Russia and her friends: Kazakhstan

Given Putin’s treatement of Ukraine, do Russia’s allies have cause for concern?

Should Kazakhstan worry about Russia?



The president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been showing signs of engaging in ethnopolitics to preserve the state’s sovereignty. The practice of ethnopolitics has been applied by leaders throughout centuries. It implies the turning of abstract ethnic diversity into absolute ethnic cleavages through rhetorics and laws. The motives to engage in this politicization process have included political and security-related gains such as the preservation of state sovereignty. The clearest illustration of ethnopolitics of the Kazakh government has been the attraction of repatriated Kazakhs through a radically amended law. Firstly, instead of granting the traditional 7-year period of waiting before becoming a national again, the new Law makes it possible for repatriates to get the Kazakh citizenship within 1 year. In addition, the new Law has been amended in the sense that now repatriates may freely choose where they settle in the country as opposed to being assigned certain regions. Thirdly, repatriated Kazakhs are provided with social benefits related to education, housing and healthcare, which is again supposed to make it more attractive to move back to their country of origin. The question arises why Nazarbayev would want to increase the Kazakh percentage of the population in his country. Who is he to protect Kazakhstan from? I argue that it has to do with Nazarbayev’s fear of the Russian Federation’s tendencies to interfere in Kazakhstan in the same way as Putin did in the Ukraine. I present three reasons why Nazarbayev would suddenly want to protect Kazakhstan’s sovereignty from its closest ally.

First of all, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent rhetorics might be a legitimate base for Nazarbayev to be worried about potential Russian interventionism in Kazakhstan. Putin might be interesting into adding Kazakhstan to his list of secessionist proxy wars if not direct wars. Putin, in the most recent Summit on the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (see my article on July 28, 2014) made remarks regarding the state-hood of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev’s rule and the continuing support that the Russian government expects to receive an “overwhelming majority of the population of Kazakhstan”. Kazakhstan is presented as Russia’s closest strategic ally who is “for now” ruled by 74 year old Nazarbayev. Putin seemingly gives a compliment to the Kazakh President in stating that Nazarbayev did a very sophisticated job in creating the first state on the territory that is now called Kazakhstan. With that, he says that Kazakhstan had not seen statehood until the fall of the Soviet Union. The rhetoric used by Putin at the Summit are alarming as it appears that Kazakhstan was a Russian-dominated Republic which, once Nazarbayev departs from his office, might become Russian property again.

The second reason for Nazarbayev’s possible new major policy focus is related to potential secessionism of the large number of Russians living in Kazakhstan. That is, roughly 22 percent of the population is Russian. The Russians are concentrated in the North, bordering – similarly to Ukraine’s eastern provinces – the Russian Federation. In addition to this potentially secessionist region, Eastern Kazakhstan is inhabited by a small community of allegedly pro-Russian Cossacks who have fought alongside with Russian forces in the Ukraine in the past months. Listening to Putin’s speech at the Minsk Summit makes one believe that possible attempts by the Russian President to instigate a secessionist movement might be met by the support of pro-Russian inhabitants. Hence, Nazarbayev might be applying ethnopolitics to prevent infringement on Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

Could this relation sour? Image source: FT

Thirdly, Nazarbayev might engage in ethnopolitics and potentially turn away from Russia because it seems that there is less and less to gain for Kazakhstan from economic union cooperation with Russia. The EEU, initiated by Nazarbayev with the end goal to serve as a competitor to Western economic unions, is said to have disappointed the leader’s expectations. Examples of the disadvantages of the EEU to Kazakh economy are the loss of productivity gains in the long run, being imposed trade restrictions which result into trading mostly with EEU members, and therefore having access to less technologically advanced goods. Nazarbayev is indeed acting upon his discontent as he refused last month to join Russia in banning imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products from Europe and other western countries. Calling the sanctions “a road to nowhere”, Nazarbayev is showing the first evident signs of not being shy to break away from being as close with Russia as his government has been since 23 years ago, when the first “Kazakh statehood” emerged. Thus, despite having been Russia’s most loyal trading and political partner so far, this article claims that Nazarbayev’s next big internal policy is ethnopolitics to protect his Republic from Russia foreign policy.

Lia Ibragimova

Lia Ibragimova

Lia is an EU-politics enthusiast who was born and partly raised in Azerbaijan. She is Dutch by nationality and pursued her BA degree in European Studies at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Lia expresses her EU fanaticism through participating and organizing political simulations of EU politics, of which the foremost has been her involvement in Model European Union Strasbourg.

Within the EU’s policy domains, Lia is particularly passionate about EU Foreign Policy in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. More specifically, she is interested in the EU’s role as a democracy promoter, economic partner and conflict mediator in Eastern Europe.

Following from her interests, Lia is about to start the MA Conflict Studies at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Lia Ibragimova

Latest posts by Lia Ibragimova (see all)