Tokaev and Putin clash over Ukrainian crisis
Kazakhstani president defends Kiev's territorial integrity. Attacked by Putin cronies. Kazakhs fear that their country may be in the same situation as Ukraine in the future. U.S. notes distancing and signals openness to Nur-Sultan.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - The diatribe between Vladimir Putin and Kassym-Jomart Tokaev on the stage of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum continues to provoke much discussion, when the Kazakh president defended Ukraine's territorial integrity by denying recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the "quasi-republics" of Lugansk and Donetsk, in a two-way talk on stage. Putin showed his contempt by repeatedly calling Tokaev by a deliberately incorrect patronymic, while moderator Margarita Simonyan, one of the regime's most vocal propagandists, shook her head at the Nur-Sultan leader's remarks.
As if that were not enough, Tokaev also reportedly refused Putin's awarding of the Aleksandr Nevsky honor, one of Russia's most prestigious, justifying himself with the decision he made not to accept any kind of award or title as long as he remains president of his country. In fact, the refusal symbolically underscores the Kazakhs' aversion to the warlike adventures of the Russians: already at the time of World War I in 1916 there had been a resounding "Central Asian uprising" with tens of thousands of casualties and a "great exodus" of Kazakhs from Russia in order not to be involved in war operations.
The memory of the events of the past is still very much alive in the memory and hearts of Kazakhs, who have not accepted even the Russian "victory mania" of World War II, which was distant and foreign to them, yet also brought tragedy for many Kazakhs forced by the Soviets to fight, as is the case today for so many Asians and Caucasians whom Russia sends to the Ukrainian front as "cannon fodder." Not to mention the very figure of Aleksandr Nevsky, elevated to legend by Russians and regarded by Asians as a dangerous symbol of Russia's imperial expansion, extolled by all tsars and commanders.
Tokaev thus interpreted the deep-rooted feeling in his people about the Russian wars, despite the close ties still existing between the two countries after the long Soviet period. Some have even tried to interpret the spat with Putin as a "staged show" to show that the Russian president is also ready to argue with those who disagree with him, and grant his opponent a name as a reformer to him today as necessary as ever to overcome Kazakhstan's critical social issues.
In fact, the negative reactions in Russia did not stop with comments on the Petersburg debate. The deputy chairman of the State Duma, Konstantin Zatulin, said that "Tokaev tried to be sincere, but in fact he was incorrect, making his words look like a gauntlet," and veiled threats that "if there is friendship and cooperation, then no territorial issues will arise, otherwise what happened in Ukraine may be repeated for Kazakhstan."
The tension between the two countries is also evidenced by the fact that Russia is blocking Kazakh gas shipments, and Kazakhstan is halting the transit of Russian coal through its territory, so much so that 1,700 wagons of Russian coal destined mostly for India and China are stopped on the Russian "North-Caucasian" railway.
Kazakhstan has also made a move to open up to Iran, whose citizens will be granted free entry into the country without a visa for 14 days, following Tokaev's visit to Tehran. The United States is also looking more favorably on Nur-Sultan, with public praise for the "democratization process" that opened with the June 5 constitutional referendum, as reflected in a letter from the U.S. State Department to the Kazakh president's representative for international cooperation, Eržan Kazykhan, offering Washington's readiness to support the path of reform.