At a press conference held on February 2, the chairman of the Almaty-based Russian Observer Research Center, Fedor Miroglov, revealed that ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan are being illegally recruited to serve in the Russian army. He said that in 2003 more than 100 Russians from different parts of Kazakhstan left the country voluntarily to fight Chechen separatists under the Russian flag, and the number of volunteers is likely to increase this year. Miroglov cited the lack of patriotism among Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russians as the main motivation for their joining the ranks of the Russian army. He pointed out that recruitment centers located in Novosibirsk and Omsk are easily reached by rail from northern Kazakhstan (KTK TV, February 2).
In fact, Miroglov’s revelations contain nothing sensational. Rumors of Russians from Kazakhstan fighting in hot spots have circulated for many years. Miroglov only publicly confirmed these reports. The open border between Russia and Kazakhstan has already taught bitter lessons to law-enforcement agencies. Three years ago the ethnic Russian governor of Akkayin district fled to Russia with a large sum of public money, and last December a district head in Kostanay region also absconded to Russia (Aikyn, December 16, 2004).
It is hard to believe that Kazakhstan’s security services did not know anything about citizens serving in a foreign army, but until now not a single case has been investigated by the National Security Committee. Under Kazakhstan’s law on compulsory military service, joining a foreign army or fighting on foreign soil as a mercenary is a punishable crime. But the Kremlin, facing growing casualties in “post-war” Chechnya and draft dodging, has good reason to encourage recruiting ethnic Russians from CIS countries into the Russian army. To facilitate the process, last year Russia adopted a law that allows a simplified naturalization procedure for conscripts from CIS countries. Many ethnic Russians from the “near abroad” see military service as way to secure citizenship.
In the early 1990s army officers of Russian origin constituted the core of the qualified military personnel in Kazakhstan, and the Defense Ministry of Kazakhstan had no choice but to tolerate this legacy of Soviet military policy. The ethnic imbalance in the higher echelons of the military at times led to insubordination and acts detrimental to Kazakhstan’s security interests. According to a 1991 agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan had jurisdiction over all air force troops and equipment located on its territory. But military units in many districts took orders from Moscow. Russian Minister of Defense General Pavel Grachev once ordered an entire fighter squadron to be relocated from Chagan air base in Semipalatinsk to the Russian Far East. The Russian Defense Ministry also ordered an air regiment stationed in Lugovoye, Kazakhstan, to fly to Russia (centrasia.ru, June 4, 2003).
Russian military officers have been gradually replaced by Kazakhs, but Kazakhstan still faces enormous difficulties in educating its own officers and updating its military equipment. In 2003 the United States granted $5 million to educate Kazakh officers, an offer Russia is unable to match. But a Kazakh military delegation visiting Moscow in January expressed interest in purchasing Russian MI-8 military cargo helicopters and sophisticated SU-27 and MiG-29 fighters at reduced prices (Turkestan, January 22).
Kazakhstan is understandably interested in maintaining its military contacts with Russia, but it carefully refrains from actively supporting Russian military actions in Chechnya. State officials in Kazakhstan did not comment when CIS Executive Secretary Viktor Rushailo suggested that Chechen separatists should be called “terrorists,” and not “freedom fighters,” while he attended the recent anti-terrorist session of the UN Security Council in Almaty.
Kazakhstan finds itself in an unenviable position at the moment. It does not want to irritate Moscow by punishing ethnic Russians who leave the country to fight in Chechnya, while it must also come to terms with murmured discontent from the sizable Chechen community in Kazakhstan. Not long ago the leader of a Chechen cultural association in Almaty, Akhmet Muradov, accused the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan of pursuing an anti-Chechen policy (Yegemen Qazaqstan, January 28).
Muradov indirectly rebuked Kazakh authorities for their double game. In reality, however, there is very little Astana can do to reconcile its Chechen community with the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan, which is under the direct control of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and will not heed words from Kazakh authorities. But the Prosecutor-General’s Office of Kazakhstan can no longer remain tight-lipped about ethnic Russians recruited to fight in Chechnya. That trend is too dangerous to be ignored.