A little more than a year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a chill through one of the few allies Moscow maintains. According to Putin, prior to 1991, “Kazakhs had never had statehood.” Not citizens of Kazakhstan, per se – but ethnic Kazakhs, who represent some two-thirds of the populace of Kazakhstan. Until the Soviet Union’s collapse, per Putin, no Kazakh had ever enjoyed the fruits of independent statehood.
In a vacuum, the comments would have seemed somewhere between crass and callow. Coming but a few months after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine’s east, however, Putin’s words took on added weight. Approximately 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s citizenry remains ethnic Russian, some of whom have expressed visceral support for Moscow over Astana. The comments even outweighed further chauvinism – say, that Kazakhs have no autonomous part in the “global civilization” – in Putin’s thoughts.
Kazakhstan’s response came swiftly. Astana promptly announced plans for a celebration of the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate, dated to 1465. While the Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged that the khanate “may not have been a state in the modern understanding of the term,” the symbolism was near-impossible to miss. Moreover, the anniversary pegged an ethnic component to the celebrations, focusing on the Kazakh-ness of the khanate’s formation.
Washington, for its part, has sought to assuage Astana’s concerns about potential separatism among the country’s northern stretches. In the weeks following the fallout of Russia’s Crimean adventurism, United States Deputy Secretary of State William Burns confirmed that the U.S. continued to “support … the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all the countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan.” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear reiterated Burns’s comments this month when he visited Astana. While no official transcript appears to exist, the U.S. Embassy in Astana linked to local news coverage, which quoted Shear: “We express our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan.” The embassy backed Shear’s statements, writing on its Twitter account, “The United States supports sovereignty and territorial integrity for all post-Soviet states.” The embassy even publicly celebrated the ongoing commemorations of the khanate’s 1465 founding.
While Washington’s rhetoric has remained consistent over the past 18 months, Putin has at least refrained from inflaming Astana’s fears of Russian revanchism any further. (At least, the Kremlin has pulled back; Russian nationalists have shown no signs of slowing their calls for annexing Kazakhstan’s northern reaches.) Nonetheless, a year after Putin obliquely called into question Kazakhstan’s statehood, tensions between Astana and Moscow remain as tight as they’ve ever been in the post-Soviet period. Considering the fiscal frailty both countries are currently experiencing – and how much of that responsibility lies with Moscow’s actions – there seems little likelihood relations will improve anytime soon, no matter when Putin thinks Kazakhs obtained statehood.