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26 January 2017

Insulting Putin: case of Sanat Dosov

Stifling criticism of Putin abroad

In late December, as the quarter-century anniversary of the USSR’s dissolution passed, a ruling out of Kazakhstan displayed how little distance remained between Moscow and certain former Soviet republics.

In Aktobe, Kazakhstan, a local court sentenced a 46-year-old Kazakhstani native to three years in jail for his online postings—namely, for insulting a post-Soviet autocrat, the type of which Kazakhstan has known since its independence in 1991. To be sure, the language used by Sanat Dosov, a businessman and prolific Facebook user, when describing this president, who’d never been elected with a vote deemed free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was more than pointed. According to Dosov, the president was “ruining the country!” Moreover, the president, from Dosov’s vantage, is a “fascist” —one responsible for “mass killings.”

Unsurprisingly, authorities in Kazakhstan stood piqued at Dosov’s postings, and, as The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz detailed, charged Dosov “under the infamous Article 174 of the Kazakh criminal code, which outlaws actions aimed at inciting ‘social, national, generic, racial, class or religious hatred’ as well as the ‘insult of the national honour and dignity or religious feelings of citizens’ and ‘propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on grounds of their relation to religion, class, national, generic or racial assignment.’  

However, where prior culprits sentenced via Article 174 were found guilty for language aimed at other Kazakhstani citizens, Dosov’s sentencing presented something altogether unprecedented—and something potentially far more disconcerting. Dosov’s online commentary—those online insults peppering his Facebook – were not aimed at Astana, or at Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Rather, his claims of fascism and massacre were aimed at Moscow, and at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That is to say, some 25 years after the Kazakh SSR became the last Soviet republic to declare independence from the Kremlin, local authorities showed they were willing to jail citizens for insulting the current leadership in Moscow. Or put another way: A decade ago, Kazakhstani authorities complained that the film Borat insulted their country’s honor; now, Kazakhstani authorities will jail you for insulting Putin.

The decision out of Aktobe, of course, presents a travesty of judgment regarding free speech in Kazakhstan. Beyond that, however, the sentencing unveils a new mechanism for allowing the Kremlin to pressure critics abroad – even if they’re not Russian citizens. Unlike Russian citizens targeted elsewhere—in Turkey, in the UK—Dosov’s case reveals the alarming reality that simply having a government aligned, at least nominally, with Moscow may well be enough to land you in prison for insulting the Kremlin.

Of course, it is important not to over-inflate the threat posed by Dosov’s precedent, however unsettling it may be. Astana has maintained an atypical position within the wider tensions between Russia and the West over the past three years. Not only do ethnic Russians – those the Kremlin has pledged to protect – comprise some 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population, but Russian nationalists have long eyed northern and northeastern Kazakhstan as rightfully Russian: as southern Siberia. After all, it was not long ago that Putin was hinting, via thinly disguised dog-whistle, that ethnic Kazakhs had never enjoyed pre-Soviet statehood, tying Kazakhstan’s statehood directly to Nazarbayev’s persona. Astana’s hackles promptly raised, and the country quickly announced plans on celebrating the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Kazakh Khanate. Further, as EurasiaNet recently detailed, Kazakhstan has continued arresting those who would call for—or even hint at—potential secession in northern Kazakhstan. After posting “disparaging posts about Kazakh people,” Kazakhstani citizen Igor Chuprina was sentenced to 5.5 years in jail for “disseminating propaganda undermining the country’s territorial unity and … inciting interethnic hatred through his social media posting.”

Tensions between Astana and Moscow have, by and large, only expanded since. The Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union – a grouping that spiked ethnic Kazakh nationalism, with those in Kazakhstan fearing the neo-imperialism the Kremlin continues to try to inject into the group—resulted in an outright “trade war” between Kazakhstan and Russia. And while Astana was one of the few governments to issue a statement recognizing the Crimean “referendum,” it later, and unceremoniously, walked back its position, attempting to play to both Moscow and Kyiv as it went.

As such, Dosov’s sentencing can be read as Kazakhstan continuing to try to thread a thin, blurred line between Moscow, the West, and the country’s own internal stability. In that sense, sentencing Dosov not only helped assuage potential tensions domestically, but it was also a none-too-subtle nod to Moscow that Astana, despite its differences with the Kremlin, remains firmly within Russia’s orbit.

Still, as of early 2017, we now have another precedent for Moscow to pressure client-states and potential partners alike to muzzle criticism of the Kremlin. Dosov’s jailing is by no means the first instance in which the Kremlin has (presumably) leaned on existing legislation to help silence criticism abroad. Look, for instance, at how Russia has abused Interpol to pursue dissenters and opposition figures alike. As The New York Times recently found, “Moscow has developed an elaborate and well-funded strategy in recent years of using—critics say abusing—foreign courts and law enforcement systems to go after its enemies.” While there are indications Western countries are growing increasingly wary of extraditing individuals to Russia—see, for instance, Mukhtar Ablyazov—organizations like Interpol continue to provide a key means for post-Soviet autocracies to clamp down on dissent abroad.

Now, via Kazakhstan and Dosov, we see a new, disquieting means of stifling criticism of Putin abroad—to say nothing of adding to the list of Kazakhstan’s methods of silencing domestic dissent. Governments close to Moscow, thanks to the ruling in Dosov’s case ruling, can look to Kazakhstan and see a government where local officials jail those critical of Moscow. And at this point, there’s little reason to believe Dosov will be the last to suffer under such policy. 

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