BACKGROUND: Nazarbaev’s declaration of his desire to form a Eurasian Union in the beginning of the post-Soviet era awarded him a special status among promoters of Eurasianism such as Alexander Dugin, who even published a book about Nazarbaev’s providential role. Nazarbaev has never publically dismissed the idea and seemed most enthusiastic when Putin promulgated the creation of a Customs Union aiming to lay the foundation of a close Eurasian Union. The fact that the union is envisioned as not only an economic, but also a geopolitical entity has caused a considerable degree of apprehension in Washington policy circles. Secretary Clinton for example has described the Eurasian Union as the USSR in disguise with Moscow in the center.
Yet, despite its continuous praise for Eurasian Union and its strong existing ties with Russia, many of Astana’s recent decisions imply that Kazakhstan has actually distanced itself from Moscow, especially by challenging Moscow’s cultural and scientific predominance in the region. The most recent example in this regard puts into question Russia’s program of space exploration and is an indication of Astana’s skepticism toward the prospect of a Moscow-centered Eurasian space.
In the beginning of its existence as independent state, Kazakhstan was closely connected with Russia not only economically but also by cultural and ethnic ties. A large part of Kazakhstan’s population consisted of Russian-speakers, which actually constituted a majority in the country’s north. Russian, not Kazakh, had the official status of national language. This fascination with Russia, or at least with Russian culture, science and language, persisted throughout the early post-Soviet era. It fit nicely with Nazarbaev’s early Eurasianism, or at least in his belief that Moscow would remain Kazakhstan’s primary ally. As a result, the Gumilev University with instruction in Russian was established in Kazakhstan. Lev Gumilev, sometimes called “the last Eurasianist,” advocated a harmonious “symbiosis” between the Russian and Turkic peoples of Eurasia while assuming that Russian would remain the major language of discourse.
However, as time progressed Nazarbaev’s “Eurasianism” with its strong gravitation toward Russian culture, language and related technological prowess, started to decline. The Kazakh language was increasingly made a prerequisite for career prospects, especially in government. At the same time, Astana increasingly saw the general and often catastrophic degradation of Russian science and culture in spite of some improvement during the Putin era. This had direct implications for Astana’s cultural and scientific policies.
IMPLICATIONS: One important implication was a change of Astana’s educational policy. While Gumilev University continued to exist, new universities, including the recently opened Nazarbaev University, had a completely different linguistic and staff composition. Rather than Russian, English is the language of instruction. The university is staffed by western researchers and teachers who are attracted to Kazakhstan by extremely generous salaries.
The decline of interest in Russian culture is also evident in Nazarbaev’s program to move from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin. Nazarbaev has certainly asserted that this step has nothing to do with geopolitical orientations and it should be underlined that the ambition to introduce the Latin alphabet is no novelty in Kazakhstan. Yet, regardless of Nazarbaev’s assertions, the move clearly indicates a decline of Russia’s centrality as the focus of political and cultural discourse in Kazakhstan.
Russia’s declining attraction is also manifested in Kazakhstan’s questioning of Russia’s technological prowess, which was demonstrated clearly in Astana’s rethinking of arms imports from Russia. While Astana has by no means discarded its import of Russian weapons, it increasingly considers Russia to be just one among many suppliers, whose products are viewed as equal to or even better than those of Russia. Indeed, Kazakhstan is currently in the process of establishing joint production with or entering into purchase agreements from a variety of suppliers ranging from Turkey to China. Moreover, Astana increasingly believes that it possesses sufficient expertise to produce a range of weapons systems itself.
An even clearer manifestation of Astana’s skepticism toward Moscow’s technological prowess is Astana’s reevaluation of Russian assistance in developing Kazakhstan’s space program. The desire to find alternatives to Moscow in this respect emerged already in 2009 when Nazarbaev discussed the possibility of cooperation with France in developing the space program albeit cooperation with China is also not excluded. In December 2012 it was officially announced that Astana wanted to repossess Baikonur – the hub of the Soviet space industry and rocket launching – which is still under Russian control. The Kremlin was seemingly surprised by this move and termed the Kazakh side’s statement “unjustifiably aggressive.”
The desire to expel Moscow from Baikonur has a significant symbolic meaning in the context of the USSR’s status as a great space superpower just a few decades ago and Moscow’s self-understanding as the true successor of the USSR technological prowess. Yet, Astana evidently does not consider this to be the case anymore as it demonstrates its ambition to find other collaborators, most likely Western ones, or alternatively to manage the entire enterprise alone. Indeed, Kazakhstan does not seem intimidated by Moscow’s assertions that Russian personnel could leave Baikonur and that Russia will cease payments worth millions of dollars for using the facility.
While Kazakhstan’s decision on Baikonur holds significant symbolic importance in its own right, the developments also have broader geopolitical implications. Increasingly, Astana views Moscow as an equal partner at best; but hardly as the only and possibly not even as a major partner. It is also unlikely that Moscow would come to view Kazakhstan as an equal, especially due to the rising Russian nationalism and its generally condescending attitude toward Central Asians. In fact, Moscow is also skeptical toward the prospect of true integration with Kazakhstan and has according to some reports already started the construction of an alternative to Baikonur in Russia’s Far East. It is becoming clear that Moscow is unwilling to accept the prospect of Kazakhstan’s increasing scientific and technological independence from Russia and seeks to secure its complete control over space projects in case its relationship with Astana deteriorates.
While Nazarbaev’s meeting with Putin in February 2013 created the impression that problems are solved, such assurances should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed Baikonur is only the most recent indication of problems arising in the relationship between Astana and Moscow, which risks becoming decidedly less harmonious in the future and could increasingly come to resemble that between Moscow and Minsk. Indeed, the fact that Belarus and Russia have been a part of a “Union State” for decades has not prevented mutual suspicion and in some cases hostility. Indeed, as Moskovskie Novosti correspondent Arkadii Dubnov has noted, “the space conflict is just the top of the iceberg of the general conflicts in the Russia – Kazakhstan relationship.”
CONCLUSIONS: In the very beginning of post-Soviet era, Kazakhstan saw Russia as the cultural and scientific center of the post-Soviet universe and its elite had a genuine interest in Eurasian integration. Yet, as time proceeded, Moscow’s attraction as one of the global centers of science and technology started to fade, a process that induced Astana to look elsewhere for expertise and to develop its own technological capabilities. Consequently, Astana increasingly regards itself as Moscow’s equal, a notion that the Moscow elite will hardly accept. These developments provide bleak prospects for the geopolitical cohesiveness or even the existence of the Eurasian Union as a viable geopolitical body.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.