ALMATY -- Despite their differing opinions on contentious political issues, Kazakh officials and their critics are standing united against any threat to the country's sovereignty, professing zero tolerance for those who would try to split it apart.
This overarching commitment to national unity was on display during an April 9 rally at Almaty's Republic Square, where opposition members and community activists gathered to protest the results of the March 19 parliamentary elections.
The demonstrators also voiced their ire at Russian-influenced separatists, calling for "banning types of separatism".
The separatist sentiment they were protesting was visible last month in North Kazakhstan province, which borders Russia, when a group of Petropavlovsk residents convened an election day meeting of the so-called People's Council.
A video of the meeting circulating on social networks shows about 20 members of the group gathered in a room.
A woman, evidently their leader, reads a declaration that calls Kazakhstan a "fictitious corporation" and describes government agencies as "business-identified legal entities".
All the laws in Kazakhstan recognised by these agencies "have no legal force and [are] meaningless", she said.
The People's Council expresses its "self-reliance, independence and sovereignty" from Kazakhstan and its rights to the "territorial integrity of the sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic", which, it says, encompasses Petropavlovsk.
In statements posted in mid-March on the Russian social network VKontakte, the People's Council is unambiguous in its stance: It outright rejects Kazakhstan as a sovereign state.
It characterises the law that underpins Kazakhstan's declaration of independence in 1991 as a "sham", and calls the country's former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, "illegitimate" and "not authorised" to sign legal instruments.
Nazarbayev led Kazakhstan out of the Soviet Union in 1991.
'Propagandisation of separatism'
The general public became aware of the spurious meeting and the group's adopted declaration when the video circulated on social networks, sparking a backlash.
On Tuesday (April 18), authorities in North Kazakhstan province announced the arrest of three People's Council members in connection with charges of separatism, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They face as long as seven years in prison if convicted.
Observers point to parallels with Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, which energised separatist groups in the eastern regions of Ukraine.
In the immediate aftermath of the Crimea annexation, pro-Russian local lawmakers gathered in the Donetsk provincial administration building in April 2014 and adopted a statement on the independence of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.
Some Kazakh public figures who have worked in security see Russia's fingerprints on the intensified separatist activities in North Kazakhstan.
The so-called People's Council was very likely operating "according to the methods" of the Russian intelligence services, said Murat Mukhamejanov of Astana, chairman of the National Union of Veterans of Combat Operations on the Tajik-Afghan Border, at an April 7 news conference.
"They want to announce independence from Kazakhstan. That's separatism," he said.
'Tip of the iceberg'
Almaty-based political analyst and Risk Assessment Group director Dosym Satpayev also blamed the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) for the episode of separatism in Petropavlovsk.
"And this is only the tip of the iceberg," he wrote on Facebook March 31.
"We must not let down our guard but instead be twice as vigilant since Kazakhstan is strongly reminiscent of Ukraine in 2014, with many vulnerable spots."
He pointed to research published by Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, that says Russia's special services in Ukraine are reducing the need to run agents from Russia by recruiting "senior agents in place who run their own networks".
The same could be happening in Kazakhstan, he warned.
Kazakhstan must extricate itself from Russia's influence, as the geopolitical situation has exposed threats to its independence and sovereignty, Mukhamejanov said.
"We started seeing signals of this long ago, when Russian politicians made threatening statements that challenged the historic ownership of Kazakhstan's northern territories and our nationhood," he said.
Kazakhstan should exit regional blocs co-ordinated by Russia such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU or EAEU), he said, noting that these were created only in Moscow’s interests.
Defending threats to national security
Separatism is one of the greatest threats to national security, according to Nurlan Ospanov, a former chief of migration police in Zhetysu district, Almaty city.
For this reason, he said, the authorities will do everything necessary to keep the situation in the north under control.
"Even without the activists' little decree, the relevant agencies are completely aware of what is happening and what to do about it, and they will do everything in their power to fend off threats," Ospanov said.
The entire population of Kazakhstan needs to unite to combat even the slightest signs of separatism in order to avoid a fate similar to that of Ukraine, said blogger and influencer Yergali Abdrakhmanov.
He urged other users of social networks to join forces and collectively "prevent the separatists from spreading their destructive ideas".
"After all, it is our homeland and our common future at stake," Abdrakhmanov said.