Putin’s Words and Kazakh History

by Casey_Michel on 9/12/2014 · 3 comments

Another summer passes, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev grows that much closer to moving into his post-presidential period. Unfortunately, this summer moved us no closer toward identifying a successor to the 74-year-old Nazarbayev. We have candidates, from Timur Kulibayev to Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev to Dariga Nazarbayeva, but no figure has yet jumped to the fore. With the haggard way Nazarbayev appeared at the recent Minsk summit, we may very well know who he’ll select soon. But, then, we may not. And Astana-watching will move into another go-round of candidates, questions, and concerns.

Of course, Kazakh voters and Registan-readers won’t be the only ones watching. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month decided to share his thoughts on the potential passage of the Kazakh presidency, and the legacy Nazarbayev will leave. Putin, whose relationship with Nazarbayev has long been warmer than perhaps any other world leader, lauded the Kazakh leader for both a domestic vision and the original impetus for the (flailing, faltering) Eurasian Union. Stretches of the commentary were remarkably complimentary. 

But there were other parts of the commentary that came shaded in strong innuendo, and borderline chauvinism. Nearly six months after Putin formulated his doctrine of protecting Russian-speakers and associated contingents, Putin’s comments hinted at the potential implementation of such protection in another nation – one whose appeals to the West would fall far short of what Ukraine could enjoy. I looked into Putin’s commentary at The Diplomat, and why, to Astana’s chagrin, it seems the rhetoric directed toward Kyiv could soon translate elsewhere:

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. …

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?

In the time since Putin revealed his thoughts, Kazakh television has re-aired an interview in which Nazarbayev stakes that he’ll never let Kazakhstan join an organization that would force it to cede an inch of sovereignty. Meanwhile, Russia held large military drills near the Kazakh border, and KazakhNet has begun sharing memes paralleling ethnic Kazakhs’ potential situation with those experienced by Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians. (Never mind the fact that Kazakhstan was the only other former Soviet republic besides Russia to refer to the success of EuroMaidan as a “coup.”) There’s an awareness bubbling, or at least a call for awareness, that tension exists, and is stemming from certain beliefs of Kazakhstan’s northern neighbor. And it comes, as ever, as Nazarbayev ages that much more.


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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Michael Vasiliou September 12, 2014 at 9:47 am

Hey Casey,

I knew that Putin has been exercising more and more control over nations close to Russia. But I don’t think anyone else has quite portrayed the hopelessness of the situation as well as you have here. While it seems that Kazakhstan has been complicit in some of Russia’s actions, I can’t help but feel sad for the way that Russia treats its ally.

Randy McDonald September 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

I wonder what China thinks of all this.

Mr. Burns September 24, 2014 at 8:12 am

While it was totally tactless and unnecessary, Putin’s words have some basis. Kazakhs never had a statehood. They, along with Kyrgyz were nomadic people. There were small khanates, sultanates in what is now Kazakhstan but those people were not ethnically Kazakhs. Of course after independence every country started rewriting their medieval history and coming up with versions of their national history that fits the independence rhetoric.

That being said, I do not support Putin’s words, be as it may, he should have left Kazakh history alone. Kazakhstan today is a successful country that is economically as developed as Russia is. GDP per capita is roughly the same in both countries. So Russia doesn’t have much on Kazakhstan. I wouldn’t be surprised that the veiled threats that many people are reading between the lines actually meant for Kazakhstan to stay close to Russia so that Russia can have some support for its plans for the Customs Union and other integration projects in the Eurasian region.

For those who didn’t know, Kazakhs President has always been staunchly pro-integration with Russia. The idea of Eurasian Union did not start in Russia, it started in Kazakhstan. Given its weight Russia is trying to use the integration process for its own geopolitics but Kazakhstan has miscalculated the liabilities of being so close to Russia, it seems.

If you want to see a smart foreign policy, look at Uzbekistan. Uzbeks have a rich history of statehood and the way they manage their affairs is more mature. Uzbekistan has always viewed with suspicion these Eurasian integration policies and kept itself at a distance from Moscow. At the end, Uzbekistan policies turned out to be right, because very close relationship with Moscow comes at a price that Kazakhs have discovered recently.

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