Between a Bear and a Dragon: New challenges for Kazakhstan

Between a Bear and a Dragon: New challenges for Kazakhstan

The announcement that Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-time president of Kazakhstan, was stepping down on Wednesday, March 20 came as a shock to many observers, both within Kazakhstan and internationally. Nazarbayev was the leader of Kazakhstan from before its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He will be rightly credited with crafting an independent Kazakh identity and arguably the most successful post-Soviet republic. Nazarbayev is not completely leaving; he will remain the head of the ruling party and as the chairman of the powerful security council.

However, the first change of presidency in Kazakhstan in its 28-year history has already sparked intense debate about possible successors. This includes Nazarbayev’s daughter; the upper house of Parliament named her speaker. Complicating these decisions is the precarious geopolitical reality of Kazakhstan. Sandwiched between Russia and China, Nazarbayev has deftly crafted an independent Kazakhstan over the last three decades. However, this will now become more difficult. China’s recently more assertive foreign policy, best exemplified through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Russia’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage are cause for major concern for the next leader of Kazakhstan.

The threat of Russia

Nazarbayev’s main task following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was to consolidate independence and craft a national identity out of a sparsely populated and historically nomadic people. Despite the remarkable successes under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s significant Russian minority and valuable resources coveted by Russia make any power struggle a potential opportunity for Russia to exploit. Nearly one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s 17 million citizens are ethnically Russian. Almost all of them are concentrated in the north-east of Kazakhstan that shares a nearly 4,000-mile border with Russia. Furthermore, this is the site of a strategically important railroad connecting Russia and China.

Nazarbayev recognized the threat posed by Russia and took several steps to cement Kazakhstan’s independence. In order to lay claim to the entire country, Nazarbayev built his new capital, Astana, in the underpopulated north of the country, close to the Russian border. He embarked on a prolonged effort to create a non-Cyrillic alphabet for the Kazakh language and has systematically shifted official media programming away from Russian and into Kazakh. However, the question remains whether this would be enough to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has made numerous comments over the years that Kazakhstan belonged as part of the Russian world. Kazakhstan has no real allies. It has developed ties with both the United States and China to solidify its independence from Russia, but it has no committed defence partners. Were Russia to intervene as they did in Ukraine, would anyone come to their defence?

China’s growing influence

Recent shifts in geopolitics mean that China is now the actor with the ability and interest – due to its Belt and Road Initiative – to contain Russia in Central Asia. In 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping used a speech in Astana to unveil BRI, Nazarbayev saw in it a way to reduce Kazakh reliance on Russia. Over the last five years, Kazakhstan, and its Khorgos dry port has positioned itself as China’s connection to Europe for Chinese goods. In addition, Kazakh energy, particularly natural gas, is increasingly becoming part of China’s energy portfolio. Chinese companies have invested billions into pipelines that connect Kazakh gas to China. Beijing has also begun to invest in other Kazakh industries including mining, fertilizer production, and agriculture.

However, local Kazakhs have opposed these investments, since they are fearful of expanding Chinese influence. Despite Nazarbayev’s best efforts, cracks have begun to form. In April 2016, rare protests erupted in Kazakhstan after the government approved land reforms that would have allowed foreigners to rent agricultural land for 25 years, a law that many feared would allow China to in effect own large tracts of Kazakh land. While the proposed reforms were eventually repealed, there remains within Kazakhstan a tenuous balance between a desire for Chinese investment and a historic mistrust of China. The recent reports of China’s detention of Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, the neighbouring province to Kazakhstan, has only contributed to Kazakhs mistrust of China.

Balancing the Bear and the Dragon

The next leader of Kazakhstan is thus left in an unenviable bind. Over the last decade, China has emerged as the best way for Kazakhstan to ensure its independence from Russia. While in recent years Russia and China have had increasingly friendly ties, it is an unequal relationship, with Moscow playing junior partner to Beijing. The inroads BRI is making into Central Asia threatens one of Russia’s last remaining areas of unquestioned influence. While Moscow remains the security guarantor, that is beginning to change, as Beijing recognizes overlapping areas of interest with Central Asia, notably in countering violent extremism and protecting expensive infrastructure projects.

The only realistic deterrence would have been unthinkable only ten years earlier. But, in today’s changing world order, China now stands the best chance of deterring Russia. While it has resisted playing a greater role on the world stage, it is time for China to step up and do more to ensure stability, especially in a region where it has invested tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure development. As the land protests highlighted, however, Kazakhstan runs the risk of becoming too close to China. The allure of Chinese loans and infrastructure projects have proven difficult for the Kazakh government to turn down, even at the risk of becoming overburdened in debt to China.

Tectonic shifts

Nazarbayev successfully created a prosperous Kazakhstan independent from its looming Russian neighbour. However, geography has not become any easier for Kazakhstan. Whoever becomes the next leader of Kazakhstan will have to contend with the increasing geopolitical reality that Astana is being pressured not only from Moscow to the north, but increasingly also from Beijing to the east. Without the unquestioned control of Nazarbayev, will the next leader be able to as adroitly steer Kazakhstan between the shifting tectonic plates of Russia and China?

All opinions are the author’s own and do not reflect the stance of affiliated organizations and individuals.

About Author

Paul Wasserman

Paul Wasserman is a Presidential Management Fellow and the co-founder of Nodal Point, a geopolitical consultancy focused on Russia, China and Central Asia, and former Research Associate to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he focused on great power politics. He has previously lived in Russia and China.