“I have personally been described as a pro-Ukrainian Catholic Nazi many times in the previous year. And I’m Jewish!”
– Vyacheslav Abramov, founder and director of the independent media outlet Vlast.kz(opens in a new tab), talks to EUvsDisinfo about pro-Kremlin disinformation in Kazakhstan.
What does the disinformation landscape look like in Kazakhstan? Do you see any similarities or differences between your country and other parts of the world when it comes to the spread of disinformation?
Kazakhstan is both similar and different from what you can see, for example, in Eastern Europe. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, the situation was similar all over the world: a lot of disinformation on COVID, on health issues and on vaccination.
Then, because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the nature and behaviour of disinformation changed completely here in Kazakhstan. We see how Russia, through different channels, is trying to influence the media and the population in general. We see how pro-Kremlin actors are spreading disinformation in Kazakhstan, in Armenia, in Belarus, and in all neighbouring countries, including Ukraine, which was already a target. We have seen more and more of these changes in the previous year.
Disinformation in Central Asia, and in particular in Kazakhstan, is mainly influenced and created by Russia, Russian propagandists, and their outlets. They focus on Russian-Kazakh relations or the war in Ukraine. In previous years, we have seen that Kazakhstan has increasingly become the centre of attention for certain Russian propagandists.
Russia does not want to “lose” Kazakhstan. We know that many people in Kazakhstan still use Russian media as their main source of information, not only because they speak Russian, but also because they have a long history with this country and with its media. People get used to receiving information from there.
Russian influence and Russian disinformation campaigns are real concerns and we believe that they are coordinated in Russia, targeting Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
In Russian media right now, you cannot distinguish between truths and lies, because they are just spreading so much hate, filled with disinformation.
Could you give some examples of disinformation narratives you have seen targeting Kazakhstan and the region in general?
There are many examples and sometimes they are very specific. For example, the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine loves to speculate about the Slavic population of Kazakhstan. We have a huge Slavic diaspora in the country, mostly in the northern and eastern regions where Russian is the main language used. A large part of this diaspora feels nostalgic about the Soviet Union. Russian media and Russian politicians are spreading narratives about how the northern regions of the country are not related to Kazakhstan, but to Russia, and that they should therefore now belong to Russia.
We have seen some ridiculous messages and stories created by Russian media. For example, that some ethnic Russians were beaten or killed in Kazakhstan. Those events never happened and it is very clear that these inflammatory messages are made up in an effort to spark divisions in Kazakhstan and in the wider region.
In the last years, there have been many such stories or statements from Russian officials. For example, there was a statement by some Russian MP who said that all these countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan – are not friendly to Russia and Russian people. On the one hand, you understand that this is just a comment, but on the other hand, when a huge disinformation campaign follows or reaches an audience that has already been bombarded with all these hateful messages, it provokes a reaction. In general, people in Central Asia are quite unhappy with these messages. Not only do they spread hate and division across society but they also question our territorial integrity, which is a real threat to the region and to relations between these countries.
We also notice negative reactions from Russia when they see cases of solidarity with Ukraine in Kazakhstan. The biggest rallies in Kazakhstan, after the January events last year, were pro-Ukrainian, against the war, and gathered several thousand people.
The reaction was similar when Kazakh businesses built yurts in Ukraine to support people and provide some food and electricity. To Ukrainian hospitals, we sent a lot of medical supplies and different materials. As a country, our Kazakh citizens collected a few million euros for humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Every single time this was publicised, there was an extremely hateful and extremely strong reaction from Russian media.
You have mentioned that the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine tried to use regional differences, claiming that certain regions of Kazakhstan with a larger number of ethnic Russians are separate. Do you see it working? Is this message being received and amplified within the country?
It is very hard to say, because we do not have completely independent institutions in the country, so we cannot fully trust polls. We see that, in general, people unfortunately still follow Russian media, and while they are not fully in favour of what Russians are saying, many of them still adhere to the Russian agenda. Fortunately, we have not seen any pro-Russian rallies. Not only in the north or east of the country, but anywhere in Kazakhstan. And I hope we will not see them.
There are many Russian citizens living in Kazakhstan. Some of them came last year, after the beginning of the Russian aggression, some of them came after the mobilisation started in September.
There are many smart people living in cities. There are many young people who will never ever follow Russian propaganda, because they understand how hateful it is.
I believe that the Kremlin disinformation machine made one huge mistake. After the beginning of the Russian aggression and a huge number of hateful messages aimed at Kazakhstan, a part of the Kazakh society started to change their attitude. Many of them started to learn Kazakh if they did not speak it before. People started to speak Kazakh more in their daily life. We can actually see that Russia’s actions have changed the society in a very positive way. Many people not only started questioning Russia as the “good neighbour”, but also started to raise questions: What is my identity? What future do I want to see for my family, kids, relatives? Why are we so dependent on Russia economically? What do we need to do to be more independent?
The Kremlin disinformation machine made a huge mistake. […] We see that Russia changed the society in a very positive way. Many people not only started questioning Russia as the “Good Neighbour”, but also started to raise questions: What is my identity? What future I want to see for my family, for kids, relatives?
So you are saying that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine made Kazakhstan realise its own identity?
Exactly. There are many people who have never thought about that, because why would you need to think about your identity when you are just living your life. You have your everyday problems – you need to make money, you need to feed your kids, etc. However, when you see something like that happening in neighbouring countries…
Many of us here in Kazakhstan felt related to Ukraine, because we are also a neighbour of Russia. We are also an independent country. We could imagine what could happen to Kazakhstan. That is why people started to discuss their identity; they started to understand what their country is for them. What it means to know or speak the national language.
