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.