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Kazakhstan: Conflict in the Making? —Part Two

This blog was first published by the Centre for Security Governance on 2 October 2014.

In the first part of this blog post on Kazakhstan, I argued that the country had every chance to rise to the challenge set by its president, namely for the country to become one of the world’s top 30 most developed by 2050 – and this in an atmosphere of ethnic tolerance and cooperation, such as largely prevails in the country today.

That said, Kazakhstan will have to overcome several challenging moments along the way. First, while the president is a hale 74-year old, there is no clear pathway for his succession. And as the succession process becomes engaged, it is very likely that the governance weaknesses that have been manifested under his rule will exact their toll.

Here is a short-list. The electoral process in Kazakhstan has been less than free, full and fair, even if Nazarbayev’s popularity is beyond question. Corruption is rampant. There is no effective opposition in parliament. The judicial sector is subordinated to the Presidency. The media is muzzled. Non-governmental organizations have an easier time than in Russia but their working conditions are anything but ideal, and so on.

Second, even if relations among Kazakhstan’s various communities are currently harmonious, the country has a legacy of ethnic tension that could prove problematical in the future. Russians have had difficulty coping with the emergence of the Kazakhs as the country’s politically dominant nation. This led to a huge outflow of members of their community in the 1990s. (The Russian population was at its strongest in 1959, when it constituted 43 percent of the population to the Kazakhs’ 30 percent.) Presumably, those Russians that could not accept the new Kazakh-led Kazakhstan have moved on. In a generation, this can all be water under the bridge but there lies ahead a critical period of ten to fifteen years when there could be fertile ground for the revanchism and irredentism of the sort that wreaked havoc in eastern and southern Ukraine.

In addition, while the Soviet period contributed to the emergence of Kazakhstan as a viable entity, it has also bequeathed a difficult legacy. It brought forced collectivisation and denomadisation, Khrushchev’s disastrous virgin lands policy, Kazakhstan’s exploitation as a key site in the Soviet nuclear programme, environmental decay and public health problems owing to these and other disastrous Soviet development policies, and of course the almost total domination of the Russian language in most situations outside the family and its immediate social surroundings.

The last serious inter-ethnic violence to descend upon Kazakhstan came in 1986 when a beleaguered Kremlin tried to a put a Russian by the name of Gennady Kolbin in charge of Kazakhstan. He did not last long, swept away in an outpouring of Kazakh resistance. The Kolbin experience remains, however, part of Kazakhstan’s collective memory.

Third, and perhaps most ominously, in 1925, the predominantly Russian North Kazakhstan Province, as well as parts of other neighbouring areas formerly territory of Ural and Siberian Russia, was transferred to the Kazakh Soviet Republic. These regions then became part of the Kazakhstan that would constitute itself as an independent nation in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In northern Kazakhstan, almost 50 percent of the population is still Russian, with some areas having a clear majority of Russians.

And fourth, there is the state of the Kazakh security sector, in some ways another parallel with the situation in Ukraine. The Kazakh Armed Forces have profited from involvement in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and deployments abroad in peace support operations. But just how effective they would be as a fighting force in a national emergency is unclear. The police are widely disdained by the population for their corruption and citizen-unfriendly approach to public security. The functioning of the secret services as well as the special troops of the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations is largely shrouded in mystery. And the population knows that these force structures have among their primary functions the political control of dissidents and opponents to the regime. None of these security forces is subject to any effective political oversight beyond the office of the Presidency, and the efficiency of its control function is questionable. By and large, the effectiveness of the Kazakhstan security sector as well as the loyalty of certain of its uniformed elements is unclear.

And how has Kazakhstan reacted to the situation in Ukraine? In some press reports, the threat of a Russian effort to annex Northern Kazakhstan has been acknowledged as a serious concern. There is commentary to the effect that Russia considers itself to be a Big Brother to its Kazakh Smaller Brother, with all the forced deference this implies. Some press reports suggest that while most Russians support Putin, most Kazakhs support Kiev.

No one seems to have a recipe for dealing with the Ukraine/Russia/Kazakhstan conundrum – except perhaps President Nazarbayev himself, who has been described as pursuing a multidimensional approach: acting as a conduit for Western nations who want to get a message through to Vladimir Putin, demonstrating Kazakstan’s solidarity with Russia by becoming a founding member of Putin’s Euroasian Union project, and keeping open bilateral lines of communication with Kiev.

Are Kazakhstan’s northern parts or the country as a whole, in Putin’s vizier? Your answer to this question will probably depend on how you assess Putin’s overall project. If you judge that this is “only” about blocking the “threatening” advance of NATO and the EU towards Russia’s borders, then you can probably be more relaxed about Kazakhstan’s future. But if your assessment is that this is about Putin wanting to integrate into Russia’s embrace as many as possible of the 25 million Russian “orphans” abandoned beyond its post-Soviet borders when the USSR disintegrated, then your concerns for Kazakhstan should go into higher gear.

My sense is that Putin is going for broke. Let me recount to you a conversation that apparently took place recently in Minsk when the Russian and Ukrainian presidents met to discuss next steps in dealing with the situation in Ukraine in the presence of inter alia Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev. President Putin, after praising his Kazakh counterpart for his accomplishments on behalf of his country, suggested that Nazarbayev’s efforts would not outlive him and that Kazakhstan would therefore become dependent on the Euroasian Economic Union for its stability: an order, a wish or just the musings of a political leader who has become way too big for his britches?

A last thought. To the extent that NATO and the EU are currently at all capable of mounting a riposte to Russian expansionism at Ukraine’s expense, there is a risk that as they do so they could enhance the dangers to Kazakhstan: a Putin blocked on Russia’s western borders would be more likely to move on its southern ones. Hence, the need for not only a Western policy towards Russia that is much more muscled than what was served up at the recent NATO Summit but one that takes into account how Putin’s machinations can reverberate across former Soviet space as a whole.

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