Russia and Kazakhstan: What’s next?

Askar Nursha, a Kazakh political analyst, speaks about relations between Russia and Kazakhstan which were very warm from the very beginning but today raise alarming questions — what will happen next? He has published a book, Putinskaia Rossiia: geopoliticheskii revansh ili agressivnaia oborona? (Putin’s Russia: Geopolitical Revenge or Aggressive Defense?) which traces the evolution of relations between Russia and the West and Russia’s strategic policies in the post-Soviet space from the 1990s to the end of Putin’s third presidential term.

Vladimir Putin and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev shake hands after signing agreement on the state border, in January 2005.

I have been preparing to write this book for several years. On the one hand, I have written about fifty scholarly articles on the post-Soviet space. Thanks to the support of the institute where I worked, I have been able to systemically study post-Soviet countries for the past four years. On the other hand, I needed to become more mature and prepare myself to write the book. That is why, before starting the book, I authored seven open-access policy papers, in which I analyzed various aspects of the domestic and foreign policies of countries like Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.

This book is not only about Russia. It is essentially about the whole post-Soviet space: how it has developed since the collapse of the USSR; which paths former Soviet countries took; what strategies they adopted in their relationships with Russia, the West, and China. The focus is on Russia during the latter years of the Yeltsin presidency, Putin’s three terms, and Medvedev’s term. In Russia, there is lively discussion of happenings in the “near abroad.” I think it will also be good for Russia to learn about how its policies are seen in Kazakhstan.

How does my perspective stand out? I have worked in state and quasi-state think tanks for many years, and I also have experience in the analytical institutions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Security Council of Kazakhstan. At the same time, I am familiar with how academics and independent experts assess Russian politics—I taught international relations at a university. All this experience has enabled me to compare various perspectives on the politics of Russia and Kazakhstan.

Today, it is common to see relations between the West and Russia in black and white. My task was to show that not everything is so unambiguous. There are many shades in world and regional politics. Many things happen in gray areas, where each country is right in its own way, or often both are wrong. In the book, I tried to demonstrate how different actors—Russia and the West, Russia and post-Soviet countries, different political forces within Russia—perceive and evaluate each other’s policies. In terms of political interactions between various actors, I also wanted to differentiate between the outcomes of deliberate strategies and the consequences of one side’s response to the actions of the other side.

You write about Kazakhstan’s consistent interest in Russia and especially its foreign and even domestic policies. Is this typical of all post-Soviet countries or is there something peculiar about Kazakhstan’s interest?

First, unlike many post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan has the longest border with Russia. Therefore, in terms of national and regional security, both sides are highly interdependent and there are multiple areas of vulnerability. Second, of all the former Soviet republics that border Russia, only Belarus and Kazakhstan participate in Eurasian integration and have a common customs and economic space with Russia. Third, Kazakhstan’s population contains a large share of people who consider the Russian socio-cultural space their own—or, in other words, native to them. Fourth, the leaders of Kazakhstan and Russia call each other allies. This alone says that Kazakhstan cares about what happens in Russian political life and what relationships Russia builds with the broader world and the world’s leading powers, some of which are our country’s partners.

Russian population has very limited awareness about Kazakhstan

Is there similar interest on the other side—within Russian society toward Kazakhstan? Excluding expert communities, is the broader population of Russia interested in Kazakhstan? How is Kazakhstan portrayed in Russia?

The Russian information space is trans-border. It is accessible in Kazakhstan and is part of the Kazakhstani information space. However, it only works one way. In Kazakhstan, people are well informed about Russia, but in Russia there is low awareness of the reality of Kazakhstan. Other than in Moscow and in regions bordering Kazakhstan, the Russian population has very limited awareness about Kazakhstan.

They know our country’s president. Owing to Nazarbayev’s policies and Kazakhstan’s participation in integration processes, attitudes toward Kazakhstan have been improving. But the population has little interest in Kazakhstan. Except for political decision-makers, who develop policies regarding Kazakhstan, and representatives of Russian business, who have commercial interests in Kazakhstan, expert communities and people in political circles are largely not very interested in the country. They are more occupied by affairs with the United States and Europe. Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, is the periphery to them.

