Behind the Unrest in Kazakhstan
Behind the Unrest in Kazakhstan
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends his swear-in ceremony in Astana on 29 April 2015. AFP/Ilyas Omarov
Briefing 74 / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Stress Tests for Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s wish for stability and continuity under long-serving President Nazarbayev trumps the will for political change, especially given turbulence elsewhere on Russia’s borders. But without economic reform, full ethnic equality and a political succession plan, the Central Asian country risks becoming another brittle post-Soviet state vulnerable to external destabilisation.

I. Overview

Actions in Ukraine have altered how Kazakhstan views Russian intent in the former Soviet Union and increased its sense of vulnerability. In response, the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has undertaken measures to strengthen government, protect economic stability and shut down speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could unfold in its northern provinces. A dwindling but still substantial ethnic Russian minority with many grievances faces inward migration in those provinces by ethnic Kazakhs encouraged by official policy to “balance” the region. While it is, for the moment at least, highly unlikely Russia could replicate there what it has done in Ukraine, and Russian diplomats insist it does not want to, Kazakhstan needs to do more to address its internal challenges while its aging president’s prestige and mandate are secure. Priority areas should include economic development, ethnic issues and orderly succession.

International sanctions against Russia, falling oil prices and technical problems at the Kashagan oil field have dulled Nazarbayev’s chief tool for national unity: economic growth. The snap presidential elections held on 26 April 2015 may have been called to ensure that the only president the country has had in a quarter century of independence and who will be 75 in July would obtain a new term while his popularity has not yet been dented by painful economic measures. But this was a short-term expedient; the medium-term outlook remains as Crisis Group described in 2013: Kazakhstan is institutionally weak, overly dependent on a leader with no clear succession plan and riven by uneven social and economic development. These internal problems were serious before the Ukraine crisis; now, they could also offer an entry point for external destabilisation.

Like other former Soviet regions, Kazakhstan had, on independence, a large ethnic-Russian population, a result of Tsarist and then Soviet settlement policies. The Russian language was promoted, and ethnic Russians enjoyed significant advantages. With independence, many, as they did elsewhere, left for Russia, whose government continues to encourage return and actively solicits the loyalty of diaspora Russians. Kazakhstan promoted a similar national ingathering, notably through its policy of attracting Oralmans (Kazakhs from outside its borders). They are encouraged to relocate in particular to the northern provinces that recently had Russian majorities.

The stated basis for much of Russia’s actions in Ukraine – the need to protect Russians suffering discrimination wherever they may be – would be difficult to make plausible in northern Kazakhstan but not impossible. Astana needs to recognise that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 has been a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to Nazarbayev. The Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK), a representative body for ethnic minorities he created, should do more to shore up the state’s multi-ethnic, multi-denominational character. Promoting a moderate Islamic identity among Kazakhs and other ethnic groups, while problematic for the Russian minority unless carefully handled, would also assist the fight against extremism, a trend in Central Asia to which Kazakhstan is not immune. Moscow and Astana share an interest in preserving regional stability. The situations of Kazakhstan’s neigh­bours – Uzbekistan is a brittle regime; Kyrgyzstan is politically unstable – and its proximity to Afghanistan should reinforce the need for policies advancing that common interest.

The Ukraine crisis complicates and brings into sharper focus the task Kazakhstan has always faced: to maintain friendly ties with Russia while building its own national identity. Since it became acute in 2014, Astana has been trying to forge a foreign policy that differentiates it from but does not antagonise Moscow, while also reframing its relations with the West. Nazarbayev’s mediation efforts on Ukraine are in part a survival strategy to underscore that Kazakhstan is an independent actor within the former Soviet Union. So are continued talks with the European Union (EU) and persistent efforts to depoliticise the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (of which Kazakhstan and Belarus are the other members). With a 7,951-km common border, a sizeable ethnic Russian population, and crucial economic ties with Russia, Kazakhstan must strike a delicate balance. Too much presently hinges on the president’s personal leadership.

To navigate the changing international environment and ensure internal stability, Kazakhstan should:

  • continue to chart a foreign policy with equal emphasis on Russia and the EU, as well as Iran and China, including emphasis on international bodies to which one or more belong, eg, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, in which Russia and EU member states participate) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (both Russia and China are members);
  • take a recognisable role in the search for resolution of the Ukraine crisis; and in so doing contribute importantly to shaping relations between Russia and other members of the former Soviet Union, while building its prestige as a mediator;
  • give senior figures other than Nazarbayev some time on the stage to dispel the perception that he works and leads alone;
  • exercise restraint on sensitive language issues (such as substitution of Kazakh for Russian place names) and promote ethnic diversity at all layers of government; encourage Russians to integrate and learn Kazakh; increase the APK’s visibility and work and create conditions for public discussion of ethnicity and citizenship lest these issues be hijacked by malcontents, Kazakh or Russians nationalists or outsiders; and
  • prioritise economic development in the regions, not just in Astana.

Bishkek/Brussels, 13 May 2015

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