The annual anniversary of Victory Day on May 9, 1945 (Moscow time), which marked the surrender of Nazi Germany, should have been the least controversial of public holidays throughout the former Soviet Union. Yet, the use of World War II symbolism by the Russian authorities as a means to stir up patriotic feelings, increasingly in opposition to the “decadent” West, does not sit well with everyone. In neighboring Kazakhstan, which remains Russia’s closest trade and military partner, the government has been trying for years to apply a new varnish to its Victory Day celebrations. On May 8, 2017, President Nursultan Nazarbayev presided over a military parade dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Kazakhstani Armed Forces. This is also the day when Kazakhstani men are entitled to congratulations on their being “defenders” of the country. The Russian calendar still celebrates Armed Forces Day on February 23, as per the Soviet tradition (Tengrinews.com, Kursiv.kz, May 8; RBC, May 7).
The controversy around Victory Day was further provoked when a journalist at Vremya (Time), a leading Kazakhstani newspaper, complained about an informal ban placed by an unnamed local news agency on media coverage of the so-called “Immortal Regiment” march. Since 2014, when Russia’s relations with the West started to deteriorate over the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has annually sponsored supposedly spontaneous street marches of fallen WWII soldiers’ relatives holding placards with their portraits. These marches have taken place all over Russia as well as abroad, from Belarus and Kazakhstan to Western Europe and even the United States. Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have banned the initiative altogether. In Kazakhstan, the mayor of Shymkent, a large southern city, toyed with the idea of banning the march in 2016, but he had to climb down from that decision under popular pressure (RIA Novosti, May 5; Regnum, May 4; Time.kz, May 3; Mk.ru, April 27; News.mail.ru, May 8, 2016).
The Kazakhstani news agency, which several subscribers to the Vremya journalist’s Facebook newsfeed identified as government-owned Kazinform, had presumably circulated the following message among its regional correspondents: “We do not welcome articles about the Immortal Regiment on our pages. It is a Russian movement, and the idea belongs in Russia as well. Our task is to preserve the national identity of Kazakhstani society.” However, a cursory search on Kazinform’s website, inform.kz, shows dozens of articles this year alone reporting on Immortal Regiment marches. Moreover, on May 1, a short post on Altyn Orda, a mildly nationalist web-only media outlet, provoked new criticism when a user suggested discontinuing Victory Day celebrations in favor of silent prayers according to the Muslim and Orthodox Christian faiths. The post’s author singled out Russia for using such commemorations as a conduit for “state propaganda.” His proposal elicited more than 70 comments expressing either support or anger (Inform.kz, May 8; Altyn-orda.kz, May 1).
The issue of Russian influence over Kazakhstan’s media and information space has been a burning one for many years. Russian television remains far more popular with Kazakhstanis than local TV channels. This has mostly to do with higher-quality content such as TV series, entertainment and news. The Kazakhstani government currently requires domestic TV and radio stations to broadcast at least half of their programming in the Kazakh language and has made efforts in recent years to launch new media products of better quality. For instance, the Khabar news holding opened in late March a revamped TV channel, El Arna, which has since been broadcasting television series and educational programs potentially appealing to a wide audience. Following last year’s protests against land reform, President Nazarbayev decreed the establishment of the Information Ministry, headed by his former spokesperson, Dauren Abayev (Khabar.kz, March 27; see EDM, May 16, 2016; Azattyq.org, May 6, 2016).
Kazakh nationalists believe that Russia is trying to keep their country under control by limiting its right to trustworthy and impartial information. While this argument may be discounted by some as evidence of the nationalists’ visceral fear of Moscow, there is nonetheless some truth to it. Since the Ukraine crisis began in early 2014, the mainstream Russian media have been regularly lambasting the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the broader West on multiple fronts. Western governments are accused of having funded the Euromaidan and unleashed the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. In the run-up to the US presidential election of November 2016, Republican nominee Donald Trump started to receive glowing praise while his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, became the object of mockery in the Russian media. The situation changed dramatically after Trump authorized airstrikes against Syria on April 7 (see EDM, April 10). In a similar vein, Russian media had been heaping praise on the French nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen, who met Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 27, but then lost to pro-EU Emmanuel Macron on May 7 (Mk.ru, March 24; Korrespondent.net, February 16; RBC, February 1).
Since Kazakhstan seeks to maintain good relations with the West in general and has nothing to gain from geopolitical turmoil around Ukraine, it has legitimate reasons to try to oppose Russia’s attempts to impose its antagonistic vision of the world on its population. It is a tall order, though, given the level of penetration of Russian media within Kazakhstani society. On the one hand, the Nazarbayev administration is clearly interested in mitigating Russian media influence in the long run, especially with an eye on the future political succession whereby control of information becomes key. On the other hand, it has to maintain a delicate internal balance because of the relatively large size of the Russian minority, still roughly a third of the population. It is therefore unlikely that Nazarbayev or any of his advisors has forgotten about one of the main official reasons for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014—the purported defense of Russian speakers (see EDM, December 16, 2014).