oDR: Opinion

As Navalny rises in Russia, Kazakhstan watches nervously

Tired of their own government’s corruption, many Kazakhs envy Navalny's open challenge to Putin, while fearing a resurgence in Russian nationalism.

Nygmet Ibadildin
26 February 2021, 12.01am
Source: thephilippena / Pixabay

Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia, and his subsequent trial, has unleashed a new wave of protest in the country, making him a hero to the country’s opposition. Citizens in some neighbouring states, however, are watching the unfolding drama in Moscow with mixed feelings.

Kazakhstan, in particular, has been following Navalny’s Orwellian trial with interest. While Kazakh official media has mainly ignored the pro-Navalny street protests that swept Russia in January, opinions on social media have been divided over the case. To some, Navalny speaks like an imperialist, anti-migrant populist – yet is also an anti-corruption watchdog, directly challenging president Vladimir Putin.

Navalny is now fighting for his life – and for a new and free Russia – against a closed system built by former KGB officers. Indeed, the “old Russia” that Navalny opposes is eerily similar to the corrupt authorities of oil-rich Kazakhstan. But beyond this, why would the fate of Navalny interest people here?

Friendship or domination?

First, Putin is a close ally of post-Soviet autocratic governments, including the ruling elite in Kazakhstan, which shares a long common history with Moscow, as far back as the Tsarist empire. Indeed, the old guard of Kazakhstan’s political elite was educated in Moscow and still holds pro-Russian sentiments.

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Second, the Russian language is widely used in Kazakhstan: Russian media and TV channels are popular and widespread in all major Kazakh cities. Third, Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which is arguably a continuation of Russia’s economic domination.

But these are background matters when set against two more pressing concerns for Kazakh society about Navalny and what he implies for the future of Russian politics.

At first glance, the problem with Navalny is straightforward: he is well known for his previous xenophobic and arrogant remarks about Central Asian migrants – thousands of whom travel to Russia for work every year – and people from Russia’s North Caucasus. In the 2000s, against a backdrop of violence against migrant workers in Russia, he participated in Russian nationalist marches.

Alexey Navalny | (c) Finistre Arnaud/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Today, he supports the establishment of a visa regime with Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, which would provide medical insurance and workplace guarantees for migrant workers in Russia. He also supports the ideas of subsidised Russian language courses for migrants, a visa-free regime for EU and US nationals and an easier process of entering the country for “educated” migrants.

With these policies, Navalny seems to have smoothed out his earlier, more radical views. But it leaves a question mark nonetheless over northern Kazakhstan, a region with an ethnic Russian minority where relatives often live on different sides of the porous border – and where people from both countries trade and work. In a hypothetical scenario in which Navalny comes to power, these connections could be disrupted as the result of a new visa regime. This would also provide a new bureaucratic obstacle for Kazakh students in Russia, as well as migrant workers.

There’s also disquiet about territorial seizure. While Navalny’s popularity grows as an opposition leader in Russia, with widespread support from western public figures, Kazakhs wonder if he will continue a familiar Russian rhetorical theme about northern Kazakhstan.

Border trouble

The region, which shares the world’s longest border with Russia, has featured a predominantly Russian population since the 1930s when nomadic Kazakhs died en masse in a famine. The disaster, known as Asharshylyq in Kazakh, was caused by Soviet collectivisation and the forced expropriation of livestock. For over a decade, the Kazakh government tried a policy of encouraging migration from southern Kazakhstan to the north, with mixed success. But decades-long efforts to foster civic identity and encourage attachment to Kazakhstan among the ethnic Russian population have not gone as planned.

In Kazakhstan, Russian state TV broadcasts contribute to fears of a return to the days of the Russian empire. The channels encouraged anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the wake of the country’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution, and transmit anti-western propaganda, consumed by people in Kazakhstan on a daily basis.

pjimage (10).jpg
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Eduard Limonov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky | Sources: Wikipedia - Dutch National Archives (CCo), Dmitry Rozhkov (CC BY SA 4.0), Russian Parliament (CC BY 4.0)

Since the 1990s, a range of public figures in Russia – from the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to the writer and provocateur Eduard Limonov (who was accused of organising a separatist coup in Kazakhstan), to the nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky – have argued that Russia should “take back” northern Kazakhstan. The position is either justified by the supposed need to protect ethnic Russians living there, or by claims that the region is a part of Russia’s historical territory.

Domestic concerns

Behind the supposed concern for the rights of Russian-speaking peoples worldwide, there are internal motivations. By making such statements, Russian public figures want to appeal to their country’s citizens and boost the imperial vision of the “Russian world” – the imagined cross-border community of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers – and keep neighbouring countries under constant stress.

This message was reprised in December 2020, when the influential Russian journalist Vyacheslav Nikonov and the nationalist politician Evgeny Fyodorov made strange territorial claims about northern Kazakhstan. Nikonov claimed that Kazakhstan had never existed, saying that it was “a great gift” from Russia. Fyodorov went further, saying that Kazakhstan had “leased its territory from the Soviet Union”.

This followed a statement by Putin in summer 2020, when the president told Russian TV viewers that former Soviet Republics had been gifted with Russia’s traditionally historic territories”. (The following day Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, tried to pacify the storm: “Russia does not have territorial claims against its neighbours,” he said.)

Outside the city of Pavlodar, northern Kazakhstan, 2015 | CC BY NC ND 2.0 valeria petrini / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Navalny also commented on the controversy, arguing that Putin’s statement was directed at increasing his popularity with Russia’s domestic audience. It took Russian diplomats in Kazakhstan two months to clarify Putin’s statement and acknowledge the absence of any territorial disagreements between the two countries.

Waiting and watching

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Ukraine’s Donbas, territorial claims against Kazakhstan by influential figures in Russia sound ominous. In the wake of the 2014 annexation, Navalny stated that Crimea is a part of Russia, which outraged Ukrainians and disconcerted Kazakhs over the fate of northern Kazakhstan.

In a 2017 interview to the BBC, Navalny publicly stated that he is not an imperialist and that Russia needs to avoid expansionist wars if it is to develop. Yet in the past, albeit far from regularly, he also has stated that Russia should protect the interests of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan may be a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, hold military treaties on collective security with Russia, and maintain Russia as the key transit country for oil exports. But is this enough to shield Kazakhstan from the demands of Russia’s nationalists in the future?

Could Navalny provide hope for Kazakhstan, dispelling fears of a Russian imperial revival if he came to power? Could the West eventually link its support for Navalny to conditions on human rights? These are all questions that people in Kazakhstan have in mind, as they watch events across the border.

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