ALMATY -- As Russians continue to stream into Kazakhstan, local activists are stepping up their opposition to the Z-propaganda campaign waged by supporters of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian exodus formed shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, largely comprised of information technology (IT) workers seeking to avoid the draft.
Kazakh activists call out Russian nationals whom they call vatniks (a derogatory term for the blindly patriotic), or Z-patriots, who support Russia's so-called special military operation in Ukraine and who spread the Kremlin's propaganda.
Not all the Russians entering Kazakhstan in the past year and a half oppose their country's ongoing assault on Ukraine.
As a case in point, Astana blogger Shaisultan Kasymov recently posted a video he recorded in Rudny, Kostanay province.
The video shows a car with license plates from Chelyabinsk province, Russia, that is emblazoned with "Z" stickers -- the symbol of the invasion of Ukraine.
"Here the letter Z is a mark of war propaganda," Kasymov said.
When Kasymov asked the woman driver to remove the stickers, she flatly refused, and also expressed annoyance that Kasymov had addressed her in Kazakh, rather than in Russian.
"Why are you speaking another language?" she can be heard asking angrily in the video clip.
She accused Kasymov of inciting ethnic hatred. Kasymov called the police. The patrol force that showed up took her to the local police station, and took a statement from Kasymov. The woman was reportedly fined.
"My brothers, I urge all of you to call the police if you see any cars with this letter in our country. Do not give in to provocation," Kasymov says in his video.
Last August, a resident of Saran, Karaganda province, was detained by the district court for seven days for drawing a Z on the turret of a tank that is part of a monument honouring fallen World War II heroes.
He was prosecuted under the statute on disorderly conduct, "the desecration of residential premises and other similar actions that express disrespect for the wider public and disrupt public order and the tranquillity of individuals".
The display of the letter Z is not officially prohibited in Kazakhstan.
Astana has yet to publicly condemn the invasion, with its reluctance to do so largely attributed to its close economic ties with Russia
Kazakhstan is a strategic partner of Russia through its membership in the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation and Eurasian Economic Union.
Yet Kazakhstan has refused to recognise the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine -- the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.
And it is not only abiding by the sanctions against Russia but also helping the West enforce them.
Reining in separatist sentiment
Russian-influenced separatism in certain areas is a touchy issue for Kazakhstan, whose northern provinces border Russia and have sizable ethnic Russian populations.
Astana cannot rule out the possibility that Russia could turn on it after Ukraine, said professor Erica Marat of National Defence University in Washington.
"The events of February 2022 radically altered assumptions about what we can expect from Moscow in terms of the threat level coming from this neighbour," Marat told Caravanserai.
In April, the authorities of North Kazakhstan province announced they had arrested a group of Petropavlovsk city residents for separatist actions.
Russian authorities in February granted asylum to Maxim Yakovchenko, a Kazakh citizen living in Uralsk.
After posting a series of provocative and hostile statements against Kazakhstan online, Yakovchenko was charged in Kazakhstan with violating two criminal statutes on separatism and incitement of ethnic hatred.
Many Kazakhs denounced Moscow's provision of asylum, with some interpreting the decision as a sign of sympathy with Yakovchenko's views.
The Kazakh authorities are trying meanwhile to keep a tight rein on separatist sentiment and support for the war in Ukraine because such positions directly threaten national security, analysts told Caravanserai.
The locked-on attention of law enforcement agencies is justified, said Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law director Sergey Duvanov.
"The separatist activity we've seen in Petropavlovsk, and the open, active support for the war in Ukraine are a severe threat to stability in Kazakhstan," he told Caravanserai. "There could be a rift in society and public opposition."
This might explain why, since March 2022 -- shortly after Russia began its assault on Ukraine -- police across Kazakhstan have been stopping cars bearing a Z.
Traffic police force the drivers to remove the stickers and fine them for violating rules of vehicular operation.
Kyrgyz opposition to war in Ukraine
In Kyrgyzstan, another country closely tied to Russia, the government has taken steps to distance itself from the war as well.
Last year, the Kyrgyz authorities banned Russian propaganda films, along with symbols associated with the war in Ukraine.
In April 2022, the country's cinema regulation agency banned the screening in Kyrgyzstan of a number of Russian feature films about events in Ukraine that paint separatists as heroes.
The same month, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) warned Kyrgyz against using the Z symbol in Kyrgyzstan.
Activists have played an increasing role in ensuring enforcement of those policies.
They are helping the authorities to identify "Z elements" in the country by calling the police when they spot a vehicle with a Z sticker or when someone posts incendiary statements on social networks that express separatist ideas.
Grassroots efforts led to the swift cancellation, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, of concerts by "Z-artist" Grigory Leps.
Leps drew outrage in June when he promised to pay 1 million RUB [about $12,000 at the time] to every Russian soldier who destroyed a Ukrainian tank.
"We need to band together now and show everyone that the Kazakh public opposes the war in Ukraine," activist Aigerim Suleimenova of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan told Caravanserai.
"It's also crucial that we demonstrate civic consciousness and work together to combat the genuine threats our country is facing."