Kazakhstan’s information space is not monolithic. According to political rhetoric, the general perception of major internal and external events in official, national-patriotic, opposition and pro-Western media significantly differs. In most media the spotlight is on events related to Russia, its political life and international initiatives.
Several key themes have formed in relation to Russia’s image of Russia in the local information space: the language issue, the problem of our compatriots, Eurasian economic integration and, more recently, the Ukrainian crisis.
The official mass media has broadly promoted ideas of Eurasianism and the benefits of the integration process, forming a generally positive image of Russia as a key partner of Kazakhstan in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Thus official channels in Astana reported the signing of the EAEU Treaty on 29 May 2014 under the headlines “It’s finished!” (Kazakh TV) and “a historic event” (Astana TV). Kazakhstan Pravda called it an “event of landmark importance”.
Unequivocal comments on the economic nature of integration are reinforced by comments about the solid negotiating position of the Kazakhstan Delegation “ready to defend Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and independence” in the integration process. It’s no accident that, at the 5 March 2014 meeting of “Customs Trio” leaders, Nazarbayev reiterated the inadmissibility of ignoring the opinion of those “apprehensive about the politicization of integration”.
The deepening co-operation with Moscow’s official media is balanced with assurances that the expansion of Russian-Kazakh contacts will not affect Astana’s relations with Western and Turkic partners whilst a multi-vector foreign policy is maintained.
The official rhetoric has not substantially changed against the background of the development of the Ukrainian crisis. Information is presented in the spirit of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s statement: “As a strategic partner, Kazakhstan understands Russia’s position in protecting the rights of ethnic minorities in the Ukraine, as well as her security interests” (Kazinform Media Information Agency). Kazakhstan’s reserved and neutral reaction to Russia’s actions in respect of Ukraine is also expressed in information resources focusing, for the large part, on impartial statements of fact with a small part of analysis.
Different sentiments prevail in the opposition, nationalist and pro-Western press. Common to these media resources is a negative image of Russia, revelations about her “imperial ambitions” and sometimes outright Russophobia, with the only point of difference being the extent to which such sentiments are expressed.
The primary task of the opposition media is to search for political aspects of Eurasian integration, hence the analysis of actual and potential threats to Kazakhstan’s economic and political independence. Comments about Kazakhstan’s attractiveness to its Customs Troika partners are more rare. Thus, “Vlast.kz”, a publication operating with the support of Soros’ foundation, writes about Kazakhstan as a “good market for investment and sales of products with high added value and high labor costs”, a “transit country for supplies of Central Asian and Chinese goods” and a “source of manpower for Russia and Belarus – countries with an aging population and low mobility”.
However, a significant number of publications are devoted to Kazakhstan’s economic woes: the displacement of local producers from the Kazakh market; abuse on the part of Moscow of non-tariff barriers; Astana’s patronage of Kyrgyzstan in the latter’s accession to the EAEU.
If the opposition media, despite the obvious trend, present different positions, pro-Western media have launched a real anti-Eurasian propaganda offensive. Radio Liberty’s “Azattyk” even launched a special column – “Eurasian Union: Back to the USSR”. Azattyk refers to the Eurasian Union as a “single economic, political, military and customs space” led by a “secretly formed government” in the form of the Eurasian Economic Commission.
Ukrainian events have toughened the rhetoric of nationalist and pro-Western media, strengthening anti-Russian propaganda, which is often directed against the Russian-speaking population. Most active are representatives of the so-called “National Patriot” camp. Thus, as far back as April 2014, an anti-Eurasian forum was held in Almaty with the support of activists Z. Mamay and A. Sarym.
Facebook is the key information platform for Kazakh nationalists. Its leaders – M.Tayzhan, E.Narymbaev, G.Ergalieva and A.Sarym – have launched an openly Russophobic campaign via their personal pages and through groups such as the Kazakh Horde and Antigeptil. Russia is unfailingly represented as the “occupier of Ukrainian lands”. In parallel, they exaggerate the myth of an imperially ambitious Moscow intent on claiming neighboring states such as Kazakhstan and Georgia and even the Baltic States, Sweden and Finland. The nationalists draw an analogy with the Georgian events of August 2008: Russia, they claim, seeks to realize the Abkhazian scenario in Ukraine. In their view, “Russia’s great power chauvinism” is not limited to foreign actions but also finds expression within the country, with indigenous peoples being “deprived of the right to vote”: Russian Tatars are thus encouraged to unite with Crimean Tatars for the purpose of resisting “Russian oppression”.
By contrast, opposition media have taken a less radical stance on the Ukrainian question. Whilst decrying “Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian lands” and approving the position of the West, a more restrained assessment is also presented. Thus, the Respublika newspaper intersperses material about the possible growth of separatism in Russia in the event of Crimea’s “capture” and the inevitable “formulation by Moscow of a Crimean scenario” in North Kazakhstan with articles about public and Chinese leadership support for Russian policy, as well as the “chauvinistic populism of statements by Zhirinovsky and Limonov” having, in actual fact, nothing in common with the “official position of the Kremlin.” Such a spectrum of contrast can be attributed to a desire on the part of the steadily politically weakening Kazakh opposition to gain maximum support from various segments of the population. Nevertheless, even these media resources recognize the “prevalence of pro-Russian sentiment” in Kazakh society.
In analysing Ukrainian events, pro-Western sources tend to focus on the anti-Eurasian theme. That the leaders of the former member states of the Customs Union have abstained from openly supporting Russia’s policy on Ukraine is considered as evidence of Moscow’s weakening influence and the “deceleration of Eurasian integration” (Radio Azattyk). The journal Sayasat quotes a local expert to state that, despite continued integration and the EAEU Treaty signed in May 2014, “there is no longer a union: it no longer exists in the minds or the hearts”.
In the mostly Russian-speaking northern regions of Kazakhstan, the idea of potential separatism is actively exaggerated. Views are increasingly expressed about the “fifth column”, namely ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Kazakhs who have been influenced by the Russian media. Voice of America cites Kazakh experts with a nationalist bent when commenting on the harmful effect of the inevitable growth of separatist sentiments in Kazakhstan.
Russia remains a key subject in the information trends of Kazakh mass media, irrespective of their political hue. Despite the prevalence of anti-Russian material in pro-Western, nationalist and opposition media, Kazakhstan’s information space is, on the whole, dominated by a positive perception of Russia and the bilateral relations between Moscow and Astana.