“Ethnic insult” charge comes at a time when the Russian minority question has come to the fore.
The trial of a woman accused of using Facebook to incite ethnic tensions has split public opinion in Kazakstan and reignited debate about its relationship with neighbouring Russia.
On January 23, a court in the city of Almaty charged Tatiana Shevtsova-Valova with inciting animosity towards Kazaks, the majority ethnic group in the country.
The Facebook posts also suggested that northern Kazakstan – with its large Slavic population – might end up going the same way as Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014. They said that if the “exaltation” of Kazaks and the promotion of their language continued, these northern territories might come under Russian rule.
Shevtsova-Valova denies posting the material and insists the Facebook account in her name was set up by someone else.
This is the first time someone has been prosecuted for using social media to spread hate speech, a crime which carries a punishment of up to seven years in jail.
The authorities launched criminal proceedings after being informed of the Facebook comments by a group known as the Alliance of Bloggers of Kazakstan.
Although some members of the Alliance are independent bloggers, overall the group is seen as pro-government. It was set up in October at the suggestion of a number of members of Kazakstan’s parliament, which is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party.
Andrei Grishin of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law sees the prosecution as a strong message to ethnic Russians not to stir up trouble at a particularly difficult time for the country.
“It is likely that she was seen as the most suitable for a show trial,” he said.
Since the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine that followed, a number of Russian nationalist politicians have proposed “reclaiming” northern Kazakstan. Officials in Moscow have issued disclaimers, stressing the longstanding good relationship between the two countries. While this is true, Kazakstan’s leaders are clearly uncomfortable about Russian actions against Ukraine and have avoided expressing the kind of open support that Moscow would like. At the same time, Russian-Kazak ties became even closer at the beginning of the year with the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union.
In this fluid situation, the Kazak government will be watching for signs of Russian separatism, whether home-grown or imported. Extreme nationalists in Russia have been trying to reach out to their ethnic kin in Kazakstan through various means including social networking sites.
Grishin in no way condones the comments attributed to Shevtsova-Valova, but points out that Kazaks as well as Russians post inflammatory remarks on the internet.
Journalist Sergei Duvanov used his own Facebook page to challenge the comments allegedly made by Shevtsova-Valova, and received insulting remarks as a result.
He believes pro-Moscow comments of this kind are designed to encourage Russians abroad to see themselves as part of a single community.
Despite his objections to Shevtsova-Valova’s alleged hate speech, Duvanov does not believe criminal law is the right way of dealing with such matters.
“We shouldn’t create a dangerous precedent for criminal prosecutions for expressing one’s views on the internet,” he said on his Facebook page.
Others disagree. Opposition activist Jasaral Kuanyshalin told IWPR that if Shevtsova-Valova was found guilty, she should be punished, regardless of fears of the precedent this might set.
“Such concerns are complete nonsense, because if the regime wants to deal with [dissent], it can do so without needing any precedent,” he said.
Political analyst Aidos Sarym is worried about the action taken by the Alliance of Bloggers, which he sees as tantamount to trying to impose censorship. In an interview with the news website Ratel.kz, Sarym said it was wrong to target individuals in this way as “enemies of the people”.
Galymbek Akulbekov, an economist and businessman in the northern city of Karagandy, does not believe people should be prosecuted for this kind of offence – not least because the judicial system is seen as biased and will find it hard to address “new media” offences without being swayed by political imperatives.
“The judiciary is not independent, and it is likely to come up with a less than satisfactory decision that produces more questions than answers,” he said.
More broadly, Akulbekov sees this controversial case as a reflection of a divided society.
“I think that in the popular imagination, the worst has already happened – Kazakstan society is already fragmented along ethnic lines,” he said.
Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.