ALMATY -- Kremlin propaganda pumped out via Russian television channels has been helping the Russian mercenary Wagner Group recruit Kazakh citizens and needs to be halted at once, observers in and citizens of Kazakhstan said.
Residents of northern Kazakhstan are subjected to active brainwashing on a daily basis from Kremlin-controlled media outlets, said Zhyldyz Aliyeva, a reporter for the Almaty newspaper Delovaya Nedelya (Business Week).
These outlets cover the war in Ukraine with clear pro-Kremlin bias, she told Caravanserai.
"In practice, the propaganda helps set the stage for Wagner recruiters," she said, and sends men to war thinking "they're going there to battle evil without suspecting that they're going to be doing exactly the opposite".
"The broadcast of Russian TV channels, not just in Kazakhstan but in the Central Asian countries in general, needs to be cut off or at the very least greatly restricted," Aliyeva said.
Mercenary funeral in Semey
In early March, a funeral was held in Semey for a 33-year-old native of the city who was killed while fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Kazakh service reported.
He died in December in a district of Bakhmut, where brutal combat has been raging between the Ukrainian army and Russian forces since last year, after leaving for Russia in November.
A month after his departure, his relatives received a death notice from the Wagner Group, informing them that he had been killed by artillery.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group -- founded and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- are fighting in Ukraine alongside regular Russian troops.
There are no official statistics on the number of Kazakh corpses that have arrived from Russia under the "Cargo 200" identifier, though numerous media reports indicate there have been quite a few such cases.
Russian recruitment schemes
Both the Russian military and the Wagner Group are busy looking for Central Asians to fight and die for Moscow's interests.
Last year, Caravanserai reported that Russia was aggressively recruiting migrants from Central Asia into its official armed forces, in addition to the ongoing Wagner Group recruitment efforts.
Russian authorities have augmented their army with citizens of the former Soviet Union since the prolonged war in Ukraine has depleted its ranks.
Youth from countries in Central Asia who are fit for military service and proficient in Russian are being recruited to sign contracts with Russian armed forces.
Immigrants from Central Asia who have received Russian citizenship also are being drafted.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group is recruiting fighters as well, in a clandestine process that entails not only drawing Russians into the war but also citizens of Central Asian countries.
In Kazakhstan, participation in armed conflicts abroad -- unless as part of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces -- is a crime that carries a sentence of up to nine years in prison.
The war in Ukraine is no exception: last year Astana stated its official position, that it did not support the Russian aggression against Ukraine and that it was committed to UN principles on territorial integrity and state sovereignty.
Criminal liability in Kazakhstan for participating in foreign wars took effect in 2014, after Russia started its war in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of Ukraine. Eight years later, Russia invaded the rest of the country.
Based on media reports, the Wagner Group has concentrated its recruitment efforts in the northern provinces of Kazakhstan, which border Russia.
Google search statistics show that in Kazakhstan, Wagner attracts the most interest from internet users in North Kazakhstan, Karaganda, Kostanay, Akmola and East Kazakhstan provinces, RFE/RL's Kazakh service reported.
Deceptive online recruitment
The Wagner Group uses social networks and messaging apps to recruit fighters, with administrator-recruiters detailing the requirements for candidates and providing information on how to join the mercenary group.
Men who meet the requirements are asked to delete their social network accounts and report to a Wagner base 40km from the Russian city of Krasnodar.
The only device they may bring with them is a flip phone, RFE/RL's Kazakh service reported, based on interviews with recruiters.
These recruiters use carefully chosen wording to create the illusion that the targeted recruits have landed their dream job, rather than being sent into a slaughter.
They refer to the entire process as "job placement" and a "business trip", and promise candidates a "high salary", "bonuses", "compensation of transportation expenses" and "payment of living costs".
The online recruiters provide instructions that sound straight out of a spy thriller. Recruits are supposed to ask at the first checkpoint, "How do I get to the Pioneer camp?" and then to say at the next checkpoint that "the Bavarian" sent them.
It is unclear how many Kazakhs have joined the Wagner Group since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine, as the mercenary group does not disclose such information and the recruitment process is hard to track.
In 2015, per the General Prosecutor's Office, 15 Kazakhs were convicted of taking part in armed conflicts abroad.
In 2019, three men were jailed but in 2021 just one.
No one was prosecuted for participating in foreign wars in 2022, but in March, the National Security Committee (KNB) announced it had opened seven criminal cases so far this year.
Wagner still operates freely
Why is Kazakhstan failing to block websites used to recruit Wagner Group fighters, since the group is involved in actions prohibited by Kazakh law?
And why has the Wagner Group not yet been banned in Kazakhstan, even though it has been recognised abroad as a criminal or terrorist group?
Many Kazakhs have raised these questions, yet the government has remained silent on this matter.
The reason lies in geopolitics, say observers.
Kazakhstan is not blocking Russian media outlets or Wagner's recruitment channels because it does not want to argue with Russia, former RFE/RL political correspondent Bruce Pannier told RFE/RL earlier in April.
As long as Kazakhstan refuses to contest Russia's description of Wagner as a "private company", it will lack an official reason to block Wagner recruiting websites, he said.
Russia always has the power to punish Kazakhstan by blocking the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, through which up to 80% of Kazakh oil is shipped to Europe, he noted. It did so several times in 2022, citing ostensibly technical problems.
Deluded by propaganda
A survey conducted last year by the MediaNet International Centre for Journalism (ICFJ) found that many respondents approved of Russia's war, said ICFJ director Adil Jalilov, who founded the fact-checking website Factcheck.kz.
They were mainly members of the older generation who watch Russian television channels, he told Caravanserai.
"It's time for our government to look at cutting off the broadcast of Russian TV channels in our country because they have very significant ... influence on the Kazakh audience," Jalilov said.
Kremlin propaganda also has deeply penetrated the Kazakh internet, local users have observed.
Astana-based blogger Yerlan Ismailov pointed out that Russian trolls comment under almost every news report on Russia's invasion of Ukraine that is published by the Kazakh media.
These trolls stand up for Moscow, attempt to discredit Ukraine and attack critics of Russian aggression, he told Caravanserai.
"These trolls work in groups in a co-ordinated way," he said. "They share a range of content that allegedly proves that they're right, but this is almost always fake evidence."
The government needs to take urgent legislative steps to protect its citizens, said Aliyeva, the Delovaya Nedelya reporter.
"Otherwise, the number of Kazakhs who come home in coffins will only grow," she cautioned.