Many processes in Russia and Kazakhstan follow similar scripts. Some even think that at times Russia and Kazakhstan copy each other’s policies and tactics. What positive and negative elements do you notice about this?

It is not easy to invent new things. When political and social systems are related and of a similar type, copying is quite common. The things that get copied range from selected documents to specific practices and experiences in different spheres. This actually works both ways. If Kazakhstan comes up with an innovation in some area and it is acceptable to Russia, then Russia may well adopt Kazakhstan’s example. Such processes happen. If one state moves forward and the other copies its practices, then in general it is a positive trend. However, when it is restrictive measures that get copied and adapted—let’s say, to control the Internet and mobile networks—then surely people are not happy about this. For example, it seems like the “Yarovaya Law” has affected Kazakhstan as well.

In your book, you discuss Russia’s post-Soviet policies in detail. What are its general policies toward Central Asia, and how do they differ from country to country?

Tensions in Afghanistan benefit Russian policies in Central Asia. Owing to this, Russia’s services in the sphere of collective regional security are always in demand. Another equally important factor is weak political institutions and challenging economic and social conditions in the countries of the region. Central Asian countries see Russia as a donor and expect it to invest and open its markets to their goods and labor migrants. Even with all the complexities and anti-migrant sentiments in Russia, the situation serves Russia’s purposes for now.

Another issue is that Eurasian integration in Central Asia has paused, as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are not rushing to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Moreover, China is actively expanding its presence in regional economies. What used to seem like a niche for China in the energy sector is turning into a full-scale presence and leadership in certain segments of the economy. This is what Russia will now have to work with. It would be an oversimplification to accuse Russia of imperial and re-integrationist motives. In my book, I call relationships between Central Asian states and Russia “symbiotic connection between the Russian economy and even less successful post-Soviet economic and governmental models.” On the one side, there is the Kremlin’s desire to retain Russian power in the Central Asian region, and on the other, the countries’ problems with good governance and attempts to solve some of their problems at the expense of Russia and “friendship” with the Kremlin.

Turning to Russia’s internal politics, do you expect its regional affairs to change if, let’s say, liberals like Navalny come to power? What role does Kazakhstan play in their agenda?

At this stage, the foreign policy agenda of Russian liberals is more attractive for Kazakhstan than are those of leftists, imperial patriots, and Russian nationalists. Oriented toward the West and human rights, they try to follow a certain liberal code of conduct and condemn geopolitical expansionism, which is generally beneficial for our country.

Nonetheless, imperial sentiments are not foreign to Russian liberals, and this must be understood. There are those who are willing to build Chubais’ “liberal empire” or carry Kipling’s “white man’s burden” to our region. It is, of course, arguable if all those who label themselves liberal in Russia are truly liberal. Another example is the mix of liberalism and nationalism in Navalny’s rhetoric. Whether such politicians can be trusted if they come to power, and what kind of agenda they will have regarding the Caucasus and Central Asia, is an open issue.

Kazakhstan is a friendly country, but Russia pays close attention to our Russian diaspora. They cannot ignore the fact that the number of ethnic Russians willing to leave Kazakhstan remains high. Kazakhstan is also perceived as a buffer zone from migrants, criminality, illegal substances, and potentially terrorists and extremists. In Russia, they worry that Kazakhstan can turn from a buffer into a source of security problems for the southern and Siberian regions of Russia. In recent years, this fear has been exacerbated by concerns that after Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan will become less stable internally and less friendly toward Russia and will stop supporting integration initiatives.

How did economic and trade relations between Kazakhstan and Russia change after the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union? How are business ties being built? Are they becoming closer? Why does Russia not invest more actively in Kazakhstan as its closest neighbor?

Relations between the countries are getting closer year by year. Both sides are working to simplify the movement of goods, services, people, and capital. We cannot say that Russia does not invest in Kazakhstan. It is just that some of the trade turnover and investment are in the shadow, and businesses in both countries use “gray schemes” that do not report actual volumes. Large amounts of Russian capital are now directed to Kazakhstan: it is nearby, there are no language barriers, and its post-Soviet reality is similar. Moreover, after the events in Ukraine, followed by the West’s sanctions, Russian capital is being pushed out of a number of countries. In addition, Kazakhstani citizens can get some financial resources and services directly from various Russian organizations while bypassing Kazakhstani authorities. Real figures here are hard to calculate.

