There are few places more dangerous these days than to be a friend to the Kremlin. Those in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner sanctum have seen their purse-strings snipped and their passports blocked. Those most integrated with the Russian economy – either through trade or gastarbeiter programs – have watched their economic potential tumble alongside Moscow’s. Over the past six months, the Kremlin’s embrace has morphed into a suffocating squeeze, draining the region’s commercial appeal and gutting any weight the Eurasian Union (EEU) could have boasted.
To the Kremlin, friendship is a four-letter word. And it seems that Kazakhstan, which has continuously and publicly supported Russia’s geopolitical flailings, knows this better than anyone. Not only has Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev watched his country’s economic surge stumble through the Kremlin’s actions, but he’s witnessed Putin mangle Nazarbayev’s original EEU dream beyond recognition.
But if Kazakhstan wasn’t already aware of the potential daggers lining their relationship to the north – for those in the country still believing Russia provided some beacon of righteousness and prosperity – Putin’s comments at the recent Seliger Youth Forum should give them pause.
A few days after Minsk’s EEU summit, which saw a palpably tired Nazarbayev attempt to broker some kind of mediation, Putin fielded a question from a young woman at Seliger about the role of nationalism in Kazakhstan, and the potential impact the putative jingoism could have on relations with Russia.
Putin answered at relative length, but before getting into the exegesis of his thoughts, it’s worth circling back to the girl’s question. Not only did the woman, an obvious plant, cite Nazarbayev as the most important “restraining factor” in tamping the alleged Kazakh nationalism, she also made a point of Kazakhs not “correctly understanding Russian political rhetoric,” and asked if there was any reason to expect “a Ukrainian scenario upon Nazarbayev’s departure.”
As to her observation of some “growth” of Kazakh nationalism, this is, technically, true. Pushback to the Eurasian Union, with concomitant concerns about a loss of Kazakhstani sovereignty to an overbearing Russia, has found a public presence in Kazakhstan in 2014. And this was new, especially among the handful of protesters discussing the “virus” of Russian imperialism. But not only is the concept of a saber-rattling Kazakh nationalism laughable, it pales in comparison to, say, the “Russia for Russians!” crowd. There isn’t a reason for any level-headed person to believe Kazakh chauvinism presents any credible threat to non-Kazakh citizens – all the more against Russians.
And yet, the question was there. But it is the woman’s emphasis on Nazarbayev’s role, and the questions that come upon his departure, that can illustrate a larger point, and dovetail with Putin’s comments. At 74 years old, Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter-century, and is the only president independent Kazakhstan has ever known. While Kazakhstan has seen ethnic tensions flare – against Chechens, against Uzbeks – it’s largely avoided the wide-range pogroms Russia and other Central Asian states have seen. As the questioner notes, much of this reality rests, it would appear, with Nazarbayev.
However, the man can rule for only so much longer. And without a clear succession path – without a clear transition ahead – the potential remains for the latent strife to spill over.
And this is what Putin highlighted in his response. Putin, it seems, carries some comity for Nazarbayev – both come from thoroughly Soviet stock, and Putin made sure to attribute the notion of the EEU to the Kazakhstani president. He also made sure to note that Kazakhstan was Russia’s “closest strategic ally and partner.” (This despite the fact that, earlier this summer, Putin had noted that Russia maintained no alliances.)
But it’s upon Nazarbayev’s departure that questions come. When a time of transition can turn to a time of turbulence. When a shuffle can slip into a vacuum, and within that vacuum, little green men can find their footing.
Following his compliments toward Nazarbayev, a certain dog-whistle chauvinism ran through the rest of Putin’s response. He highlighted Kazakhstan’s large-sprawl emptiness, blatantly underestimating Kazakhstan’s population. He offered a slanted comment about how Kazakhstan must remain within the Russian world, which is part of the “global civilization” – noting, by turn, that Kazakhstan’s culture is apparently not.
Most notably, though, Putin offered that, prior to Nazarbayev, “Kazakhs had never had statehood.” Not Kazakhstanis, the citizens of the country sharing Russia’s longest border, but Kazakhs. The titular ethnicity of the most prosperous nation in Central Asia, apparently unfamiliar with the intricacies and turnings of statehood. Requiring a Russian hand to guide – especially upon Nazarbayev’s departure.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a simple, ahistorical observation. On multiple occasions, ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan have reminded me of their belief that Central Asian states have never existed. Kazakhstan, one told me, is but a Bantustan, with proper civilization brought only by the arrival of Russians. Putin’s comments fall directly within this vein. Kazakhstan can be identified with the persona of Nazarbayev, but once he’s gone, why would there be any reason to continue with this experiment in statehood?
Nate Schenkkan, a Central Asian analyst, offered the most thorough rundown of the speech to date. As he concluded, “In sum: this is an extraordinary event. I don’t know how the Kazakh government will respond to this, but assuredly there are people in Astana in very high places who are both scared and furious.” Many were already, following Russian events in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s comments were only one more ingredient increasing the trends already extant.
This, then, is the thanks Kazakhstan receives for remaining close to Russia over the past six months, and over the past two decades. Veiled threats about succession issues, and a reminder of the lack of Kazakhstan’s historic legitimacy – with dark hints about a nationalistic threat that doesn’t exist, but could very well turn self-fulfilling. Putin has unveiled the two-pronged mode of rhetoric Russia could begin accelerating in Kazakhstan in the near future: that nationalism presents a threat to ethnic Russians, and that the people on the territory of this supposed foreign land never actually had a state. Sound familiar?
Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, focusing on post-Soviet political development. He can be followed on Twitter at @cjcmichel.