Kazakhstan: Man Jailed Over Separatism Sensitivities

A man has been jailed on charges of promoting separatism in Kazakhstan — the first time someone has been thrown behind bars for a crime introduced last year, while separatist conflict raged in Ukraine.

The resident of the northern town of Ridder, a stone’s throw from Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia, received a five-year prison sentence for his activities on a social networking website, the Total.kz reports.

Igor Sychev, 26, was found guilty of propagating separatism over an online poll he published in spring quizzing the residents of Ridder on their views of whether their province, East Kazakhstan Region, should secede and join Russia.

The poll was published on the Heard in Ridder forum on Russian social networking site VKontakte, of which Sychev was administrator.

“I did not create the poll, and after there was a complaint the poll was removed,” Total.kz quoted Sychev as saying after the verdict was delivered on November 18.

“I have never engaged nor do I engage in any separatist activity,” added Sychev, who said his “illegal” trial had been conducted “for show.”

Sychev was convicted under a clause criminalizing calls for separatism that was hurriedly inserted into a new version of the criminal code passed last year. The crime carries a maximum 10-year jail term.

As many commentators pointed out at the time, pro-Russian activists fomenting violence in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk could not fail to arouse consternation in Kazakhstan.

Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.

In Sychev’s hometown of Ridder, Russians make up 85 percent of the population, and in the regional capital of Oskemen — which is home to some virulent pro-Kremlin sentiment — they make up 67 percent.

Kazakhstan is traditionally a staunch Russian ally, but Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine created stresses in the relationship.

There were tensions over Russian nationalist politicians laying claim to swathes of northern Kazakhstan, including Ridder, and a suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Kazakhstan has a short history of statehood — making it by implication frail — raised hackles in Astana.

This year, Kazakhstan has been celebrating what Astana bills as its 550th anniversary of statehood, to drive homethe point that the country had a long and illustrious history before Russia came along and colonized it.

Kazakhstan: Man Jailed Over Separatism Sensitivities

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