In an interview with Russian state television, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev chided the West for trying to influence other countries through mass and new media, echoing positions long held by the Kremlin. The aging Kazakh leader appeared reasonably healthy and articulate on the issues. But his comments may challenge his long-held multi-vector foreign policy, which sought to advance Kazakhstan’s national interests by balancing those of the West, Russia, and China. With Afghanistan’s future in doubt and domestic stability becoming a question for the first time, Nazarbayev is more openly tying Kazakhstan’s future to Russia.
BACKGROUND: In the course of the April 26 interview on Rossiya 24, the country’s round-the-clock state television news service, Nazarbayev answered questions on regional integration, security threats, and economic development. The interviewer asked Nazarbayev several leading questions, but Nazarbayev needed little prompting to engage in some anti-Western rhetoric. Most notably, he asserted that the desire – among Westerners, assumedly – to use new media to spread ideas that impact the domestic political situation within other states and create protesters, is a threat to Kazakhstan and other countries.
On military issues, he described NATO’s role in the post-Cold War, post-Warsaw Pact world as “entirely unclear.” While some even in the West might agree with this sentiment, he went on to laud the military integration and anti-terrorism orientation of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which provides for collective defense on exactly the NATO/Warsaw Pact model. Nazarbayev touted the Kremlin’s other regional integration projects among those countries with “equal conditions and desire of the people and the elites,” namely, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, as an “equal union.”
Only the President’s response to the interviewer’s first question, he was asked for his thoughts on the “powerful” integration processes currently underway in the “post-Soviet space,” might have digressed from what might have been the Kremlin line. Nazarbayev made the obvious point that there are post-Soviet countries, including the Baltic states, with entirely differing policy orientations, and that differences between them have grown to the point where “nothing is left” of the post-Soviet space. By starting from this point, Nazarbayev may have been seeking to placate domestic audiences, particularly his more nationalist supporters, who may fear a loss of sovereignty in a Kremlin project to reconstitute the old Union. Rather, Nazarbayev prefers to pitch the Customs Union and CSTO as new projects aimed to address new challenges to their independent members.
The Rossiya 24 interview follows on the heels of a closed-door speech on April 20 before Astana’s foreign ambassadors. Kazakh media reported that Nazarbayev described his authorship of the Eurasian Economic Union concept as a solution to Kazakhstan’s landlocked geography. He criticized “the desire of some states to gain a foothold in the role of regional leader, or to challenge the role of de facto leading states,” signaling that Kazakhstan would welcome no interference from the U.S. in the building of this union.
If the object of his criticism were not clear enough, Nazarbayev also described the Arab Spring as an “erosion of international law,” stressing that “no goal can be achieved by manipulation of the UN and the decisions of the Security Council.” He reiterated his increasingly common refrain that “no one should impose change from the outside,” rejecting a “single model of democracy for all.” At Rossiya 24, he publicly reiterated a favored slogan – “we need evolution, not revolution.”
IMPLICATIONS: Kazakhstan’s recent domestic policy shifts indicate Nazarbayev’s increasing skepticism of the West. The country’s latest managed elections in 2011 and 2012 were criticized by Western observers for their lack of competition. Later in 2011, the U.S. Peace Corps quietly pulled out of the country after an 18 year presence, with government opposition to their presence at least part of the U.S.’s unstated reasoning. An indictment of the accused perpetrators of labor protests that ended in violence in the western city of Zhanaozen implicates Western journalists and rights defenders, describing them as “miscreants.” The Zhanaozen incident in late 2011 followed a year of minor but escalating insurgent attacks against security forces. Instability at home appears to have startled the Nazarbayev regime, causing them to question long-held assumptions of domestic tranquility and political apathy.
One of the government’s more drastic moves was to dissolve the one-party parliament and call early elections in January 2012. Officials then essentially declared their intention to introduce a pro-government opposition to parliament to diffuse domestic dissent. Nur-Otan’s meaningless concessions somewhat mirrored United Russia’s conceding of parliamentary seats to its long dormant pro-government opposition in Russia’s parliamentary elections of the preceding month. Throughout the winter, attacks on journalists have increased in step with attacks on the security forces. While crackdowns against labor protesters occurred in several towns, some ended quietly with salary increases. The parliament is also considering new privacy restrictions on the internet, including requirements that internet cafes keep logs of their users in order to potentially track their activity.
Kazakhstan also announced its intention to extend border fortifications along its frontier with Kyrgyzstan to include Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, thus sealing the country off from its three southern neighbors. Traders have complained of unpredictable closures of Kazakh-Uzbek border crossing points by Kazakhstan as well.
China, traditionally seen as the second among equals in Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, goes unmentioned in both sets of remarks. On Rossiya 24, Nazarbayev described the common language, history, and mentality of the Customs Union partners as strong ties that bind them together. Certainly, none of this could be said for China, whose booming ports lie closer to Kazakhstan’s southern and eastern cities than Russia’s.
Still, Nazarbayev’s foreign policy drift towards Russia has been building for years. Unlike the consensus-driven European Union, the Customs Union affords Russia a majority of the votes, effectively giving Belarus and Kazakhstan little recourse to check Russia’s agenda on their trade policy. While there are natural areas of synergy between the three partners’ trade policy, there are issues where Kazakhstan would be better served by duty-free trade, such as in vehicle imports. While Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has occasionally expressed fears of Russian domination through the Customs Union, Nazarbayev marched Kazakhstan into membership without qualification. The Eurasian Union seems poised to extend to Russia control over Kazakhstan’s monetary, migration, and labor policies, at the least.
After winning its hard-fought chairmanship of the ostensibly pro-democracy OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan has discarded much of its veneer of Western values. His government’s hiring of a consulting firm connected to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his master of spin, Alastair Campbell, may have been intended to burnish Nazarbayev’s image as he reverses some of his more liberal tendencies. However, it is entirely possible that Blair was largely courted to help Kazakhstan win the extradition from Britain of its top fugitive, banker and government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov.
CONCLUSIONS: While not directly aimed at Western interests in the region, Kazakhstan’s response to domestic disquiet has been typical of the Soviet successor states - identify foreign scapegoats, isolate sources of problems, and quell them with repression, if necessary. The government’s search for foreign instigators of its internal troubles seems at odds with his naming of poverty and unemployment as the main drivers of the Arab Spring revolts and instability in Kyrgyzstan. Local and foreign journalists have highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor as a potential source of popular discontent and insurgent inspiration, particularly in the western oil-producing provinces. Nazarbayev’s response to the unprecedented challenge to his authority and legacy comes out of Vladimir Putin’s playbook, and probably not what Tony Blair would have advised, had he been asked.
Kazakhstan’s long-term orientation towards Russia makes sense in many regards, some of which were highlighted by the President in his recent statements. Not least of these is the common fear held throughout Central Asian capitals – that the Western pullout from Afghanistan lead to a collapse of security and the export of extremists north of its border. With Kazakhstan’s drift toward Russia now being solidified with a 3,500 km border fence to its south, it is becoming clearer which countries are truly within the Russian security umbrella, and which are left without. But the extent to which closer political and economic integration with Russia will, in Nazarbayev’s words, “strengthen the independence of the state,” may be the central question of Kazakhstan’s future foreign policy.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Myles G. Smith is an analyst and consultant based in Central Asia.