By EUvsDisinfo

The Kremlin’s mantra

In January 2024, the Kazakh government renamed several railway stations. Station 26 became Zhetitobe station, Koscheku station became Kosshoky station. Unremarkable. Until Tina Kandelaki, deputy head of Gazprom-Media and a prominent face supporting Russian aggression against Ukraine, claimed on her private Telegram channel that changing the spelling of some names from Russian to Kazakh revealed displacement of the Russian language in Kazakhstan.

Using Kazakh spelling in Kazakhstan, said Kandelaki, is a dangerous trend, as “the experience of the Baltics shows”. First, she said, they write “Oral” instead of “Uralsk”, and then they close Russian schools, dismantle Soviet monuments and let pensioners freeze. This is nothing new from a pro-Kremlin disinformation machine that reaches far fetched conclusions and makes predictions without responsibility.

Playing on emotions is its way to convince. As well as using established narratives, tested in other parts of the world. Discrimination against the Russian language and Russians, in Kazakhstan, in the Baltics and elsewhere, is a classic disinformation narrative, widely recorded on the EUvsDisinfo database.

At the time, Kandelaki’s post caused a backlash from the Kazakh public, who pointed out that there is no displacement of the Russian language, and that its society has a right to rid the country of its colonial past. Kandelaki reacted with a second post. Discarding history, she wrote, is a dangerous activity “for those who live on earth and do not soar in space”. Would the West come to help Kazakhstan, she asked? They had not even banned the movie Borat.

Changing the names of the train stations and an opportunity to “expose” the “evil West” did not escape the attention of the infamous Andrey Lugovoy, member of the Russian State Duma and wanted by British police on suspicion of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London. In his video, aired in March 2024, Lugovoy replayed a familiar narrative about the “Anglo-Saxons” inciting Russophobia and colour revolutions by using NGOs and the media. A Kremlin mantra repeated many times in many places.

So-called “Personal points of view”…

Like Kandelaki and Lugovoy, other Russian political and public figures, as well as “experts”, have not shied away from expressing views like “Kazakhstan’s territory is a gift from Russia” or “Kazakhs did not exist before the Russian revolution”.

Officially, the Kremlin spokesperson distanced himself from statements questioning Kazakh statehood, even when they were voiced by members of the ruling party. At the time the Kremlin referred to them as “expressions of a personal point of view”. It does not, however, shy away from sharing these personal views on tightly controlled Russian state TV. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan reacted by banning some of these people from entering the country, at least publicly, as it did with Tina Kandelaki.

These “expressions of a personal point of view” have not stopped, and they reach the Kazakh audience not only over the internet but also via television. Dozens of Russian state sponsored media outlets work in Kazakhstan and are available on TV. They are a prioritised means of massaging the Kazakh public with the Moscow world view and narratives. The main Russian state TV, Channel One, has a large editorial hub in Kazakhstan, freely and actively producing and broadcasting the Channel One Central Asian edition.

…But is it “personal”?

The “personal point of view” may be a convenient way of pretending to distance yourself while essentially agreeing. People will remember when the Editor-in-Chief of RT/Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, in January 2021 travelled to the “Russian Donbas” rally held in Russian/separatist-occupied Donetsk in Ukraine advocating for Russia to annex that part of the country. The Russian MFA tried to make the world believe that Simonyan was “only stating her ‘personal views’”. Everybody knows what happened a year later.

Push the button

“Russophobia” is not the only topic deployed by pro-Kremlin propaganda. There is a colourful bouquet of all time Kremlin “classics”, concerning not only Kazakhstan, but also Central Asia in general.

One of them is the claim that “Russia is being pushed out of the region”. Again and again the Kremlin portrays itself as a victim and builds up this narrative by pouring it into the information space. It also adds its projection about “the West’s true goals” in the region, ostensibly, – to destabilise it. What is the factual evidence for this plan, you might ask? Why do you need evidence, if the information space has been hammered with perfectly good conspiracy theories for years? Not only in Central Asia, but all over the world.

Enter Bioweapons and make your day

A similar approach – no facts, just fear smear – is used for promoting the scary story of threatening biolaboratories under construction in the countries of Central Asia. When adding the claim that the US/Washington/CIA are behind these laboratories then the stories are a sure seller. It does not matter that the local authorities stress the civilian and public health role of the laboratories, and deny the project is in any way offensive – the aim of the stories is to sow fear.

The pro-Kremlin disinformation machine has trained itself over the years to push the right emotional buttons to spread confusion in societies: be it the “evil LGBTQ agenda” or “orchestrated extremism”.

No mind of your own

Independent media outlets and fact checkers in Kazakhstan and the region attempt to fill this gap by raising questions about the pro-Kremlin disinformation influx and by discussing the language issues.

However, local pro-Kremlin outlets challenge their efforts with accusations that “the West” is promoting an anti-Russian agenda in Kazakhstan’s information space through “externally controlled journalists”. In this way, they create distrust in reporting on, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and link the Russophobia narrative with a classic disinformation trope, that of the hostile “West” trying to encircle and destabilise Russia.

Imperial innocence

Accusations of Russophobia and warnings of an “evil West” play well into what the scholars Botakoz Kassymbekova and Erica Marat conceptualised as “imperial innocence”.

“The Kremlin’s propaganda builds on seeing Russia as both victimised by the West, as well as entitled to regional dominance in the former Soviet territories. In such Russian imperial imagination, enforcing the Russian language, culture and rule over non-Russian populations is not colonialism but a gift of greatness”.

At the same time, they write, “Russian political elites expect loyalty from former Russian colonies that includes knowledge of the Russian language and political loyalty, and unity in opposition to Western influence.” Read more in Maksim Eristavi’s article “Five myths that helped Russian colonialism remain hidden in plain sight” here on EUvsDisinfo

Suffocating embrace

While the Kremlin is busy accusing “the West” of Russophobia and moral degradation, it is presenting itself as a defender of moral values and embracer of many nations. However, that embrace seems very selective. For example, remember the story of a pop singer, Manizha, Russia’s candidate for the Eurovision song contest in 2021. At the time, she was accused of insulting Russian women and Russians in general. She was a woman living in Russia and building her career there. However, she had been born in Tajikistan.

Today, Tajiks, as well as people from other Central Asian countries living and working in Russia, are paying the price after the deadly attack on Crocus City Hall, which the Kremlin relentlessly tries to pin on Ukraine and “the West”, while the Russian security services on the ground arrest and hunt down Central Asian groups across Russia.

This xenophobia has been so extensive that the governments of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have issued statements advising their citizens not to participate in mass events in Russia and to stay at home. Many Central Asian working migrants are engaged in the Russian construction sector, often performing the hard manual labour.

While the Central Asian republics develop their societies and broaden their international relations, including with the EU, Moscow displays paranoia and old-school imperialism. Barking at the West is a simple Pavlovian reflex.

By EUvsDisinfo