On February 3, 2016, Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev made a symbolically powerful decree on how Kazakh soldiers should march during military parades. The abolition of the Soviet goose step formation, utilized by Russia, was a striking display of the Kazakh military's increasingly independent identity. As Georgia in 2007 and Estonia in 2008 abolished the formation during periods of tense relations with Russia, Nazarbayev's decision raised fresh questions about the strength of the long-standing Russia-Kazakhstan partnership.
Kazakhstan's accession to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 has been followed paradoxically by escalating anti-Kremlin defiance from Almaty. Over the past few months, Kazakhstan has made diplomatic overtures towards Ukraine, which included meetings between Nazarbayev and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and a landmark deal to expand trade linkages in the energy and agriculture sectors. Poroshenko commended Nazarbayev for his pledge to support Ukraine's territorial integrity. Nazarbayev also contradicted Putin's disparaging comments about the lack of history underpinning Kazakhstan's national identity by holding a celebration commemorating 550 years of Kazakh statehood.
Despite these provocative actions, the notion that Almaty is abandoning its long-standing alliance with Russia is gravely mistaken. Kazakhstan's attempts to break free from Russian hegemony are not a harbinger of a seismic geopolitical shift in Eurasia, as Nazarbayev's actions are tactical and driven primarily by domestic politics. Creating a coherent Kazakh foreign policy identity that is distinct from Russia will prevent Kazakhs from defecting from the regime over deteriorating economic conditions. Nazarbayev's actions are also underlaid by the tacit recognition that Kazakhstan cannot convert this rhetoric into genuine anti-Russian policies as it lacks a viable alternative ally that can supplant Moscow's lead role.
The Linkage Between Kazakhstan's Assertiveness Towards Russia and Regime Consolidation
As Kazakhstan's economic growth has slowed due to the ongoing recession in Russia, low oil prices and steep currency devaluation, the risk for political instability resembling the Electric Yerevan protests in Armenia and recent unrest in Azerbaijan has heightened. As Kazakhstan's long-term political future remains unclear due to the absence of a designated successor to replace the 75 year old, Nazarbayev, Kazakh elites have used an independent and increasingly anti-Russian international identity as a mechanism to rally the Kazakh public around the regime.
Kazakh nationalism is arguably the most developed in Central Asia, as popular pressure for secession from the Soviet Union and for the expanded use of the Kazakh language emerged earlier than most other CIS countries, during the June 1989 mass protests. Even though only 40% of Kazakhstan's population was ethnic Kazakh in 1991 and the majority of people did not speak the Kazakh language, Nazarbayev made speaking Kazakh mandatory for bureaucrats at all levels. To prevent mass emigration or unrest from the Russian-speaking minority, the Kazakh regime embraced a multicultural identity, with Nazarbayev frequently praising the diversity of Kazakhstan, which contains 130 ethnic groups within its borders.
The articulation of Kazakhstan's independent foreign policy identity at the policy-level has become more pronounced since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, due to fears amongst Kazakh elites that Russia could use a Ukraine or Georgia-style pretext to intervene militarily in order to "protect" ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan.
The creation of a siege mentality to unite the public around the inviolability of Kazakhstan's sovereignty is crucial for Nazarbayev's regime security, as it offsets the destabilizing consequences of Kazakhstan's economic malaise. Nazarbayev's pledge to "not cede an iota of Kazakhstan's independence" to Russia in the wake of Kazakhstan's accession to the EEU highlighted his credibility as a resolutely nationalist unifying figure and improved his public image ahead of the dubiously non-competitive April 2015 elections.
Why Kazakhstan Remains in Moscow's Fold
Cutting a level deeper, Nazarbayev's anti-Kremlin defiance is more an image-building ploy than a real policy shift. In order to appease Russian nationalists who support his regime but are sympathetic towards Putin's revanchist policies in the post-Soviet region, Kazakh leaders have made numerous public statements supporting Putin's belligerent actions. Nazarbayev gave credence to the notion that the Euro-Maidan revolution was effectively a fascist junta in Ukraine, a belief prevalent amongst ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan. His rhetorical solidarity with ethnic minorities in Ukraine has caused prominent Russian nationalist figures like deputy head of the Russian Cultural Center Vadim Obukhov, to insist that inter-ethnic relations between Kazakhs and Russians are harmonious and peaceful.
Nazarbayev is also keenly aware of the limits of acceptable defiance of the Kremlin line. On October 16, 2015, Vladimir Putin announced his intention to establish a NATO-style Russian border force to secure Central Asian countries from the potential spillover resulting from Taliban gains in Afghanistan. This military presence demonstrates Russia's capacity to militarily intervene against Kazakhstan on very short notice, should Kazakhstan act against the Kremlin's interests. While China has pledged to protect Kazakh sovereignty under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's mandate, China's unwillingness to extend economic investment to an interventionist foreign policy has heightened Kazakh perceptions of vulnerability to Russian aggression.
In response to the overhanging threat of Russian military force, Kazakhstan has embraced an identity of being an international mediator, bridge building between Russia and countries that have strained relations with Moscow, like Ukraine and Turkey. While increased trade revenues and an expanded geopolitical profile beckon if Kazakhstan's balancing strategy proves successful, Nazarbayev is firmly aware that diplomatic overtures with anti-Russian leaders cannot evolve into real alliances. Putin's recent attempts to restrict Ukraine-Kazakhstan trade illustrate this unwritten constraint on Kazakh conduct. In order to reverse the decline in trade with EEU member states observed in the first year of Kazakhstan's membership in the customs union, Putin signed a decree forcing all Ukrainian goods entering Kazakhstan to pass through Russia first.
Nazarbayev has also deftly exploited Russia's expanded military presence in Central Asia to further its own anti-Islamist campaigns at home. Cooperating with Russia in the struggle against ISIS prevents the radicalization of economically disadvantaged Muslims in Kazakhstan and creates an Islamic extremist enemy that the Kazakh public can effectively rally against. It also puts pressure on Putin to grant the Kazakhstan's defense establishment's request for higher Russian rent payments in exchange for access to Kazakh military facilities.
The numerous checks and balances to Kazakhstan's anti-Kremlin defiance demonstrate compellingly that the symbolic power of Nazarbayev's recent actions supersedes the practical extent of Almaty's deviation from Moscow. Kazakhstan's identity construction efforts and balancing strategy between rival countries has been vital for Kazakhstan's short-term and post-Nazarbayev political stability prospects. For now, Kazakhstan's strategic interests and lack of viable alternatives ensure that it will remain part of the Russian sphere, while cleverly asserting its independence to appear like less of a subordinate actor in the Moscow-Almaty partnership.