As Kazakhstan’s Leader Asserts Independence, Did Putin Just Say, ‘Not So Fast’?
A few days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan could withdraw from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s president appeared to threaten Kazakhstan, stressing publicly that Kazakhstan benefits by casting its lot with Russia and fanning suspicions that all is not well between the two leaders.
Speaking at an annual, town-hall style meeting with university students and young professors on August 29, Vladimir Putin fielded a question about Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbayev future and the likelihood of a “Ukraine scenario”—presumably, a power vacuum and civil conflict.
Because it is widely assumed that the questions are either vetted or planted, the exchange has invited plenty of scrutiny. While Putin’s answer was full of seeming praise for Nazarbayev, it also cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s durability as an independent state—a sensitive issue in Kazakhstan after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Events in Ukraine, including Russia’s support for rebels in the east, have already set many Kazakhstanis on edge – sparking fears that by joining the EEU Kazakhstan is tying the knot with an international pariah. They understand the obvious parallels: If Russia can seize Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russians, can it not seize northern Kazakhstan, home to large ethnic Russian communities? And if Russia can support insurgents against Kiev (a charge Moscow denies), can it not do the same against Astana? The propositions will sound even more ominous once Nazarbayev, a strongman who has established few mechanisms for a smooth transition of power, is out of the picture.
In her question, a university student asked Putin if Russia is working on contingency plans in the event of a “Ukraine scenario” after the 74-year-old Nazarbayev inevitably leaves office. She prefaced the question with concern about the “growth of nationalist sentiment in Kazakhstan,” which, she suggested, might be beyond the ability of Nazarbayev’s successor to control.
Coming from Russia, the former imperial power, the idea that Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev might need to be rescued – by Russia, no less – will infuriate many Kazakhstanis.
In response to the question, Putin said Kazakhstan was big, but one-tenth the size of Russia, and only became a state under its current president. Nazarbayev, Putin said, “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed. The Kazakhs had never had statehood. He created it. In this sense, he is a unique person for the former Soviet space and for Kazakhstan too.” Emphasizing Nazarbayev’s uniqueness highlights just how hard he will be to replace.
As if to amplify the fears of Russian intervention in Kazakhstan (or as a reminder of who’s boss), Putin continued by saying that Kazakhstan is better off in the “so-called big Russian world, which is part of world civilization.” He said he is convinced most Kazakhstanis favor closer relations with Russia, and thus membership in the EEU (to be born in January out of a customs union that includes Belarus).
But maybe that’s not the case. It is already clear that Russia’s apparent support for rebels in Ukraine, which has triggered Western sanctions, is hurting Kazakhstan. As Russia’s economy sputters, trade between the two fell 24 percent in the first half of this year. Thanks to the sinking ruble, Kazakhstan was forced to devalue its own currency. Economists expect Kazakhstan to import inflation from Russia this year.
Responding to those fears, Nazarbayev has sounded increasingly independent in recent months.
On August 25, Nazarbayev told state-controlled media that Kazakhstan is not giving up its independence for anyone, stressing that Kazakhstan can pull out of the EEU if it wishes. "Kazakhstan has the right to quit the EEU,” he explained to Khabar, in comments carried by TengriNews. “Kazakhstan will not join an organization that is a threat to our independence. Independence is our greatest fortune."
It is not hard to find cracks in the EEU. Kazakhstan did not adopt Russia’s ban on Western produce, which Moscow implemented earlier this month in response to the Western sanctions (apparently without consulting its EEU partners).
On August 26, during peace talks in Minsk between members of the EEU and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Nazarbayev implicitly criticized Putin by condemning such tit-for-tat sanctions. He said Kazakhstan is eager to continue to trade with Ukraine – Moscow’s bugbear of the moment – and the West.
Putin’s condescending remarks about Kazakhstan’s statehood have of course prompted grumbling from Kazakhstanis on social media. In the context of the Crimea annexation, the rebellion in Ukraine, and deteriorating relations within the EEU, some will see an implicit threat.
At a minimum, the succession question – planted or not – kicks Nazarbayev where it hurts. In Kazakhstan, succession is the elephant in the room. Even senior officials privately admit the uncertainty hurts investor confidence and growth. Some in Astana believe that Nazarbayev signed the EEU treaty in May as part of a pact with Putin, in which Putin will respect Nazarbayev’s anointed successor whenever he is announced. Others hold that Kazakhstan’s relentless quest for international legitimacy – lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council, bidding to host the Winter Olympics, funding a Tour de France-winning cycling team – is part of Nazarbayev’s effort to create a recognized state that cannot be absorbed again into Russia.
Nazarbayev clearly cares a lot about his legacy. And he would likely rather see his country as a star in a Eurasian world instead of a bit player in a “Russian world.”
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.