Kazakhstan’s Regional Balancing in the Age of Global Uncertainties
I recently visited Kazakhstan to gauge the mood after Donald Trump’s election victory and how regional challenges are being viewed in light of the transition of power in Washington DC. My visit took me to both Astana and Almaty and I met with senior members of the think-tank community, civil society, media, and government.
For the U.S. Central Asia is important in regard to many of the challenges it faces around the world, such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, wavering allies, a growing China, and the rise of radical extremism. The region is a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads linking Europe and Asia and has proved strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries.
One of the general themes I often heard on my trip speaking to officials was the need for Kazakhstan to balance its foreign and regional relations between Russia, the U.S. and China. There is a lot of uncertainly coming from the new Trump Administration regarding U.S. relations with Russia and China so I go the impression that, without clarity from Washington, Kazakhstan doesn’t quite know how to best manage its relations. The situation becomes even more complicated when you factor in the role of secondary actors like Syria and North Korea into the formulation of U.S. policy towards Russia and China. The new administration should make it clear to Astana where U.S. policy will be heading in regards of Moscow and Beijing.
Another commonly heard theme was the role of smaller regional countries in Central Asia. The ‘Great Game’ (the major power competition) is something that Kazakhs are very used to. However, there is a growing concern over what was described to me by one person as the ‘Small Game’. The Small Game is focused on the role of smaller powers like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and India involved in the region. While the goals of big powers like Russia and China are well known, this is not the case with the countries in the Small Game. These countries often have significant soft and cultural power and the money to get involved in the region.
Most people I met with talked down the threat from Moscow. Russia dominated Kazakhstan for almost 200 years. But since regaining its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has developed its own regional policy that tries to be distinct from Russia. Even so Kazakhs retains close ties with Moscow through membership in the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Many of the experts I met with didn’t demonstrate much enthusiasm for the Eurasian Economic Union—in conversation it was treated as a fact of life which little could be done about by Kazakhstan because Russia is the dominate member. This is ironic because the idea of a Eurasian economic integration was originally a Kazakh proposal dating back to 1994. The idea never got anywhere until Vladimir Putin came in power in 1999 and started to pushing the idea of regional political and economic integration to increase Russian influence in the Former Soviet Union. Paradoxically, trade among the EEU countries has decreased since its creation. I got the impression that Russia sees EEU as a political project and Kazakhstan as an economic project. Sort of like how Germany and the UK, respectively, see the EU. Unlike the UK, however, it’s unlikely that Kazakhstan will be leaving the EEU anytime soon.
One-fifth of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnic Russian. Most of these live along the country’s 4,250-mile border with Russia. After Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, many ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan were said to sympathetic with their counterparts in eastern Ukraine, and some have fought alongside the separatists in the Donbas region. Generally speaking the Slavic population is loyal. However, since Crimea was annexed some Russian officials have been stoking fears by calling for the need to “protect” the interests of Slavic population in Kazakhstan. In 2014, Putin suggested that “the Kazakhs had no statehood.”
Added to this is an emotional attachment many Russian have to Kazakhstan for reasons of nostalgia. During World War II—perhaps the most crucial time for the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan was instrumental in providing weapons to the front lines. Kazakhstan was also home to the Baikonur launch site used for space exploration and the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site. It played a key role in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign in the 1950s and 1960s. All of this was important during the Cold War.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kazakhstan’s government has taken measures on pro-Russia social media postings. The government also recently announced the phasing out of the Cyrillic alphabet to be replaced with the Latin script. In some cases, this has led to the rise Kazakh nationalism. Some are worried about Kazakh language and culture disappearing. However, it must be said that President Nazerbayev has done a good and balanced job walking a very fine line on identity and cultural issues inside Kazakhstan. However, if Russia’s previous actions are any indication, Moscow could use the tension between the Kazakh and Slavic communities as a way to exert more influence or to meddle in the domestic affairs of Kazakhstan.
Another interesting topic of discussion in some of my meetings no often heard is the growing backlash to Chinese influence in Kazakhstan among the ‘man on the street’. Hostile and negative views developing by ethnic Kazakhs about China’s role in the country (they are taking our jobs, taking our land, marrying our women, etc). Depending on how serious and how strongly these views become this could have long term effects on Astana’s polices towards Beijing.