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What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
Report 250 / Europe & Central Asia

Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change

Resource-led economic growth cannot mask the need for reforms in Kazakhstan as labour unrest, social divisions and a growing Islamist movement threaten the country’s stability.

Executive Summary

Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional. The appearance of wealth, based largely on the conspicuous consumption of Almaty and Astana, its main cities, and multi-billion-dollar energy contracts – increasingly with China – hides, however, a multitude of challenges. An ageing authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labour unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears. Without a significant effort to push forward with repeatedly promised political, social and economic reforms, Kazakhstan risks becoming just another Central Asian authoritarian regime that squandered the advantages bestowed on it by abundant natural resources.

The core issue, which few in the ruling elite seem inclined to discuss, is succession. 73-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev has led the country since independence in 1991. The mere passage of time suggests his exit might not be far off. Yet there is no indication of a succession strategy. A cult of personality has grown up around him. Parliament is weak. Not once has the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared a Kazakh election to be free and fair. Recent laws have curbed political freedoms and censored the media, marking a return to authoritarian tactics. Nazarbayev’s successor will inherit a mixed legacy, including wealthy elites with assets to protect and a population who increasingly feel the government has delivered little in the way of political representation or economic prosperity. Events in Janaozen in December 2011 when police opened fire on striking oil workers demonstrated that the authorities’ response to dissent can be alarmingly disproportionate.

Kazakhstan’s petroleum and mineral wealth will not protect the government from a growing tide of domestic resentment, nor can it insulate the country from potential external unrest. To its south a collection of failing states and authoritarian regimes – the largest of which, Uzbekistan, is also facing a succession scenario even more complex than Astana’s – is the only buffer between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. The 2014 U.S. and NATO drawdown poses a significant regional security challenge.

Some Kazakh defence chiefs have voiced concerns about the country’s readiness; in contrast, the president’s office is pointedly more optimistic. But beyond involvement with security blocs such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Kazakhstan does not appear to have a plan. There are also indications that Kazakh Islamist extremists, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are hoping to bring the struggle home. In the western regions, growing numbers of marginalised youths are turning to Islam as a means of political expression and a source of identity distinct from the venality they associate with the ruling classes.

Foreign investment in oil, gas and minerals provides Kazakhstan with a layer of respectability and the funds needed to project a harmonious and tolerant image on the international stage. But Nazarbayev’s policy of economic progress first and political reform second is failing to extend wealth beyond Almaty and Astana. Nor has it fostered a system of local and regional government capable of promoting nationwide social renewal. Large areas of the country struggle with inadequate services and antiquated utilities. Socio-economic inequalities are feeding discontent.

The Kazakh economy is increasingly state-controlled and viewed as corrupt. When the banking system nearly collapsed in 2008, the government reverted to Soviet-style measures, buying up troubled institutions and reversing more than a decade’s worth of market reforms. Many investors, formerly upbeat, wonder if failure to handle even relatively minor security threats reflects a deep-seated malaise. Others suggest the government’s commitment to a transparent business environment is hesitant at best and note that the trend toward state ownership in the economy mirrors a wider attempt by the government to consolidate control across society.

To preserve stability and avoid a catastrophic succession scenario, Astana should tackle corruption; invest more in impoverished regions as well as in basic infrastructure and social services; open up democratic space; and ease oppressive law and order practices. But if the past is prologue this may be unlikely to happen any time soon. At the very least, though, the Kazakh elites’ sense of survival will want them to ensure a smooth transition into a post-Nazarbayev era. Presumably, this is what its powerful neighbours, China and Russia, would also want. Every effort should be made to encourage Nazarbayev to swiftly put in place and explain what his succession policy is. At the same time, the West should encourage greater compliance with its international treaty obligations to respect basic civil and political rights: without meaningful progress here, Kazakhstan’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017-2018 should be made to run aground at the earliest opportunity.

 Bishkek/Brussels, 30 September 2013

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Originally published in Eurasianet

Without much ado, Kazakhstan adopted a new military doctrine in September, replacing a 2011 document that had become dated. The new document states that Kazakhstan does not have enemies. Yet, Astana seems alarmed enough by Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine since 2014 to have produced a doctrine that is an obvious reaction to Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics, which include cyber-disruption and propaganda.

