The Great Game on Central Asia’s High Plain

As a muscled-up Russia pushes for more leverage over Kazakhstan, a wary Astana strives to make new, powerful friends.


ASTANA — There is an old adage in Kazakhstan: "Happiness is multiple pipelines."

For the oil-and-gas rich Caspian country, keeping up good relations with a handful of customers — namely, Russia, China, and the West — at all times, without engaging too deeply with a single player, has been a guiding foreign policy principle since it gained independence in 1991. And until recently, this careful diplomatic balancing act seemed to be paying off: in the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country’s population of 17 million people has grown into the most prosperous in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has built a glittering new capital, Astana, in the middle of the steppe, which will soon be home to the tallest skyscraper in the region. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s autocratic ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, even considered removing the "stan" from the country’s name to set it apart from its less fortunate neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Now, though, being a "stan" looks like the least of Nazarbayev’s geopolitical worries. The president just signed an agreement with Russia and Belarus on May 29 to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Vladimir Putin’s brainchild and Russia’s answer to the European Union. Putin’s hope is that the EEU, a tariff-free trade union, will eventually draw in many of the states in Russia’s near-abroad, tying the region’s political and economic fortunes to the Kremlin. But behind the curtain of this shiny new free-trade zone, all is not well between Astana and Moscow.

Putin’s recent Ukrainian adventures have set off alarm bells in this country, which is home to the largest proportion of ethnic Russians among the Central Asian former Soviet republics (they make up nearly a quarter of the population). Now, some worry that Putin may be playing a long game with Kazakhstan: drawing the country closer into Russia’s orbit and deepening integration, then waiting for an episode of turmoil — say, the sort that might unfold if the ailing Nazarbayev, 73, dies — to assert greater control. Could Kazakhstan’s multi-pronged foreign policy — so lucrative for so long — finally be faltering?

Russia has long had extensive ties to Kazakhstan, left over from the Soviet period. Oil and gas pipelines, an electricity grid, and railways all link the two nations, which share a 4,000-mile border. Russia is the country’s biggest trading partner, with over $26 billion in bilateral trade last year; it is the main consumer of Kazakhstan’s non-oil exports, which include mining products and chemicals; Kazakhstan still plays host to the Russia-managed Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s largest operational spaceport. But the ties go deeper than just trade and physical capital: In addition to the ethnic Russians who, in northern Kazakhstan, make up as much as 50 percent of the population, most Kazakhs still speak Russian. (In fact, more speak Russian than Kazakh: about 85 percent can read and write in Russian, compared to just 62 percent for the country’s native tongue).

Putin, not content to rest on the vestiges of a past era, has also embarked on a renewed push to exercise soft power. The Kremlin still exercises heavy influence on the Russian-speaking mass media organizations in Kazakhstan, and — behind the scenes — the Kremlin  is also believed to be funding pro-Russian institutions and cultural and language programming.

But even before Putin trained his eye on Ukraine, Nazarbayev showed signs of chafing under Russia’s increasingly tight embrace. In recent years, for instance, Kazakh authorities, albeit cautiously, have begun urging state-owned television stations to begin broadcasting in Kazakh, and pushing for more Kazakh-language Internet content. In 2012, Nazarbayev announced that written Kazakh will switch from using Cyrillic letters to the Roman alphabet by 2025 — a move that many observers read as a sign of trying to move away from the Russian sphere. Kazakhstan has also moved to restrict the number of commercial satellites Russia can launch from the Cosmodrome, and pushed for greater say in its operations.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however, has elevated these long-standing concerns. One need only look at how the local media has covered events in recent weeks for an indication of just how hot the relationship has become. In the wake of Russia’s Crimea annexation, the Kazakh press — which is under tight government control — has grown increasingly wary of Moscow. Featuring a menacing-looking Putin with the Soviet hammer and sickle flag in the background, the Kazakh edition of Forbes magazine asked "Back to the USSR?" Adam Bol magazine went with the headline "Is Kazakhstan Being Dragged Into Someone Else’s War?" while the Assandi Times asked its readers directly: "Is Kazakhstan Threatened With Occupation Tomorrow?" (As it turns out, that would be one of Assandi Times’s last headlines. On April 2, its offices were raided by officials under a court order to close it down.)  