In Kazakhstan, the Kazakh and Russian languages go side by side. In your opinion, do you think that your main language has an influence on your exposure to disinformation?
I believe that if you speak only Russian, you will be a target for disinformation and propaganda. If you speak Kazakh and Russian, you will start questioning some messages you see in Russian. If you also speak English, you will start questioning more and more, so you will be able to think more critically about the information that you are getting. Unfortunately, many Kazakh media outlets were influenced by Russian media before the war. For many of them Russian media were the main source of information and Russian content was just translated into Kazakh.
Now, we have changed completely. Kazakh-language media are generally pro-Ukrainian. There may be some pro-Russian media, but they are a minority. However, many are still conveying Russian messages and by doing so, they are spreading disinformation. Kazakh media are trying to avoid Russian-language sources of information but unfortunately not all journalists speak other foreign languages and therefore it can be difficult for them to use international sources such as CNN or the BBC. But I do see an improvement both in the media and in society in general when it comes to access to reliable information.
Is this why Vlast.kz is available in three languages?
Not only. We started in Russian only because there was no option for us to immediately publish in three languages. It is a question of money and resources but we realised that we could not avoid the Kazakh language, because it is a growing audience. 70 per cent of the population speaks Kazakh daily and they want to have information in Kazakh: not only long articles and big stories, but also some short news. That is why we started to publish some stories in Kazakh. And then, last year, bloody January in Kazakhstan was one of the main triggers for us to start an English version of the website, because we realised that during January 2022, here in Kazakhstan, there were only four foreign journalists. Sadly, it seems like our country was not interesting to the world.
We do not have bureaus of CNN, BBC or even Al Jazeera. We realised that we need to start creating content in English, just to spread the word, inform not only a Western audience, but also people who live here and want to share their thoughts in English. For example, young people who are studying in English in Kazakhstan. This is how we became a trilingual media outlet.
Unfortunately, it is still not easy for us to make content in three languages in similar proportions, but we are trying to work more and more in Kazakh – this is the main priority for us. We believe that Kazakh will be our main language in a few years. And we will balance the Russian and English versions.
Many of us here in Kazakhstan felt related to Ukraine, because we are also a neighbour of Russia. We are also an independent country. We could imagine what could happen to Kazakhstan.
Let’s go back to the topic of imperialism. Russia pushes this narrative of the West being imperialistic and Ukraine being just the fighting ground for the US and the evil West that want to take over the world. Do you see similar narratives being used in Kazakhstan? And if so, how?
It is only Russian or pro-Russian media that are using messages like that in Kazakhstan. You will never see any Kazakh media doing that, because people here understand how ridiculous it is.
There are many similarities between Kazakhstan and Ukraine, so we understand what they are going through. We understand how an independent country became the target of imperialist Russia. This is quite clear for most people in Kazakhstan, and for most of the journalists in Kazakhstan. That is why they are not spreading these messages, even if these are official Russian statements. When you open Kazakh websites, you will not see all these narratives that Ukrainians are fascists and the West is the main offender of this war. No, you will see news related to what is going on on the frontline, or how Ukrainian cities are being bombed.
Many Kazakh journalists have visited Ukraine since the start of the war and they brought back very good stories and interviews. They showed how life looks in Ukraine right now. For example, we published the story of our friend Catherine, a journalist who lives in Italy, and talked to Ukrainian refugees, the people who fled Ukraine at the very beginning of the war. She described what it means to her, an ethnic Kazakh from Kazakhstan who lived in Ukraine and is now living in Italy, and trying to talk to Ukrainians every single day and help them as much as she can.
We are publishing stories to try to explain. We understand that people are tired of the war. People in Ukraine are tired, people in Europe are tired and people in the US are tired. I do not know about Russians, but people in Kazakhstan – they’re tired too. They’ve seen the war every single day for a year. At the same time, they understand how important it is, what is going on there and how the future of Kazakhstan depends on Ukrainians. Because if Ukraine does not win the war, there will also be many questions about our own future.
Following up on what you mentioned earlier, that Kazakhstan is also a target of disinformation. Is it acknowledged in any way? Are disinformation claims debunked? Do people talk about disinformation? Or is it just ignored?
It is not ignored. Of course, Kazakh media is a target for Russian propaganda.
I have personally been described as a “pro-Ukrainian Catholic Nazi” many times in the previous year. And I’m Jewish! But what can we do in this situation as journalists? Some messages we try to ignore, and for others, we try to respond by fact-checking or sharing what the reality is. We are not a fact-checking media, but we know that there are other professional fact-checking media in Kazakhstan. We have published several stories on how Russian propaganda works, what their messages are, why they are doing this and what goes on behind the scenes.
Some colleagues are more focused on fact-checking. They are writing about Ukraine and about Russian propaganda in general. And I am extremely thankful to them, because they’re sharing this information in two languages. Their primary language is Kazakh. So they are helping the Kazakh audience to better understand what Russian propaganda is and why Kazakhstan is a target.
We would like to finish this conversation by asking about your own experience. If someone in Kazakhstan came to you and asked to give them some tips on how they can avoid falling for disinformation, how they can make sure that they get reliable news – what would you advise?
I would recommend reading news in more than one language. To try to read in English and not only in Russian. I can strongly recommend not using Russian media, because, unfortunately, in the last years, they lost all connection to reality and cannot be trusted. It is also important to get your news from more than one source.
At the same time, you will never find information that is completely objective or beyond reproach. Every media makes mistakes sometimes. However, if the media has been active for many years and you do not know many mistakes made by this media, this can be one of your sources of information. So follow the media that can be trusted, based on your experience or the experience of people you trust. You can help by not spreading unreliable information and instead sharing trusted sources with people around you.