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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?
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends his swear-in ceremony in Astana on 29 April 2015. AFP/Ilyas Omarov

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

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.