A Shot Across the Bow: The Biggest Thing in Kazakh-Russian Relations in Years

The video from yesterday of Putin answering a question about Kazakh nationalism is a really big deal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hl0HdcdA9Uk#t=69). I think this is the most important political development in Kazakh-Russian relations in the last five years. I’ve noted that the transcripts in Russian and the translations in English are missing not only a lot of subtleties, but also actual text. So this version is a complete translation, from the video. I’ve hewed as closely as I can to what is said, including little tics and digressions that are important. I also added notes below on why I think this is such a huge deal and the context for understanding it.

Q from Young Woman: Today there is constant discussion about nationalism in Ukraine. But we are worried also about another situation connected with the growth of nationalist attitudes in Kazakhstan, particularly in southern Kazakhstan. It seems to us that the restraining factor in this case is the current President, Mr. Nazarbaev. There are also difficulties with Kazakhs’ correctly understanding Russian political rhetoric. In particular, we can see this in the Internet with figures from public associations, and in personal interactions. Question: do we need to expect a Ukrainian scenario if Mr. Nazarbaev leaves the post of president? Is there a strategy in this regard? We have a proposal, we would like them to join [хотели бы присоединиться], of course if that is possible. And what are the prospects for Eurasian integration?

And also something from me, you look great, that cardigan suits you really well.

[Applause and laughter]

A: [Putin makes a flattered face, asks the moderator something]

So this is called a cardigan? [Laughter and applause]

I want to say about Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is our closest strategic ally and partner. And, first of all, President Nazarbaev is alive and well and for now is not going anywhere [“for now”!]. But naturally, as a person who is very experienced and a wise leader, he is always thinking about the future of his country.

As regards certain statements on the Internet, some kind of discussions with citizens of Kazakhstan. It’s completely natural that something could be said from a totally different point of view. People are different. This is of course a country with a population 10 times smaller than that of Russia, it’s only 15 million, but all the same it’s a big country by European standards. But I am convinced that an overwhelming majority of the population of Kazakhstan will support the development of relations with Russia. We see that, we know. And what is happening – you know, Nazarbaev is a very intelligent leader [грамотный, implying cultured, sophisticated], and I think in the post-Soviet space perhaps the most intelligent. He would never go against the will of his people. He understands that very subtly. He understands very subtly what the people expect. And everything that has been accomplished in recent times -- thanks of course to a large degree to his organizational talent, his political experience -- that has all been in order to support the interests of Kazakhstan as a state.

I already said that he accomplished a unique thing. He created a state on a territory where there had never been a state. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. He founded it. In that sense on the post-Soviet space he is a unique individual, and for Kazakhstan also. But, I repeat, he’s not the only one here [дело не только в нем]. We’re talking about the opinions of a majority, an overwhelming majority of society. And what we’re now doing in the construction of the Customs Union, the single economic space, and the Eurasian Union – and this is by the way his idea, the Eurasian Union, I should admit that, I didn’t think it up, he did. And we are helping, that is we have joined into all its development, and we will take it to its logical conclusion. [clearly loses train of thought] Uh, it is founded on a significant, uh, philosophers know, yes? This Eurasian idea, how it developed, who supported it, in Russia itself. And Kazakhs have adopted it. That’s because they see it is good for them, good for the development of the economy, good in order to remain in the sphere of the so-called greater Russian world, which is a part of global civilization, good from the perspective of the development of manufacturing and advanced technologies, and so on. I am sure that this is how it will be in the medium-term and in the long-term perspective.

Some notes:

- The most important thing is that this question was asked. Putin doesn’t do unscripted events. The question is at an absolute minimum vetted – and I think far more likely planted. It is rehearsed, as you can tell from the way the questioner formulates her thoughts. It is no accident at all that this question was asked publicly, to Putin, on national television. Note that when she shifts to the cardigan question she says “And now something from me”.
- She really does say, “We have a proposal, we would like them to join”. She doesn’t say what Kazakhstan would join, but the only logical answer is “Russia”. Kazakhstan is already a member of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. It can’t join them. The only thing it could join is Russia. I cannot overemphasize how shocking that is to hear at an official Putin event.
- When she talks about Russian political rhetoric and how Kazakhs don’t understand it correctly, she is probably referring to strong recent reactions against Russian nationalist statements about Kazakhstan. The way this is phrased is quite condescending. I heard it as, “Why don’t these dumb Kazakhs understand us better?”

Putin’s Answer:
- Kazakhstan’s population is 17 million people, Russia’s is 143 million. It has taken a lot of work for Kazakhstan’s government to get the population to 17 million after it declined in the post-Soviet collapse. Putin knows the number isn’t 15 million. This is intended as a slight, as you can see from the “all the same it’s a very big country”. I heard this as, “Kazakhstan is a kind of pitiful place compared to Russia, but they have a lot of territory.”
- The statement that is getting the most attention: is У казахов не было никогда государственности is literally “The Kazakhs had never had statehood.” It is not “The Kazakhs have no state.”
- He always refers to “Kazakhs” not “Kazakhstanis” (казахи vs. казахстанцы). This gives the speech an ethnic tone. When he’s talking about Kazakhs never having statehood, he means the nomadic Kazakhs before the Russian Empire. This is a very live issue in Kazakhstan, where Kazakh nationalism based in pride in Kazakh history has been growing stronger and stronger. The speech will be incredibly inflammatory for Kazakh nationalism. Putin knows that.
- When he talks about the Eurasian Union and how it was Nazarbaev’s idea, he seems irritated. Since the Ukraine crisis started, Nazarbaev has been saying loudly that the EEU is not a political project, that it is only economic, and that Kazakhstan could leave if it doesn’t suit them. He watered down the treaty in May right before it was signed. There is no question if you watch the video that Putin is irritated with Nazarbaev’s behavior on the EEU. And when he says the EEU will be taken to its logical conclusion, I read that as meaning a political union.
- The little tangent on philosophers and Eurasia – he’s indicating the roots of Eurasianism in Russian thought going back to the 19th century and how this is a Russian idea.
- The section on why Kazakhs see the EEU as good for them is the other one that’s been most mistranslated and misquoted. Putin clearly says that Kazakhs think the EEU is good for them because it allows them to stay in the greater Russian world, which is a part of world civilization. The implication is that Kazakhstan is not a part of world civilization without being a part of the greater Russian world. This is shockingly insulting.
- (He also doesn’t say российский мир, which would mean the world of people identifying with Russia the state or Russian language, but the русский мир, meaning the world of people that are ethnically Russian. You can imagine how this might make ethnic Kazakhs (or others) feel.)

In sum: this is an extraordinary event. I don’t know how the Kazakh government will respond to this, but assuredly there are people in Astana in very high places who are both scared and furious.

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