Kazakhstan’s government engaged in some not-so-subtle signaling over the weekend by issuing a statement on Catalonia to convey its support for the “territorial integrity” of Spain.
While being careful to note that what happens inside Spain is Madrid’s business alone, the Foreign Ministry in Astana is sending a message on separatism that is worth decoding.
Kazakhstan’s clarity represents a notable contrast with Russia’s stance, which has been typically mischievous. In an October 11 statement on the unfolding situation in Catalonia, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed hopefulness that the situation would be “resolved through dialogue within the strict framework of Spanish legislation in the interests of a united and flourishing Spain.”
Russia’s state media, however, is talking a different game. Following the Catalonian parliament’s declaration of independence on October 27, bulletins of the largest state broadcaster Pervy Kanal led with developments in Catalonia, running several reports on the issue before eventually turning to more obviously local interest news about fresh US sanctions being imposed against Russia.
The more trollish, English-language wing of Moscow’s information machine took slightly more provocative lines, talking up the prospect of violent unrest and editorially describing the day that Madrid decided to strip Catalonia of its autonomy as one of the “saddest days in Spain's modern history.”
Kazakhstan’s deeply buried neuroses about the potential for separatism within its borders have been in increasingly open view since Russia undertook a campaign of annexation and disruption in another of its neighbors — Ukraine. Northern areas of Kazakhstan are heavily populated by ethnic Slavs, and there have in the past been attempts, albeit amateurish, by adventurists to force this issue.
The General Prosecutor’s Office in Astana routinely orders the blockage of websites it deems to be inciting separatism, an offense as noxious to the government as extremism. In December 2016, a court in the Northern Kazakhstan Region sentenced a man to 5 1/2 years in jail for penning disparaging posts about ethnic Kazakhs on his VKontakte page — an that offense prosecutors said constituted an attempt to undermine the country’s territorial unity.
Possibly by coincidence, these kinds of measures came on the heels of remarks by Vladimir Putin in August 2014, when the Russian leader quipped that his nation’s border "doesn't end anywhere.” Although the remark was intended in presumably heavy-handed jest, it was not interpreted that way among Russia’s neighbors, including in Kazakhstan.
Ukraine presents a problem area for Kazakhstan, since the leadership in charge there came to power through the kind of public revolt viewed with disgust by Astana. While President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been openly caustic about the makeup of the Ukrainian government, that is not to say he has endorsed Moscow’s actions in either Crimea or the Donbas.
Catalonia presents a more clear-cut situation on which Kazakhstan is able to adopt a firm and, on the face of it, uncontroversial position. But it isn’t Spain that Astana is worrying about.