DOLMATOVO, Kazakhstan — The remote village of Dolmatovo is located on the banks of the Ishim River in northern Kazakhstan, just 4 kilometers from the Russian border.
The majority of the tiny hamlet’s 326 residents are ethnic Russians, mostly elderly, who say they often visit a nearby Russian town and watch Russian-language television but have no intention of moving to Russia for good.
Dolmatovo is the northernmost village in Northern Kazakhstan Province, which has found itself at the center of controversial comments by two Russian politicians who recently said the region was a “great gift” from Russia to its Central Asian neighbor.
Speaking on Russian state TV on December 10, Vyacheslav Nikonov, the chairman of the Education and Science Committee in Russia’s State Duma, said Kazakhstan simply “didn’t exist before.”
“Northern Kazakhstan was not inhabited at all. [Ethnic Kazakhs] existed, but much further to the south. The territory of Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union,” Nikonov said.
It echoed much earlier remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who six years ago said “Kazakhs never had any statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Soon after Nikonov’s comment, an activist from the Russian movement Patriot reportedly placed a banner near the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow that read: “Northern Kazakhstan Is A Russian Territory.”
Days later, another Duma member, Yevgeniy Fyodorov, said Kazakhstan has “rented its territory from the Soviet Union.”
Fyodorov even urged Russian lawmakers to look into the issue of “reclaiming the territories” and the annulment of “illegal decisions made in 1991,” following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
The comments prompted furious reaction in Kazakhstan, with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev saying Kazakhs must “stand against provocative actions by some foreign citizens,” who try to “spoil neighborly relations.”
“Nobody from outside gave Kazakhs this large territory as a gift. Whatever they say, we have internationally recognized borders, established by bilateral treaties and nobody can doubt them,” Toqaev wrote in an article published on January 5.
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry in Nur-Sultan even summoned the Russian envoy to hand him a letter of protest.
Many Kazakhs demanded an apology from Russia for the comments that they believe were aimed at fueling separatism in their country.
Back in Dolmatovo, people say they are aware of the Russian lawmakers’ remarks and the anger they have caused.
Several elderly villagers who spoke to RFE/RL said they don’t support Nikonov and Fyodorov’s positions.
“It was wrong of them to make such statements. The Soviet Union collapsed long ago and the territories [of each country] have been defined, the borders have been clarified,” said Ivan Kolomeitsev, an 84-year-old former school director.
The center of Petropavl in northern Kazakhstan.
Kolomeitsev said he has never had any intention of leaving Kazakhstan to settle in Russia, like many other ethnic Russians living in Central Asia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I have lived all my life in Kazakhstan, no one oppressed Russians here. I am a citizen of Kazakhstan and if I wanted to move [to Russia] I would have moved long ago. My children and grandchildren, too, live in Kazakhstan,” he told RFE/RL.
A similar sentiment came from another villager introducing herself as Nina Ivanovna.
“I can literally see Russia from my backyard. It’s over there,” she said pointing toward the north. “I have lived almost all my life here and have no plans to leave. Actually, I have nowhere to go.”
Better Life In Russia?
But in some of the cities in the Northern Kazakhstan Province there are ethnic Russians — especially the younger generations — who don’t rule out the idea of moving to Russia, where they envisage a more prosperous future for themselves.
Those who spoke to RFE/RL said the reason behind a decision to leave northern Kazakhstan is strictly the dream of having a better life in Russia and has nothing to do with politics.
In the provincial capital, Petropavl, Sergei and Marina are planning to move to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. The married couple say that in the past decade almost all of their ethnic Russian friends have left Kazakhstan.
Some inhabitants of northern Kazakhstan are interested in moving to Russia.
“Everybody wants to live a good life, not just to exist,” says Sergei, a computer engineer. “We’re moving to Yekaterinburg not because there are Russians living in that city, but because there are jobs.”
“For example, I want to get a new car, I want my son to have better opportunities, I want to travel to the sea with my family,” he adds.
But with his current salary of about $355 a month, Sergei said he can barely save for a trip to a neighboring city.
Aizhan Shaikenova, a journalist from Petropavl, says low salaries have driven out not only ethnic Russians, but Kazakhs and others from the province.
Kazakhstan, Wary Of Separatism
Shaikenova says the controversial statements by the two Russian lawmakers have failed to become a hot topic of discussion among ordinary residents in northern Kazakhstan.
“At least, I don’t remember it being discussed among my friends or in our circles in the city. Our people are very apolitical and somewhat indifferent,” the local journalist said.
Not everyone in Petropavl was indifferent, however. A group of civil activists from the province prepared a letter to the Kazakh government, condemning the Russian politicians’ remarks.
The comments also renewed calls to rename Petropavl to Kyzylzhar, which would give the city a Kazakh name.
Members of the youth group Namys placed a banner in front of the provincial government’s headquarters that read “Petropavl – Kyzylzhar,” with Petropavl being crossed out.
The topic of renaming the northern city has been discussed several times in the past, although officials have so far resisted calls for a name change.
But the government in Nur-Sultan has also taken some mild steps to address the demographic challenges in the province, where the population has declined in recent years.
The government has a special program that encourages people from the south, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Kazakhs, to relocate to northern Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers have a slight majority.
The southerners are offered various social and financial incentives to make the move to the often frigid northern part of the country.
In 2014, Kazakhstan introduced an article to its Criminal Code about “separatist activities” that stipulates harsh penalties — such as up to 15 years in prison and even an extremely rare punishment of revoking citizenship — for anyone found guilty of separatism or undermining the territorial integrity of the country.
The move came after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and began fueling a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
Omir Eskali, a journalist and activist from northern Kazakhstan, says the comments by the Russian lawmakers are not only offensive, but also potentially dangerous.
Eskali said the statements are aimed at inciting separatism in Russia’s southern neighbor, where ethnic Russians make up almost 20 percent of the country’s population.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Pyotr Trotsenko