The recent visit to Kazakhstan by a notoriously provocative and pro-government TV presenter on Russian state television drew howls of indignation from the self-styled national-patriotic camp.
The irritation could be felt even before the arrival of Vladimir Solovyov, who is among others things charged with being a prominent propagator of the chauvinist “Russian World” ideology that underlies much of the aggressive diplomatic, and at times military, posturing by Moscow toward its neighbors. Solovyov has, for example, been an ardent champion of the annexation of Crimea and condemned Ukrainian government attempts to regain control over its separatist-occupied territories in the east.
Unruffled by the criticism, Solovyov described his detractors in Kazakhstan as “lost people suffering from mental illnesses.”
The talk show presenter was ostensibly in Kazakhstan to lead a training seminar for people looking to get ahead in business, deal with tricky opponents and develop leadership techniques.
He was bullish on his return to Russia this week, noting on his Twitter feed that “the seminar went well. I met no ‘outraged citizens.’ That was to be expected. Internet hamsters do not reflect the mood of the population.”
Kazakh-language media in particular has had a field day.
The website Abai.kz ran a story under the headline: “Fire the people that invited Solovyov!”
Politician and commentator Amirzhan Kosanov was quoted as saying that it was absolutely mandatory that “any kind of propagandist should be given no quarter.”
Political analyst Yerlan Sairov, meanwhile, argued that Solovyov’s seminar would lead to internal splits within society since he “reeks from head to toe of chauvinism.”
While the bulk of commentary ran along those lines, some did buck the trend. Local media magnate and founder of the local edition of Forbes magazine Armanzhan Baitasov argued that Solovyov had not come to Kazakhstan as a political figure but as a media professional.
“In our country you will struggle to find a television journalist of Solovyov’s caliber, and the outrage over the visit of a Russian star looks like a popular uprising against education,” Baitasov said.
Baitasov was also subjected to a wave of criticism after he posted a picture of himself online posing with Solovyov. The businessman said that he was alarmed by the attacks against him and said that he had received threats.
It must be said that the decline of Russia’s standing among some quarters of society in Kazakhstan is very a phenomenon of its own making.
In January, for instance, a deputy with the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Pavel Shperov, caused profound umbrage by reportedly describing parts of Kazakhstan as “temporarily seized” lands. The implication was that Russia should, as it did with the Crimean Peninsula, reclaim that territory.
Russian authorities can be very defensive about the interests of its closest allies, but despite Shperov’s remarks causing deep offense in Kazakhstan, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow responded with an insouciant shrug.
This was as nothing compared to what happened 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.
While claiming to be unjustly smeared in the eyes of the world, Russia fails to do itself any favors with the kind of figures it permits to gain influence and prominence on its public airwaves.
And this is not the first time Solovyov has received a frosty welcome in a neighboring and ostensibly friendly nation. In November, he visited Belarus and was greeted by similar indignation. A group of Belarusian nationalist activists sought to break up his seminar but were repelled by security staff.
Such is the sad lot of a brash Russian patriot abroad.