Kazakhstan has scaled up its rhetoric on protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, most probably against Russian and Chinese expansionist threats.
Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has written in a state-run newspaper that “nobody from outside gave Kazakhs this large territory as a gift”.
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Written under the headline ‘Independence — A Most Precious Thing’ on the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence and a few days before the parliamentary elections, the article was a jibe at Russia and China. Both claim Kazakhstan was part of their territories in the past and that it should be integrated with them again.
In December 2020, Russian lawmakers had riled Kazakhstan by questioning the country’s existence. Russian State Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov had said “the territory of Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”.
The statement was made during a program on the signing of the Belovezha Accords on December 8, 1991, which effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Kazakhstan was the last of the USSR’s republics to declare independence on December 16, 1991. Nikonov had said that when the Soviet Union was created in 1917:
“Kazakhstan simply did not exist as a country, its northern territories were basically uninhabited,” and that areas “further down south [in present-day Kazakhstan], most of the territories were basically given as a gift to [the Kazakhs] by the Soviet Union, by Russia.”
A few days later State Duma deputy Yevgeny Fedorov agreed with Nikonov’s statement and said that Kazakhstan must return its territories to Russia. He said: Kazakhstan was a “big gift from Russia.”
Referring to the Kazakh foreign ministry’s summoning of the charge d’affaires, Fedorov said: “It’s one thing that a kind Russian person gave you a gift and you appreciate it and are friends with him. But another thing is if you spit on him, as in this case, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry did [on Russia].”
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The Kazakh Foreign Ministry had said at the time that the statement of a State Duma deputy does not correspond to the official position of the Russian Federation and “we must rely on history”.
In a strongly-worded article, the Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wrote: “Kazakhstan is a single state. Kazakhstan is a single state. Our country is not divided into southern, northern, western, and eastern…. Our sacred land, inherited from our ancestors, is our main wealth. Nobody from the outside gave this vast territory to the Kazakhs. Our history today is not measured by only 1991 or 1936.”
Experts say the Kazakh government has protested against such statements before but at the same time has been cautious in its ties with Russia and China to avoid getting into conflict.
Hence, the President’s harsh words are likely due to the growing sentiment in the country and growing internal pressure on the government to look after national interests in its dealings with China and Russia.
Another reason to believe so is the thriving ties between Russia and Kazakhstan. Catherine Putz, the managing editor of The Diplomat and expert on Central Asia and Afghanistan, writes: “At the end of each episode of traded insults and diplomatic notes over Kazakh sovereignty one thing is clear: No matter how offensive some find such comments, Kazakh-Russian bilateral relations remain strong and on course”.
In April 2020 China had published an article stating that Kazakhstan was once part of China and the majority of the Kazakh population wanted to rejoin China.
A Chinese website, Tuotiao.com, had published an article titled “Why didn’t Kyrgyzstan return to China after gaining Independence?” The piece made elaborate claims on how under the Khan dynasty, 510,000 sq km of Kyrgystan, which means the entire country was part of Chinese land but the Russian empire took over the territory.
Another popular Chinese news website Sohu.com had said: “Kazakhstan is located on territories that historically belong to China”. Kazakhstan had summoned the Chinese ambassador and the foreign ministry had said the article was not in the spirit of a lasting defense partnership between the two countries.
The move was welcomed by the people of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to China and the country’s leading judge, Murad Auzov, said it was “commendable” to send a letter of protest to China.
It is believed China, a major economic and defense power, wants to capture Kazakhstan’s natural resources. The Kazakh citizens have raised concerns over economic agreements as they would open the door to a large number of Chinese nationals.
Another concern is the treatment of ethnic minorities in China, including the Kazakhs in Xinjiang province. The country has seen many anti-China protests, some resulting in forcing the government to formulate its decisions on the basis of public sentiment.
In 2016, the Kazakhs had protested against the government’s plans for selling the country’s agricultural land to Chinese buyers. The second wave of protests had occurred in 2019 when the country was planning industrial projects with China.
China and Kazakhstan share a border of around 1700 km and the issue was raised after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 but the two countries had signed a treaty defining sovereignty over a 680 sq-km area near the Baimurz pass and another 380 square-km area near the Sary-Charndy River in 1998.