The Kazakh authorities themselves have walked a delicate diplomatic tightrope throughout the Ukrainian crisis. The Foreign Ministry remained silent in February, as Russian forces began taking control of the Crimean peninsula, eventually issuing a carefully worded statement on March 3, urging "all parties to maintain a balanced, objective and responsible approach." Two weeks later, the authorities changed tack, becoming one of the first countries to recognize Crimean independence. The U-turn was made complete on March 25, when Nazarbayev described the overthrow of Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych as an "unconstitutional coup d’etat" and accused Ukraine of infringing the rights of ethnic minorities.

Yet, trying to allay fears of further Russian intervention, Nazarbayev that same day declared that "as far as our political independence is concerned, this is sacrosanct, and Kazakhstan will not cede its sovereignty to anyone." But his statement did not seem to do the trick. Two weeks after his statement, an anti-EEU forum was held in Almaty. A rare display of popular dissent in a tightly controlled country, the event was attended by 500 people; the organizers asked for a guarantee that "the Kazakh government, known for ignoring the will of its own people, will not allow the country to lose its independence."

Despite the calls for independence, Kazakh authorities feel the need to tread carefully with their powerful neighbor. "Astana … clearly does not wish to become the target of a destabilization," said Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has sought to dial back the ambitions of Putin’s EEU, which once aspired to move its member countries toward greater political, m
ilitary, and economic unity. The country has rejected Kremlin proposals for a common passport, common currency, and a collective Parliament, among others. Though Kazakhstan’s membership in the Eurasian Union likely means that, for the time being, Putin won’t force further integration, authorities in Astana are taking steps to guard against potential aggression nonetheless. The Kazakh Parliament is considering amendments to its criminal code aiming to increase prison sentences for separatist activities. There have yet to be any reports of such activity, but the move is seen as a preemptive action, observers say. There are also reports in Kazakh media that, following the Crimea annexation, the government devised a plan to shift hundreds of thousands ethnic Kazakhs to the north, in order to bulk up their presence in the ethnically Russian-dominated northern regions. Maria Chichtchenkova, a protection coordinator for Central Asia at the human-rights organization Front Line Defenders, said she expects to see efforts to continue to downgrade the importance of Russian (the language still has the status of an official administrative language in Kazakhstan).

Behind the scenes, Kazakh authorities remain concerned by the number of citizens in the north who have obtained Russian passports, as well as the potential influence of Moscow-controlled media in the region, said Cooley, the Columbia professor. "The recent changes to the criminal code outlawing the spreading of separatist ideas and rumors is an indication that officials in Astana take the Crimean threat very seriously," he said.

But while Astana is looking warily to the west at Crimea, and to north to divine Moscow’s intentions, it’s also hedging bets by building relationships in the East. Kazakhstan has been an important battleground in the so-called New Great Game between Russia and China for influence in energy-rich Central Asia, and some in Astana are hoping that the growing relationship with China can help provide leverage against Russian influence. China has been Kazakhstan’s largest investor since 2010, Cooley said, building new pipelines, helping to pay for energy infrastructure for Kazakh cities, and providing emergency loans to Kazakh state-run businesses.

During a visit in September 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nazarbayev inked further investment deals worth $30 billion, the most prominent of which was a $5 billion agreement with China’s state oil firm CNPC to purchase a stake in the Kashagan offshore oil project. China already is connected to Kazakh oil via a 1,400 mile-long pipeline, which was opened in 2005, and by some estimates, has bought up rights to as much as 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon assets through joint-ventures and investments.

Astana is counting on its ties with Beijing to give Moscow pause should it get any ideas, said Jonathan Aitken, a former British MP and author of a biography of Nazarbayev. "The first hint of Russian aggression towards Kazakhstan would mean real worsening of the China-Russia relations," Aitken said. "In that sense, China represents a very protective force for the future of Kazakhstan."

But how Kazakhstan can reconcile a new dependence on China and deeper integration with Russia with its traditional multi-pronged foreign policy remains an open question. "Triangulating between the two large neighbors may no longer be possible for Kazakhstan," said one banking analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. "And its balancing act will need to be reassessed."

Last month, at a meeting of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body, Nazarbayev put his country’s conundrum more plainly: "Russia and China are our neighbors," he said. "And one cannot choose neighbors."

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