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Kazakh yurts in Ukraine irk Russia as crowdfunded aid pours in

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh rights activists sent Ukraine fresh bundles of aid this week including clothing, medicines - and three huge round multi-coloured yurts - a not-so coded message of support from the citizens of a country traditionally close to Moscow.

The folkloric nomad tents sent to give Ukrainians a place to keep warm are part of a steady stream of donations from Kazakh civic groups that has angered Moscow and tested the Kazakh government's so far guarded stance on Russia's invasion.

"To us, the yurt is a symbol of a hearth, home, warmth, comfort, providing shelter to the one who needs it... They asked us for tents and we decided to bring yurts," said activist Togzhan Kozhaliyeva.

She and fellow activists praise the Astana government for refusing to support Moscow's military operation, and believe that as private citizens they can go further and openly support Kyiv. Last month Kazakhstan snubbed a demand from Russia that it repudiate such initiatives.

"They asked us to comment and we said we saw no reason to do that," a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman said. Russia's foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Since the Soviet Union broke up, Kazakhstan has routinely been among the first countries to sign up to Moscow's projects, such as a Eurasian customs union, aimed at reintegrating former Soviet states.

A year ago - just before Russia invaded Ukraine - Astana demonstrated its reliance on Moscow by briefly inviting in Russian troops to help put down street unrest.

But with Russia's longest land border and a large, if declining, ethnic Russian population, Kazakhstan is also warier than other neighbours about President Vladimir Putin's stated policy of using force to protect Russian-speakers abroad.

Most Kazakhs say they don't want to take sides in the Ukraine war, reflecting their government's position. A poll carried out late last year showed 22% of Kazakhs supported Ukraine, against 13% for Russia, while 59% remained neutral.

'WE ARE HELPING OURSELVES'

But some see the Ukrainian cause as similar to their own. What happened to Ukraine "could happen to us at any moment", said Kozhaliyeva.

Her "Nation's Future" group started collecting aid the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, and has raised about $1.5 million in cash and donated items from about 20,000 people.

Kozhaliyeva believes the public response was strong because many Kazakhs consider Ukraine spiritually and historically close: the term "Kazakh" has the same origins - in a Turkic word meaning "free man" - as "cossack", the semi-military steppe culture embraced in Ukraine.

Ukrainians and Kazakhs were the principal victims of famines in 1930-1933, which historians in both countries say were engineered by Moscow to kill millions. Both nations later saw their elites targeted by Stalinist repression.

"We are helping ourselves in the first place by helping Ukraine, we are supporting our independence, our decolonisation, and the image of our country."

($1 = 459.2 tenge)

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Peter Graff)