Kazakhstan pivots away from Russia, one yurt at a time


A Kazakh businessman has opened ‘Yurts of Invincibility’ in four Ukrainian cities to offer heat, internet, food, and tea to civilians and show Kazakhstan’s solidarity. Moscow is not pleased. 

Last week, yet another so-called Yurt of Invincibility was opened in Ukraine – this time in Lviv. This yurt, and others in Bucha, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, use generators and Starlink to provide heat, electricity, phone-charging points, internet, Kazakh food, tea, and coffee for Ukrainians affected by Russia’s attacks on local power grids. 

The yurts and their transport to Ukraine from Kazakhstan are financed by Kazakh businessman Daulet Nurzhanov. Other Kazakh activists have crowdfunded millions of US dollars of aid for Ukraine from tens of thousands of Kazakhs.  

Kazakh diplomats have reportedly helped assemble some of the yurts in an unofficial capacity, and Ukrainian media reported the project had the support of the Kazakh Embassy in Ukraine. This drew Russia’s ire.  

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, asked the government of Kazakhstan to publicly reject official involvement with the yurts, saying, “in order to avoid further unwinding of this topic in order to damage the Russian–Kazakh strategic partnership and alliance, an official comment by our friends is highly desirable, which would put an end to these speculations”.  

The spokesperson for Kazakhstan’s MFA refused to condemn the yurts, saying, “the yurt was placed there. So, what is the problem? It is there. The help was provided”. 

Shared histories of Soviet man-made famine  

The yurt – a portable dwelling used by Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other nomadic Central Asians – is a testament of the endurance of Kazakh tradition through Soviet oppression and forced sedentarisation.  

A year before the Holodomor began in Ukraine in 1932 and killed upwards of 3.9 million Ukrainians, another man-made famine began in Soviet Kazakhstan.  

Kazakhs had historically lived in yurts as nomads and seasonally migrated to graze their livestock. Soviet authorities considered nomadism at odds with their goals of modernisation and industrialisation. Forced sedentarisation campaigns settled Kazakhs in locations that often couldn’t support their livestock and lacked potable water.  

A campaign against Kazakh kulaks known as bais called for the confiscation of livestock from households whose herds exceeded sizes set by quotas, but the implementation of this policy often lumped expansive extended family into a single household and resulted in the subsequent seizure of livestock from poor families who then starved. A lack of planning meant that much of the livestock confiscated died or had to be prematurely slaughtered. 

Forced sedentarisation, livestock confiscation, and the collectivisation of agriculture led by Russian-Soviet administrator Filipp Goloshchyokin combined to form a famine that caused 1.5 million Kazakhs to flee the republic. Disease spread among starving Kazakh refugees, and Kazakhs classified as bais were executed.  

1.5 million people were killed in the famine. While ethnic Kazakhs made up 60 per cent of the republic’s pre-famine population, they accounted for 90 per cent of the famine deaths due to the forced sedentarisation campaign. 40 per cent of all Kazakhs in the republic were killed, making them a minority in their own state. They would only become a majority again after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  

Kazakhstan’s response to the war in Ukraine 

Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – both of which are often described by Western media as ‘Russia-led’ – and requested the help of Russia and other CSTO states to put down unrest in January 2022.  

However, its government has increasingly pursued a multi-vector foreign policy that seeks to balance maintaining amiable relations with Russia as well as China, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union (EU).  

Part of this foreign policy is maintaining its independence. Kazakhstan abstained from votes for United Nations resolutions about the war in Ukraine rather than siding with Russia, refused to recognise the independence and subsequent annexation by Russia of parts of Ukraine’s Donbas, and announced it wouldn’t accept customs duties paid in Russian rubles after the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia. 

Kazakh police have fined motorists who display a “Z” to show support for Russia. Kazakh authorities greenlit pro-Ukraine protests in Almaty, and thousands attended.   

Source: Emerging Europe