Nevertheless, on a national level the volume of Russian investment is much smaller than it could be. There are objective reasons for this: the small size of Kazakhstan’s market, significant competition from other countries’ businesses, the challenging economic and logistical circumstances of the Central Asian region, and Russia’s reluctance (for internal economic reasons) to commit larger amounts of resources.

Today, nationalism and various “phobias” are blooming all over the world, including Russia and Kazakhstan. These latent obstacles are discussed a lot. What is missed or not considered in these discussions, in your opinion? Can nationalistic sentiments supersede “technocratic” ideology or, on the contrary, join forces with it? Should this factor be considered in the two countries’ affairs after the transfer of power in Kazakhstan?

In Kazakhstan, nationalist discourse is called “national-patriotic.” The two notions, which are close but still different in meaning, are mistakenly understood and combined into one. The former is actually ethno-nationalism. But if we compare the situation to Russia, China, or even European countries that are part of the European Union, in Kazakhstan its expression is much weaker. Major discussions unfold around language issues because the role of Kazakh language is rising while support for Russian language is not the government’s main priority, as it was in the Soviet era. The rearrangement of the languages’ roles, which is being reinforced by demographic trends, distresses part of society and pushes the local ethnic Russian population to emigrate to Russia.

The second notion, also taken for nationalism, is not ethno-nationalism per se. Here I see the competition and discourse between two forms of “civic nationalism.” The pro-Russian part of society, joined by those inclined toward cosmopolitanism, accuses state “nativist-patriots” of nationalism in the Westphalian sense of the term.

I do not think that technocratic ideology is threatened by anything in Kazakhstan. The high speed of urbanization has a strong effect here and, compared to other Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan is facing a more intense rural crisis. All spheres of life are undergoing expedited modernization. The issue is that these processes are not deep enough in the political sphere. Technocracy among political elites will remain. However, the government will have to consider and reckon with the national-patriotic agenda and find ground for political compromises. With all these processes, Russian emigration from Kazakhstan will remain high. The Kazakhstani authorities, in turn, will have to keep in mind the lessons of Ukraine and prevent the emergence of radicals from a nationalist environment.

In a generation, the “Russian issue” will not be as critical as it is now, due to the dwindling ethnic Russian population in Kazakhstan. Those who stay here will adapt and feel less restricted, because by that time Kazakhstan will have become a more open society—unless we backslide due to the risks of instability and religious extremism.

Kazakhstan and Russia are neighbors and are “doomed” to close friendship. How would you characterize the prospects for relations in the near future?

Relations between the two countries will depend, first of all, on what kind of forces come to power after Nazarbayev and Putin. If there are no destructive policies and ideologies on either side, then maintaining good-neighborly relations is beneficial for Russia as well as for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s goal in the clash of Russia and the West is not to get involved and to stay at a reasonable distance from geopolitical games.

Another factor is how the things in Afghanistan develop and what China’s strategy toward Kazakhstan will be. If China looms over Kazakhstan too aggressively, this may reinforce people’s Sinophobia, swinging the pendulum toward deepening relations with Russia.

In the near future, Kazakhstan will see a transfer of power, due to the age factor if nothing else. It is therefore important for Russia to take a balanced and constructive position in the process. The attitude of the new leadership and of the population at large toward Russia will depend on this.

Dr Askar Nursha’s profile

Dr Askar Nursha is Dean of the Public Policy and Law School of Almaty Management University. His research interests include political processes in CIS countries and security issues in the Caspian region and Central Asia. Between 2012 and 2018, he worked as a Research Fellow, project coordinator for foreign policy issues, and head of the Almaty office of the Institute of World Economy and Politics at the First President Foundation of Kazakhstan-Elbasy. In 2011-2012, he was a Secretary of the Scientific Council at Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan. In 2009-2010, he held posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Security Council of  Kazakhstan. Dr Nursha holds a candidate’s degree (equivalent to a PhD) in Historical Sciences (History of International Relations and Foreign Policy).

This interview was first published in Voices on Central Asia, February 13, 2019.

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