The have been some rumblings of irritation in Kazakhstan over reports that an ultra-nationalist member of parliament in Russia called for parts of northern Kazakhstan to be “taken back.”
According to some flimsily sourced reports, a deputy with the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Pavel Shperov, is said to have made his remarks, describing parts of Kazakhstan as “temporarily seized” lands, at a January 26 roundtable on the plight of ethnic Russian living overseas. Shperov is then reported to have predicted that the return of those lands was imminent.
There are lingering suspicions the remarks might have been a fabrication, or at best a gross distortion of what was said at some point — Shperov’s colleagues have blamed media in Ukraine.
“I can assure you that nobody had any idea of revising the borders of Russia and Kazakhstan. The quote has clearly been taken out of context and has been accompanied by the subjective and obviously contrived assumptions of the journalist,” the head of the State Duma committee for international affairs, Leonid Slutsky, also an LDPR deputy, told reporters on February 1.
Be that as it may, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry reached out to its Russian counterparts to seek reassurances. On February 1, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi initiated a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, to reconfirm that relations between the countries remained founded on mutual acknowledgement of one another’s borders, among other things.
“Russia asserted that entreaties from the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan have been considered in all serious,” ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov told Tengri News.
Now while the LDPR and its representatives are often wont to make extravagant and aggressive nationalist statements, Shperov is no ordinary member of the party. His position as the party’s authorized envoy in the State Council of Crimea lends his remark a worrying piquancy, seeing that was obviously the same territory that Moscow annexed using the protection of the ethnic Russian community as justification.
The issue should have been closed with the phone call between Kazakhstan’s and Russia’s senior diplomats but for the ambivalent remarks of Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova on February 3.
While stating Moscow’s continued and consistent commitment to its relations with Kazakhstan, Zakharova underplayed the seriousness of Shperov’s remarks.
“But we live in an era of ‘democratic trends’ (NB: quotation marks inserted in Russian Foreign Ministry readout), when democracy is a universally accepted and, possibly, optimal form of state formation. Within this form, people, and especially politicians, have the opportunity to express their personal view, the views of their electorate, the views that will be supported by the electorate in future,” Zakharova said at a Foreign Ministry press briefing.
This is less than reassuring.
It is now well-established common knowledge that Russia was a signatory to a 1994 treaty that was to have provided for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. That landmark document notwithstanding, Russia chose in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 to deploy its troops throughout Crimea and hastily organize a referendum that led to its absorption of the peninsula.
Zakharova’s equivocal language about the importance of the electorate and “democratic trends” is, in that context, unnerving. It is immediately obvious to anybody with even superficial knowledge that the Russian authorities have little regard for freedoms of expression — even for politicians — when it comes to matters of territorial integrity.
On January 30, the Crimea branch of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, filed criminal charges against Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov on charges of calling publicly for the “violation of territorial integrity.”
While Moscow may be no stranger to flagrant hypocrisy on this front, it is perplexing why it insists on repeatedly needling Astana — especially when Kazakhstan has an established record of sensitivity over this emotive issue.
The deepest wound was inflicted in August 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a surely calculated slight, noted that Kazakhstan had only a short history of statehood, as if to imply that the country’s borders should not be considered wholly inviolate. If his aim was to offer succor to ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, the remarks have had quite the opposite effect. Since that time, a handful of ethnic Russians have been on the receiving end of prosecutions on charges of calling for the breakaway of northern regions of Kazakhstan.
The timing is also profoundly unfortunate. Kazakhstan has proven a steadfast ally and, in that capacity, a valuable member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trading bloc. And that is despite emerging evidence that the bloc has had little of the anticipated positive impact on trading volumes among member states, which also include Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.
So much so, that Belarus is now making irritated noises about its fortunes within the EEU.
Moscow-based news agency Regnum ran a spurious report earlier this week claiming that Belarus was considering pulling out of not just the EEU, but also the Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc. Although the article was implausible at first glance, it did reflect a demonstrably genuine mood of unhappiness and sent ripples of anxiety throughout the region that intensified even further when Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko delivered a lengthy diatribe on February 3 accusing Russia of using its role as an energy supplier to “grab us by the throat.”
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.