on the inaction of the government.
“We have managed to establish that not one of the people in this separatist gathering has yet faced criminal or administrative charges,” a BASE member said in a video about the Petropavlovsk group. “The authorities have decided not to react. Just let as many people as you want declare their sovereignty.”
The exasperation is not without basis. Authorities in Kazakhstan are typically very quick to stamp out any unsanctioned political activity, and anything questioning the very legitimacy of the state is considered entirely beyond the pale.
The country’s most prominent opposition group, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK in its Russian initials, which was founded by exiled government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov, was in 2018 declared an “extremist organization” – a designation akin to a terrorist organization. Any pickets mounted by that movement or groups with suspected links to it are always aggressively shut down within minutes by riot police.
Ever since the start to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, anything with the slightest whiff of separatism elicits a harsh crackdown. Last year, a married couple, also from Petropavlovsk, were sentenced to five years in prison for expressing their hopes, in a private conversation, that Russia would absorb their region. According to the press service of the court that handed down the sentence, the case rested on a conversation the couple had with a man on ChatRoulette, a website that describes itself as “a platform for meeting random people.”
BASE went further with its accusations in a follow-up video. The Petropavlovsk People’s Soviet was identical to many similar groups existing in Russia, it said. And all of them are controlled by Russian security services. Such claims are hardly outlandish, as the Ukraine precedent has demonstrated, but BASE offered no concrete substantiation to its allegations in this instance.
By then, the police had intervened.
"This incident has been registered with us in the police department of the North Kazakhstan region,” the police said in a terse statement on March 30. “Investigative measures are being pursued.”
Lawmakers and other state-aligned institutions joined the fray too.
"We appeal to [Prosecutor General Berik Asylov] to investigate this matter and to adopt any legal measures, if necessary," a group of deputies from the Majilis, as the lower house of parliament is known, said in a written statement.
The parastatal Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, a body designed to foster interethnic harmony, came out with its stern condemnation of the Petropavlovsk group.
“We … declare that the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan is inviolable and is guaranteed by domestic and international legislation. We regard these actions as a betrayal of the country’s interests that is undermining the constitutional foundation, security, unity and stability of our state,” the assembly said. “Such provocations are extremely irresponsible and must be severely suppressed.”
Others have taken a more sanguine stance. In its reporting on the soi-disant Petropavlovsk Soviet, news outlet Orda claimed that other such small and marginal groups exist in Kazakhstan.
“In the main, these societies tend to be composed of plumbers, cleaners, handymen, and so on. That is to say, [representatives of economically] vulnerable classes,” an Orda journalist concluded sniffily in a video report.
Dimash Alzhanov, a political analyst who has been active in opposition movements, saw the meddling of security services operatives behind the Petropavlovsk. Not those of Russia, but of Kazakhstan, he said in remarks on the YouTube-based political affairs channel HyberBorei.
The social media accounts of the Petropavlovsk People’s Soviet only materialized a few weeks ahead of parliamentary elections that have dismayed people expecting more of an open competition, Alzhanov noted. The outcome of an election that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had claimed would constitute a dramatic and liberalizing reset of the system has produced another seemingly compliant legislature, and that fact stood to anger the public, Alzhanov suggested.
“There has been a lot of criticism addressed at Tokayev, about the unfair elections, the falsification, all of that. So how can you drown out that background noise? Of course, by creating this feeling among people about threats to territorial integrity,” he said. “And in this case, it worked really well. We saw how people reacted, immaterial of their political positions.”
For now, the clamor has resolved with a whimper.
In yet another video, a pair of members of the Petropavlovsk People’s Soviet offered a half-apology, explaining that they had not intended to declare independence from Kazakhstan itself. Their objection, they explained, was to the oligarchs who had captured the country through their underhanded, corrupt means.
It is not clear that the police or prosecutors are still investigating the matter. And the Petropavlovsk People’s Soviet is poised to sink from public view as quickly as it appeared.