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

Kazakstan Treads Political Tightrope

Will Kazakstan choose to curry favour with Putin's Russia or continue to pander to her generous American sponsors?
By IWPR Central Asia

The emergence of a strong Russian state under Vladimir Putin could force Kazakstan to make some tough choices. With Putin's presidential victory on March 26 looking like a foregone conclusion, most former Soviet republics are expecting a dramatic shift in diplomatic relations with their powerful neighbour. But Kazakstan, which currently enjoys close ties with both Russia and America, may find it increasingly difficult to please both paymasters.


Political analysts in Kazakstan share the widely-held belief that Putin's regime will ride roughshod over democratic principles, step up state control over the national economy and strengthen the armed forces. They expect a more active foreign policy with regard to other partners within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).


However, the so-called "dictatorship of the law" which seems to stand at the heart of Putin's manifesto bears many similarities to Kazakstan's own political realities. In the capital Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbaev tailors the law to suit his own political goals - all in the name of democracy. It is a path the new Russian premier is almost certain to follow.


Thus Putin's Russia - seeking to re-establish its status as a superpower - is likely to take a close interest in Kazakstan. The republic boasts strong economic ties with its northern neighbour whilst one third of the population is made up of ethnic Russians (around five million people).


During Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the Kazak regime grew fat in Moscow's shadow. Personal and political ties between Yeltsin and Nazarbaev combined with a mutual communist past contributed to a liberal and beneficial relationship between the two nations.


Vladimir Putin, however, represents a new generation of Russian politicians and is unlikely to value diplomatic relations that are founded on personal or traditional loyalties. His priorities are political and economical expediency. Most importantly, Putin will be looking for potential benefits to Russia in any future dealings with Kazakstan - and this pragmatic outlook may lead to an uncompromising stance against the former Soviet republic.


Furthermore, Yeltsin's patronage allowed Nazarbaev to pursue flexible foreign economic policies. Kazakstan was free to forge links with America and China as well as the Russian Federation. Putin may put pressure on the Kazak president to choose between his political bedfellows.


Certainly, Russia is unlikely to tolerate Astana's overtures to Washington. A strong American bridgehead in Kazakstan would hardly be in Moscow's interests. But the United States has already invested billions of dollars into the Tengiz oil-field and the Caspian Pipeline Consortium in a bid to break Russia's monopoly on Central Asian resources. Kazakstan will find it difficult to shrug off her obligations.


The looming shadow of Vladimir Putin inspires mixed emotions amongst the Kazak population at large. Increased influence from Moscow will be welcomed by ethnic Russians who watched in growing anxiety as Kazak was declared the official language and the corridors of power became dominated by ethnic Kazaks.


They believe that a revitalised Russian state would be able to defend the rights of Russian nationals living in the former Soviet empire - even if the empire itself is unlikely to rise again. They are convinced that a strong Russia will force foreign governments to protect these rights. Certainly, the vast majority of Russians living in Kazakstan will vote for Putin at the forthcoming elections.


At the same time, organisations representing ethnic Russians have been urging the Kazak government to join the Russian-Belarusian union - calls which have recently gained support from the Communist Party. Just a short while ago, the authorities would have accused these mutinous elements of "separatism" - now they react to their demands with surprising restraint. Nazarbaev's regime is still cautiously testing the winds blowing down from Moscow.


On the other hand, Kazak nationalists believe the former KGB boss poses a threat to the republic's independence and have fiercely dismissed recent calls to join the Russian-Belarusian union. However, the Kazak nationalists lack the following they enjoyed in the early days of secession from the Soviet Union. A large part of the population is already disillusioned with the grinding poverty which came hard on the heels of Kazak independence and remembers Soviet days with fond nostalgia.


Nazarbaev appears to understand that he can only hold on to power as long as he respects the wishes of both Russians and Kazaks in the republic but the ethnic question is by no means his only concern. Today, 80 per cent of goods imported into Kazakstan come from or pass through Russia. The fledgling state's economy is heavily dependent on its northern neighbour.


Meanwhile, the Kazak democratic opposition is pinning its hopes on Putin. Should Nazarbaev choose the USA over Russia, the opposition can rely on Moscow to increase pressure on the existing regime by supporting its rivals. In the event of Nazarbaev's political downfall, the leader of the opposition will be well placed to step into his shoes.


Kazakstan's ruling elite is only too aware of the dangers. As events unfold on Moscow's political stage, Kazak foreign policy is becoming increasingly cautious. Nazarbaev will have to form new alliances with the Kremlin power-brokers standing behind Putin in order to ensure Kazak interests are protected. In a bid to maintain harmonious relations with the new regime, he may have to agree to serious compromises - perhaps even joining the Russian-Belarus union or relaxing customs regulations between the two countries.


Sergei Duvanov is director of the independent news and analysis agency Politon, in Almaty