The Political Economy of Kazakhstan

by Zack Kramer

The Kazakhs emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the 14th and 15th centuries, essentially through an intermingling of local Turkic tribes with more recently arrived Mongolian peoples. The ethnonym Kazakh derives from an old Turkic root meaning “wanderer,” reflecting their nomadic origins. That same root, via a fairly circuitous path, is also behind the ethnonym “Cossack.”

Despite diverse cultural influences from Mongolia, China, Persia, and later Russia, the linguistic heritage and Sunni Islamic faith of the early Turkic inhabitants of the region have been part of Kazakh identity for centuries. Significant ethnic Russian migration into Kazakh lands began in the 19th century and intensified with the Soviet Union’s walloping industrialization and agricultural development efforts there, and the flows of workers that followed them. By the time Kazakhstan received full constituent Soviet Republic status in 1936, the Kazakhs had become an ethnic minority within their titular homeland, a status that persisted until after the fall of the USSR.

Owing to a relatively high birthrate and a pattern of Russian outmigration, today ethnic Kazakhs are again in the majority at roughly 65% of the population, with Russians comprising about 20% and a variety of other groups, including Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Tatars, and Germans. Kazakhstan is thus the most ethnically diverse country in Central Asia by a wide margin, yet inter-ethnic conflict there has been limited. Harmonious relations among the country’s ethnic groups (“friendship of peoples” in official rhetoric) are arguably the key foundational myth of the modern Kazakh state. This is perhaps most clearly embodied in the name and structure of the national parliament, the “Assembly of Peoples”, which prides itself on the inclusion of at least one representative from each of the wide array of ethnicities present in the country, though the institution itself is virtually powerless.

Kazakhstan is the largest and the second-most populous of the central Asian states, sharing long borders with the Ural and Siberian regions of Russia and with the Xinjiang region of China. It is the source of the absolute majority of economic activity in central Asia (~60% of regional GDP), and after Russia and Poland is the third-largest economy (at PPP) in the whole of the vast post-socialist region stretching from Slovenia to Kyrgyzstan. It is by far the most industrialized and developed country in Central Asia, though disparities in income levels and regional development within Kazakhstan are large and growing.

Since 1990, Kazakhstan has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state and, with the death of Uzbek president Islam Karimov in 2016, the longest-serving in the former Soviet Union. Nazarbayev heads a nominally democratic government that is in practice a consolidated authoritarian regime with a long record of human rights abuses, corruption, and political repression, and few checks on his personal executive power. The country does rank fairly highly on market liberalization metrics like the World Bank’s “ease-of-doing-business” index, reflecting a general strategy of attracting foreign investment to spur modernization and diversification of the economy away from its current reliance on petrochemicals and aging heavy industry. The Kazakh GDP has grown at an average of 7% annually since 1999, which has been a source of stability and support for the current government.

Only about 5% of Kazakhstan’s trade is conducted with other Central Asian countries. Taken together, the European Union countries are its largest trade partner and notably import a substantial amount of their oil from Kazakhstan. The biggest foreign investors in its economy are also predominantly European (the Netherlands alone accounted for roughly a third of Kazakhstan’s total foreign investment last year), but there has been little in the way of an EU-level effort to engage with Kazakhstan politically—for instance, it isn’t included in anything like the EU’s “Neighborhood Policy” programs. As a small part of westernmost Kazakhstan lies within the geographic boundaries of Europe, it may technically be eligible for EU membership, but there has been no serious discussion of the matter.

The US maintains a fairly cordial relationship with Kazakhstan and is another of the country’s largest investors. Washington has shown limited interest in challenging the political status quo in Kazakhstan to expand its influence or promote democracy. Kazakhstan has cooperated with some US-led regional counterterrorism efforts, and exports a great deal of uranium (of which it is the world’s largest producer) to the US, which is evidently enough to win nominal US support for the repressive Nazarbayev government.

As secular but predominantly Sunni states with shared historical and linguistic ties, it is no surprise that of the Middle Eastern powers Kazakhstan has the closest relationship with Turkey, another major investor and trade partner. Kazakhstan has stable relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, but neither has garnered particularly strong political or economic influence there. While it is generally more integrated with the countries beyond its borders than many might assume, the two most dominant external influences in Kazakhstan remain neighboring Russia and China.

Along with Belarus, Kazakhstan has been the former Soviet republic most consistently willing to cooperate with Russia’s efforts at regional re-integration, and in this sense is generally regarded as a Russian ally, or at least as relatively tolerant of Russia’s assertions of regional hegemony. Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance ostensibly meant to counterbalance NATO. Though in practice it has been almost totally untested in its 25-year history and its strategic utility is dubious, CSTO membership entitles Kazakhstan to buy Russian arms at the same rates the Russian military itself pays, a key perk that helps to ensure that Russia retains at least a small cadre of nominal allies.

Kazakhstan is also a member of Russia’s newest regional integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a common-market initiative that has been compared to the EU. The EAEU is mostly famous in the West as one of the causes of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych intended to join the EAEU, and popular opposition to that idea helped spur the protest movement. Now that Ukraine is decidedly out of the picture, the only real area of significant focus for the project may be the further integration of the Russian and Kazakh economies, especially given that the EAEU’s other medium-sized economy, Belarus, is already about as integrated with Russia as it can be while retaining its statehood.

Kazakhstan is already heavily economically interdependent with Russia as things stand. Russia has little need of major Kazakh resources like oil, uranium, or gas, and is instead primarily connected to it through trade links established during the Soviet period. Kazakhstan gets about a third of its total imports from Russia, particularly food and other consumer goods, appliances, and machinery. Russia is also Kazakhstan’s second-largest export market, a destination for its mineral ores, chemicals, and semi-finished metals products. Much of this trade connects the industrial cities of northern Kazakhstan (Petropavl, Pavlodar, Karaganda) to Russian industrial areas across the border (Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk). Neither country necessarily holds the upper hand in the trade relationship—Kazakhstan would likely have an easier time finding new sources of consumer goods (China) than Russia would a new market for them, but given the disparity in the size of their economies Kazakhstan has more general incentive to preserve these trade ties than Russia does.

Moscow and Almaty do trade the occasional barb. Not long ago, Vladimir Putin angered many in Kazakhstan by implying it was a country with no history of statehood prior to 1991 (which is at most only partly true), and Nazarbayev’s recent announcement about switching the Kazakh language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet has met with disapproval from the country’s Russian minority and from Russia itself (though Russian remains the country’s second official language). Kazakhstan has not recognized Russia’s claim to Crimea and has remained strictly neutral in its conflict with Ukraine. But on the whole Kazakhstan appears content to allow Russia a large degree of influence, so long as it is able to consistently counterbalance that influence against China’s.

It was an extraordinary coincidence that Chinese president Xi Jinping chose a 2013 visit to the Kazakh capital Astana for his first public announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, inasmuch as the most feasible overland routes from most anywhere in China to Europe cross the steppes of central Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan features heavily in the Chinese infrastructure plan—the “belt” part of the “belt and road.” There are plans to build high-speed train routes and logistics infrastructure to link northern China with eastern and central Europe through Astana and northern Kazakhstan, and for the “New Eurasian Land Bridge” to run through former Kazakh capital Almaty and the southwestern part of the country. Interestingly, China has completely ignored the Eurasian Economic Union in its B&R planning, engaging Kazakhstan and other EAEU member countries involved in the initiative on an exclusively bilateral basis.

China is already one of Kazakhstan’s largest trade partners, mostly importing Kazakh copper, oil, and uranium and exporting clothing, electronics, and appliances. With Kazakh consumer purchasing power and the natural resource requirements of the Chinese economy both growing rapidly, there is a great deal of room for trade to continue to expand. The Chinese government has also backed a number of joint ventures in Kazakhstan, notably taking large stakes in several Kazakh state-owned enterprises involved in extractive industries. The graft, cronyism, and lack of contract enforcement that have kept many western countries away from doing business in Kazakhstan are the circumstances in which Chinese firms tend to do best, and as such China has a strong interest in the maintenance of Kazakhstan’s current political and economic environment, distorted though it may be.