Kazakhstan is not alone in sensing that it now lives in a rapidly changing security environment that demands new policies. Belarus, another neighbor of Russia, introduced a new military doctrine in July 2016. But while Belarus made explicit that it is reacting to Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare, Kazakhstani authorities have not commented publicly on changes to their military doctrine.

Still, similarities between the new Kazakhstani and Belarussian doctrines abound, and it is not difficult to see the origin of  Astana’s threat assessment. Kazakhstan shares a 7,500-kilometer land border with Russia and northern Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian minority with deep roots in the region. Though their numbers are dwindling, Russians still account for roughly 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Much to Astana’s irritation, the area is romanticized by some Russian politicians as still being Russian territory. In January 2017, a State Duma deputy, Pavel Shperov, suggested the Kazakhstani-Russian border was not a permanent fixture and that Kazakhstani territory was merely on loan to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners. Balancing these relationships allow it to demonstrate that it has the political clout to act more independently of Russia than other Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners.

Still, Astana and Moscow remain very close allies, bound by economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Union and militarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO functions as much as a vehicle for Russia’s bilateral security agendas with fellow member states as it does as collective entity. As an organization, it has also redefined what it sees as security threats -- a process that began after the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Georgia, 2003, Ukraine, 2004, and Kyrgyzstan, 2005. Analysis and recommendations from the CSTO played a pivotal role in shaping Russia’s own military doctrine of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The alleged basis of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is a self-proclaimed doctrine under which Moscow can act as the protector of the rights of Russians experiencing alleged discrimination wherever they may be. The circumstances that prevailed in Ukraine prior to the start of Russian meddling in 2014 are not evident in present-day Kazakhstan. Russia’s concern that Ukraine was drifting toward the EU’s orbit was an underlying motivation for its actions in 2014. There is no reason for Moscow to worry that Astana is tilting toward the EU these days. Meanwhile, the Russian minority in Kazakhstan experiences little or no discrimination.

Just because the circumstances are different, doesn’t mean Kazakhstan isn’t vulnerable. Astana should recognize that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 is a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Alongside the outward-looking nature of Kazakhstan’s 2017 military doctrine, there is sharp focus on internal threats. Nazarbayev in the past three years has undertaken measures to strengthen the government, bolster the economy and to resist firmly any speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could happen in Kazakhstan. When citizens protested against plans to lease farm land to Chinese investors in May 2016, Nazarbayev issued a stark rebuke, using Ukraine as an example of what can go wrong if protests get out of hand.

Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Nationalism is growing nonetheless. It not only showed itself during the May 2016 land protests, but also in long-term trends such as renaming previously Russian-language place names to Kazakh. Some Russian politicians see Kazakhstan’s move to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet, which is currently written in Cyrillic, as an anti-Russian move. It is indeed a highly symbolic gesture, one that a Western diplomat described as an act of defiance and post-Soviet national identity-building.

The Russian language has equal status in Kazakhstan, but Kazakh is ascendant, and knowledge of it is required for government jobs. It’s also worth noting that not one of Kazakhstan's ministers has an ethnic Russian background.

Astana has sought to manage its relationship with Moscow as an equal partnership. Its success in doing so is largely attributable to Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin was a KGB functionarynt, while Nazarbayev was the already powerful and ambitious First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev turning 78 years old next year, a transition in the vast but sparsely populated Central Asian state is inevitable. The crisis in Ukraine has brought into focus the risks of any sort of transition or internal instability in Russia’s neighborhood.

As Nazarbayev ages, political transition is inevitable and unless handled smoothly that transition could be destabilizing. The Kremlin’s military doctrine and its foreign policies are premised on Russia exerting itself as a great power with historical privileges. Kazakhstan understands that in the long-term it could be vulnerable to Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Its new military doctrine addresses that external risk in a clear-headed and robust manner. But when it comes to the domestic challenges that could provide the very opening required for an assertive foreign power to gain a foothold, Kazakhstan still appears to be sleepwalking.