‘If Kazakhstan and Russia suddenly ceased to be allies…’

Vladimir Putin of Russia and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan

Vladimir Putin meeting with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan 

Analysis & Opinion, Politics, Russia

Very public differences between Moscow and Astana and Kazakhstan’s increasingly close relations with the United States have prompted some Kazakhs to ask what their fate might be if their country and the Russian Federation “suddenly ceased to be allies.”

Sometimes the asking of a question like this is more important than the answers because it suggests that this is something the elite in Kazakhstan is actually thinking about. Central Asian Monitor’s Kenzhe Tatilya asked two Kazakh analysts and an ethnic Russian political one for their views about the situation.

Their answers range from a more or less balanced consideration of what might happen in the event of a break to alarmist warnings that such a development would constitute a catastrophe for Kazakhstan and must be avoided at almost all costs.

Political scientist Marat Shibutov said that those who talk about things need always to remember that “no one has repealed geography.” Kazakhstan is fated to be an ally of the Russian Federation because of economic, cultural and national security needs. Were it to break with Moscow, Astana would suffer with regard to all three.

Kazakhstan would no longer be able to purchase Russian goods or sell its products in the Russian marketplace. It would lose access to higher educational opportunities in Russia for its young people. And it would no longer have the security that Russia provides both directly and through the training of Kazakh officers.

Were Kazakhstan to break with Russia, someone else would certainly enter the scene given that geopolitics doesn’t really allow for complete isolation especially for a second-tier power. Some suggest that the US could play that role, but Shibutov argues that would lead to a serious deterioration in ties not only with Russia but with China as well.

“Considering the growing tensions in Xinjiang, Beijing would view our move as the creation of place des armes against it. Consequently, we could anticipate that there would be economic sanctions in response from China.”

No one should doubt that this would hurt especially as it would come on top of losses in the Russian direction.

Moreover, breaking with Moscow would not make Kazakhstan’s domestic situation “more stable and predictable.” The Russian government would ramp up its program for the return of compatriots, not just Russians but Russian-speaking Kazakhs who would view having a Russian passport as a real advantage in the future.

Given all these probabilities, Shibutov says, it would be best if this notion remained beyond discussion.

Sultanbek Sultangaliyev, a political analyst, says that a split with Moscow would be “possible only in one case” – the coming to power in Astana of a Kazakh nationalist movement more interested in seeing an ethnically homogeneous Kazakhstan than anything else. Russians would then leave, but so too would many Russian-speaking Kazakhs.

Some in Kazakhstan argue that their departure would be a good thing because it would supposedly solve the country’s high unemployment. But in fact, it would hurt the economy and not lead to the hiring of those now unemployed because few of them have the skills to fill the jobs of those who would leave.

Unlike Shibutov, Sultangaliyev says that if Kazakhstan broke with Russia, China would become the hegemon in Kazakhstan.

“We gradually would become a sphere of the vital interests of the Chinese nation,” and without the Russian counterweight, we would “be forced to turn our face to Beijing.” Those who talk about Turkey or the West are simply naïve.

Turkey doesn’t have the strength to play that role, he says; and “Western governments see in our country only a source of cheap natural resources and a market for the sale of their goods. They are always ready to close their eyes to any event in Kazakhstan in order to advance their own interests.”

Russia is not interfering in Kazakhstan at present, but if Astana changes course, it certainly would. “In the ‘besieged fortress’ situation in which Russia is now and will apparently be for a long time to come, a revision of our foreign policy course would be viewed in the Kremlin as betrayal and corresponding conclusions would certainly be drawn.”

A break with Moscow would make Kazakhstan mono-ethnic, Sultangaliyev says. But Kazakhstan would lose so much that its own remaining resource would be “its own unique culture” without the economic or political clout to defend it.

And Nikolay Kuzmin, an ethnic Russian analyst, adds that any break would be disastrous. “If our countries cease to be allies, then one is compelled to predict that relations between them will be hostile. And the consequences of such a scenario cannot be called anything but catastrophic.”

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Edited by: A. N.

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