BACKGROUND: Like many other Central Asian rulers, Nursultan Nazarbaev was not anxious to break free of Russia’s orbit in the very beginning of post-Soviet history, when Kazakhstan was a young and potentially unstable state. Kazakhstan was ready at that time to implicitly accept Moscow’s predominant position, and it was Nazarbaev who first proposed the creation of a Eurasian Union in 1993. Yet Russia saw Central Asia mostly as a backward appendix of the former USSR, which would prevent Russia from becoming fully integrated with the West. Consequently Nazarbaev’s call was ignored.
By Vladimir Putin’s third term, the situation had changed. On one hand, Putin fully understood that western integration was not in the cards for Russia. On the other, Russia had become much stronger in the 2000s than it was in the 1990s; and Putin dreamed of reconsolidating a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. At the same time, Kazakhstan reaffirmed itself as a strong Central Asian state and abandoned any early reverence of Russia as its “older brother.” While Astana saw no problem in a loose alliance with Russia – mostly based on economic interests – this did not prevent Astana from forging relationships with other regional players.
Most importantly, Astana built and guarded its own sovereignty. It should be recalled that Kazakhstan was resolutely against the idea of transforming the economic union with Russia into a political union and continued to emphasize its “multi vector” foreign policy, implying that its relations with one country should not prevent it from dealing with others. Moreover, Astana asserted that geopolitical competition in Central Asia should not deter Kazakhstan from maintaining friendly relations with any or all of the actors involved.
In any case, Astana opposed political integration with Russia and therefore also the idea of creating a transnational parliament. To make this point clear, Astana continued to engage in geopolitical and military relationships with foreign countries and political bodies that Russia deemed hostile; Kazakhstan retained its cooperation with NATO and the U.S. while simultaneously expanding its relationship with Moscow. Nazarbaev did not support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and implicitly took Kiev’s side in the conflict. Astana also started to raise questions regarding the wisdom of deepening economic integration with a Russia facing Western sanctions, with implications also for Kazakhstan, and sharp ruble devaluation. As Kazakhstan and Russia are formally moving closer as members of the EEU, tensions have resurfaced that indicate a potential for future conflict.
IMPLICATIONS: Astana was alarmed by the collapse of the ruble. Kazakh officials have noted that the cheaper Russian goods represent a threat to Kazakhstan’s industry, and that Kazakhstan should limit imports from Russia. In addition, Kazakhstan will limit exports and seek to attain greater self-sufficiency in its domestic production. But the most serious bone of contention between Moscow, Astana, and Minsk is Kazakhstan’s reluctance to follow Russia’s geopolitical designs and its inclination to retain its multi vector foreign policy.
Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Relations Erlan Idrissov stated clearly in one of his January 2015 interviews that Kazakhstan would deepen its relationship with the EU despite Brussels’ sanctions on Moscow. Even less pleasing in Moscow’s perspective is Kazakhstan’s expressed interest in strengthening its strategic partnership with the U.S., including in trade, investment, energy, technical and humanitarian cooperation, at a time when U.S.-Russia relations increasingly resembles those during the Cold War. Nazarbaev’s talks with President Obama during the Nuclear Security Summit also gave impetus to further development of bilateral relations.
In addition, Kazakhstan has launched a visa-free regime for citizens of the U.S. and several European countries. As Idrissov noted, “… in 2014 we launched a pilot project on a visa-free regime with ten countries that are key investors in Kazakhstan. It was done in order to create a comfortable environment and attract more investment. The project was perceived very positively by investors and our foreign partners.” Kazakhstan thus underscored that it actually sees little difference between Washington and Moscow.
While Astana’s approaches to Washington and Brussels irritates Moscow, some of Astana’s steps in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis are even more provocative. Moscow can accept Nazarbaev’s role as an impartial mediator to solve the crisis. But Nazarbaev has clearly sided with Kiev in its conflict with Moscow and made clear that Astana not only supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity but is ready to help Kiev develop its military industry despite the fact that its products could be directly used against Russian troops.
Astana’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine stems from its own concerns and uncertainty regarding Russia’s designs on Northern Kazakhstan. Soon after the USSR’s collapse, members of Yeltsin administration made claims to this effect. Since, several attempts have been made by ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan to separate the North of the rest of the country. In the so-called “Pugachev revolt,” named after the leader of a peasant revolt in the 18th century, Viktor Kazimirchuk led a group including ethnic Russians from both Kazakhstan and Russia in a separatist campaign in Northern Kazakhstan. They were apprehended and put on trial in 1999. The controversial writer and politician Eduard Limonov attempted in 2002 to start an uprising in Northern Kazakhstan and then use it as springboard for igniting nationalistic revolt in Russia proper. Limonov’s venture led to nowhere; he was arrested and imprisoned by Russian authorities. In the last year, Russian nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky have suggested that Russia could annex Northern Kazakhstan by similar means as Crimea. At same time, Astana realizes that the West is neither willing, nor able to confront Moscow on issues pertaining to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.
It is clear that the birth of the EEU has been marked by a distinct rise of geopolitical as well as economic tensions between Astana and Moscow. Already existing problems have obtained a new meaning in light of the Ukrainian crisis and could have a variety of consequences.
CONCLUSION: The EEU’s inauguration did little to soothe the tensions between Astana and Moscow, which could lead to several different scenarios in the medium term. Kazakhstan can decide to remain part of the union with Russia, in which case Kazakhstan would follow the Belarusian model. Indeed, Minsk continues to be a close ally of Moscow, at least on paper, despite a range of frictions and Lukashenko’s flirtation with a variety of foreign players. This scenario remains the most likely, at least during Nazarbaev’s tenure as president. But a future nationalist Kazakh leader could decide to openly confront Moscow. Such a scenario would decidedly increase the risk of a Russian invasion of Northern Kazakhstan under various pretexts, in order to create a buffer state or partition Kazakhstan between Russia and China in one form or another.
While Kazakhstan’s continued membership in the EEU remains likely in the foreseeable future, this will not prevent Kazakhstan from following its multi vector foreign policy and Astana will most likely continue to cultivate economic and geopolitical relationships with other global players, even ones in conflict with Russia.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons