Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Appeal of Russian Embrace Fades in Kazakstan

Even pro-government politicians are beginning to speak out against regional integration project.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has strengthened a groundswell of opposition to Kazakstan joining the proposed Eurasian Economic Union.

The sense of alarm at Moscow’s treatment of Ukraine has been heightened by Russian nationalist demands for the reconquest of parts of northern Kazakstan with a large Slavic population.

In 2010, Russia, Kazakstan and Belarus entered into the Customs Union, followed in 2012 by the creation of a common economic market encompassing some 170 million people. The Customs Union allowed free movement of goods among the three member states, while the common market standardised external tariffs and enabled the free movement of capital, services and labour.

Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are both moving towards Customs Union membership, Tajikistan has expressed an interest, but other former Soviet states are steering clear of it.

The Eurasian Economic Union would take integration a step further, with common policies in key areas like trade, transport and energy.

Russia has in the past suggested a degree of political integration, with a parliament for member states of the new bloc. This idea has been consistently rejected by Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Meanwhile, the interim government in Kiev is heading in the opposite direction. Last week, it announced that Ukraine was leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States, the original post-Soviet grouping.

The Kazak government has struggled to formulate a strong policy on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. On March 3, two days after Russia’s parliament approved the troop deployment in Crimea, the Kazak foreign ministry called for a “responsible approach” and the avoidance of actions liable to “provoke a further escalation of the crisis". As events gathered pace, with a referendum held in Crimea on March 16 and formal annexation by Russia by the end of the week, Kazakstan changed its position. Its foreign ministry said the referendum was a true expression of Crimeans’ wishes, and it expressed “understanding” for Russia’s absorption of a Ukrainian territory.

Those already worried about the planned Eurasian Economic Union have had their fears confirmed by recent developments in Ukraine.

On March 4, a group of civil society activists in Kazakstan launched a movement called the Anti-Eurasian Union. At a press conference organised by activists who included Janbolat Mamay, head of the Rukh Pen Til NGO, media activist Inga Imanbay and political analyst Aidos Sarym, the group appealed to people to come to a rally on April 12 protest and voice their opposition to Eurasian Economic Union accession.

Anti-Eurasian Union members expressed particular concern about President Nazarbaev’s forthcoming meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, at which they will discuss a final text for the Eurasian Economic Union treaty. That document is supposed to be ready by May, and Kazakstan would join in January 2015.

“Above all, we are concerned that documents are being drafted in secret, behind closed doors, without open debate or public consultation,” a press release issued after the meeting said.

Mamay told IWPR that he and his fellow-activists were determined to pursue their campaign.

Referring to restrictive laws which penalise people for taking part in unauthorised public meetings, Mamay said, “If they are going to take us to court and lock us up, let them do that. Personally, I am prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the independence and sovereignty of our country.”

Suggestions by some radical Russian politicians that Kazakstan deserves similar treatment to Ukraine have done nothing to assuage concerns about a possible new regional order.

Kazakstan has a sizeable Russian community concentrated in its northern regions along a 7,000-kilometre border with Russia. Although many emigrated to Russia in the years after Kazakstan became independent in 1991, they are still the second-largest ethnic group, accounting for just over a fifth of the 17-million-strong population.

In a February 21 post on his Facebook page, Russian opposition politician Eduard Limonov, head of the Other Russia party, called on the Kremlin to consider annexing these northern regions of Kazakstan.

Speaking at a public gathering two days later, nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, went further, arguing that Moscow should bring all five Central Asian states back under its rule.

The new mood in Russia is not lost on Kazakstan’s politicians. Leading opposition figure Amirjan Kosanov told IWPR that in Kazakstan, the annexation of Crimea and plans to push ahead with the Eurasian Economic Union are both being seen as signs of Russian imperial thinking.

As far as the Putin administration is concerned, the former Soviet republics are just “regions subordinate to Moscow”, Kosanov said. “The Kremlin’s long-term plans have already been drafted.”

Even pro-government politicians are now openly voicing concern about the dangers to Kazakstan.

A member of the governing Nur Otan party, Murat Abenov, has become a vocal critic of Russia in interviews and social media posts.

He launched a petition asking the prosecutor general to ban local broadcasts of Russia-24, the Moscow state TV channel that carried Zhirinovsky’s speech.

In an interview for the online publication, Abenov likened economic integration with Russia to “being on a submarine with someone” with no escape route.

Another Nur Otan member, Nikolai Logutov, expressed indignation about calls to bring northern Kazakstan under Russian jurisdiction. And the head of the Party of Patriots, Gani Kasymov, who is known to have close links to the Nazarbaev administration, warned that signing the Eurasian treaty could “go against Kazakstan”.

Analysts say remarks like these reflect a real unease among Kazakstan’s political elite about the prospect of closer economic and political integration with Moscow in the light of events in Ukraine.

Nazarbaev and his immediate circle remain reluctant to express disquiet in public.

According to Mamay, the Kremlin retains substantial leverage over Kazakstan’s leaders – enough to be able to “keep a tight rein on them”.

Allowing pro-government politicians to let off steam might therefore be a way of responding to genuine public concerns without doing anything to halt progress towards full economic union.

Dauren Altynov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.