Of course all is not rosy between China and Kazakhstan. Along with many other Belt and Road “partner” nations, the Kazakhs at times have chafed against Beijing’s heavy-handed foreign policy. And there are some challenges specific to the China-Kazakhstan relationship. In the Xinjiang region of western China, Kazakhs are the third-largest ethnic group after Uyghurs and Han Chinese, and many of them have wound up in China’s infamous government “re-education camps” alongside Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. This has provoked rare backlash from the Kazakh government. There is also widespread concern in Kazakhstan that closer ties with China could lead to the same sort of mass migration that once came from Russia, again rendering the Kazakhs a minority in their own country. But ethnic tensions notwithstanding, as long as both countries are effectively dominated by authoritarian governments prioritizing rapid economic growth over everything else they are likely to continue to cooperate closely for the foreseeable future. But because Kazakhstan is wealthier and more resource-abundant than many of the countries along the Belt and Road Initiative’s southern corridors, it may be less quick to cave to Beijing’s terms than some of its other partners.

Given these various dynamics, two questions loom for western observers of Kazakhstan. What will happen to the government when Nazarbayev dies or retires? And will Russia use ethnic Russians concentrated in northern Kazakhstan to justify a seizure of territory there a la Crimea? These are both hard things to predict, but I think the constellation of forces at work in Kazakhstan point to “not that much” and “no.”

Nursultan Nazarbayev, seen here probably getting ready to throw another opposition voter in prison

Nazarbayev is 78 years old and has not yet committed to running in the 2020 election. Many in the West seem to hope that his exit may open up a window of opportunity for the advancement of democracy and political reform. However, these sorts of things are extremely rare in situations, like Kazakhstan’s, in which an entrenched elite controls a powerful state and there’s been little or no development of civil society. If the recent succession process in Uzbekistan is any indicator, whoever leads Kazakhstan next may make certain symbolic adjustments, but is likely to keep the basic power structure of the country in place. Nazarbayev has talked about wanting to devolve more power to the national parliament and away from the presidency. But given that the parliament itself doesn’t contain any significant oppositional elements, if this does happen it may merely be a play for time to allow Nazarbayev’s successor to consolidate his (or possibly her) own claim to power, rather than a serious effort to reform the office and the country’s government.

The two powers with the most influence in Kazakhstan, China and Russia, both have a significant stake in maintaining an authoritarian government in Almaty dominated by an elite that is willing to do business on their terms and go along with their respective regional integration projects. If and when Nazarbayev is replaced, the most telling indicator of the country’s future may be whether the next president gestures toward picking a “favorite” instead of maintaining the current, carefully balanced approach to relations with both Russia and China.

After the annexation of Crimea and conflict in southeastern Ukraine, the roughly 3.6 million Russians concentrated in the northern part of Kazakhstan may now be the largest ethnic Russian community located outside of Russia’s borders and those territories under its effective control (Ukraine hasn’t had a census since 2001 and its not clear how many ethnic Russians are now living in the rest of the country). This has prompted some regional observers to ask if Russia might attempt to annex all or part of northern Kazakhstan under the guise of protecting its Russian population from Kazakh nationalism or political repression. This is certainly an important question given Russia’s track record, but seems unlikely to me for a few reasons. Any Russian interference with Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity would inevitably alienate and provoke China, which Russia can hardly afford right now. Needless to say, it would also drive Almaty straight into Beijing’s arms, perhaps for good. Additionally, annexing part of Kazakhstan would delegitimize Russia’s regional integration projects (the CSTO and EAEU) and figuratively and geographically cut it off from the rest of Central Asia.

Additionally, and unlike Ukraine (and Georgia), Kazakhstan is currently not doing anything to threaten Russia’s regional plans. China may have supplanted much of Russia’s former influence in Almaty, but Russia is probably less threatened by a rising China than by the idea of the West encroaching on its borders. Russia still seems to believe it can maintain a significant degree of influence in Kazakhstan overall, not just among the country’s Russian minority. While several Russian nationalists (notably the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) have been calling for the annexation of northern Kazakhstan since the 1990s, it seems, at least for the time being, that will remain no more than a fantasy for Russia’s far-right Slavophiles.

Zack Kramer is a graduate student in international relations at Charles University in Prague.


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