To ы or not to ы, Zhirinivosky asks — as Kazakhstan, central Asia worry

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Lest you think that Russia’s favorite crazy uncle doesn’t have anything to say about the latest standoff between Russia and the West, failed presidential candidate and ultranationalist loudmouth Vladimir Zhirinovsky has some choice theories about what’s holding Russia back these days — and he’s been on quite a roll in the last month or so.kazakhstanRussia Flag Icon

It’s been nearly two years since his donkey-flogging stunt during the almost-risible Russian presidential election. Though Zhirinovsky (pictured above won just 6.2% of the vote in that race, it amounts to nearly 4.5 million Russians that have stood by the colorful demagogue since he rose to Russian politics in the mid-1990s.

Not surprisingly, Zhirinovsky believes that Viktor Yanukovich remains the rightful president of Ukraine, and he urged Russia to send troops into Ukraine to support Yanukovich’s claim to the Ukrainian presidency.  For the record, Zhirinovsky supports the right of Crimea to join Russia, too. (Maybe that’s because in January 2013, Zhirinovsky was pelted with pickled cabbage salad on a visit to Kiev by a woman who attacked the flamboyant politician as a ‘Ukrainophobe.’)

But the most curious attacks recently have come with respect to another area of Russia’s ‘near-abroad.’  Last month, Zhirinovsky called for Russia, in essence, to annex five entire countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — as Russia’s ‘Central Asian Federal Region,’ with a capital that should be known as ‘Verny,’ a Russian word for Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city (and the city where Zhirinovsky himself was born and grew up).  Even more mystifying is Zhirinovsky’s attack on the Russian letter ‘ы.’  It’s an odd sound — it’s a vowel not unlike the English ‘y,’ though the sound is apparently very difficult for non-native Russian (and other Eurasian language) speakers:

Zhirinovsky says he wants the letter removed from the Russian alphabet, calling it a “nasty Asiatic” import.  The vowel came to the Russian language from the Mongols, Zhirinovsky was quoted as telling the State Duma on March 12.

“Only animals make this sound, ‘ы- ы,'” he said, adding that the regular “и” (“i”) is enough for the Russian alphabet.  “Ы” doesn’t exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” he told lawmakers.

The five central Asian nations each used to be republics in the former Soviet Union, and all of them have relatively strong ties with Russia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are candidates to join Russian president Vladimir Putin’s much-feted Eurasian Union, which is meant to be a regional counterweight to the European Union (and also to the economic power of India and China).

But Kazakhstan, which is already a member of the Eurasian Union (along with Belarus and Russia), might have the most to fear from Putin’s recent assertiveness on behalf of ethnic Russians in Crimea and otherwise in Ukraine.  That’s because Kazakhstan has a much larger proportion of ethnic Russians (around 23.3% of the country’s population of 17.7 million) than any of the other central Asian countries.

Zhirinovsky is something of an odd character in Russian politics today.  He’s certainly part of the opposition, but he’s not nearly the same kind of threat to the Kremlin like Alexei Navalny or other more robust challengers to Putin’s autocratic rule.  Zhirinovsky hasn’t been a real threat since the 1995 Russian parliamentary elections and the 1996 presidential election, and he often supports Putin.  That makes politicians like Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, both Kremlin supporters and a kind of officially sanctioned opposition.

Zhirinovsky’s comments, therefore, have caused central Asian leaders to worry — if only just a little.  Kyrgyz foreign minister Erlan Abdyldaev late last month called on Zhirinovsky to clarify his views on the matter.  So did the Kazakh foreign ministry.

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has walked a difficult, sometimes awkward, diplomatic line over the course of the crisis over Crimea (and Ukraine) over the past few weeks.  Earlier last week,  Nazarbayev offered Putin some very cautious support over the Ukraine issue:

“Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed that Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats with understanding the position of Russia, defending the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, as well as its security interests,” Nazarbayev’s press service quoted him as saying in a telephone conversation with Putin.

But Nazarbayev has also urged a diplomatic end to the crisis as well, especially in calls with top US and European leaders, underlining the delicacy of the issue from the perspective of Kazakh sovereignty:

While backing Russian intervention abroad to protect minority rights, Nazarbayev also called for a “peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of sovereignty in line with the norms of international law,” and hoped all sides would show “restraint” and resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Nazarbayev offered stronger backing for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in a separate call with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, also on March 10, in which he “confirmed the importance of a diplomatic settlement to the Ukrainian crisis through dialogue between all interested sides, the use of possible mechanisms of international mediation to assure the territorial integrity of this country, and also the rejection of mutual threats and ultimatums.”

Nazarbayev spoke with US president Barack Obama earlier this week as well. (Wouldn’t you like to have listened in on that call?) Again, both Obama and Nazarbayev agreed on a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine standoff:

The presidents of Kazakhstan and the United States, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Barack Obama, exchanged opinions on key international and regional issues, with the focus being on the situation in Ukraine, during their latest telephone conversation, the Kazakh presidential press service reported on Tuesday.

“The presidents of Kazakhstan and the U.S. reaffirmed the need to secure a peaceful settlement in Ukraine with the help of diplomatic methods, which will help maintain the territorial integrity of this country and bridge the gap between the positions of all the sides concerned,” it said.

Nazarbayev has served as Kazakhstan’s president since 1991, the breakup of the Soviet Union. If Russia at least has a semblance of democratic institutions (however atrophied since the 1990s), there are no such illusions about democracy in Kazakhstan, where Nazarbayev won his last reelection in April 2011 with 95.55% of the vote.  Media is largely censored, and opposition leaders have been jailed in the past.  

In 2013, Freedom House ranked Kyrgyzstan as ‘partly free’ with a rating of 5 (on a scale of 1, the best, to 7, the worst), and it ranked the other four central Asian states as ‘not free’ — Kazakhstan rated 5.5, Tajikistan 6, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan scored 7.

Though Nazarbayev’s rule has never been seriously challenged in Kazakhstan, there are just as many risks to his regime if he supports Moscow too strongly — especially if Kazakh citizens see Russia’s move into Crimea as something that might ultimately threaten Kazakh sovereignty:

In Kazakhstan, state media outlets have been largely quiet on the invasion, but private media has covered developments much more widely, with some supporting the Kremlin’s tough line and others challenging it. Always fearful of civic unrest, Kazakhstani police moved to break up a small rally outside the Russian Embassy in Astana on March 3, detaining activist Makhambet Abzhan for unfurling a banner that referenced Russian invasions in the South Caucasus: “Yesterday Abkhazia, Ossetia; today Crimea; tomorrow north Kazakhstan!”

Though Uzbekistan has nearly double the population, Kazakhstan has the largest economy in central Asia, due largely to its oil and mineral reserves — oil accounts for nearly three-fourths of the country’s exports and, as a result, Kazakh GDP has grown steadily over the course of the last decade and a half.  That’s, in part, why Putin views Russian-Kazakh relations as so important — and it’s why US and Chinese firms are taking an increasing interest in the country as well.  It’s notable that Kazakhstan, which borders China’s Xinjiang province, exports just over twice as much to China today than to Russia.

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