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

Kazakstan Turns Its Back on Central Asia

Deterred by the region's poverty and instability, Kazaks draw back from integration with immediate neighbours and fix their gaze on Russia.
By Erbol Jumagulov

The old Soviet empire in Central Asia may only have broken up a few years ago but the largest successor state in the region is actively seeking to make Vladimir Putin's Russia its closest ally.


Amid a climate of regular official meetings between the political leaders of both countries, a recent survey has shown most people in Kazakstan overwhelmingly back their leadership's goal of forging a special friendship with the Kremlin.


The trend has dashed earlier expectations that the newly independent Muslim states in Central Asia would forge close ties among themselves.


A survey conducted by the Komkon-2 Eurasia agency published on April 1 showed that 84 per cent of respondents in Kazakstan believed their country should cooperate first and foremost with Russia. The figure dwarfed the 3.6 per cent of those who championed links with the United States and 2 per cent with China.


Meetings between the leaders of Kazakstan and Russia have started taking place frequently and in a more trusting atmosphere than before. At a recent meeting in Omsk on April 15, President Nursultan Nazarbaev met President Putin to mull several issues, including closer cooperation between Russian border regions and their counterparts in Kazakstan.


At the same time, hopes of greater unity between the Central Asian states have largely fizzled out, amid a wave of economically protectionist and political isolationist measures. Most states in the region have either tightened their borders or closed them altogether.


Few Kazak intellectuals seem surprised by the expressions of renewed warmth with Russia and the correspondingly cooler feelings towards neighbours in Central Asia. Political scientist Auezkhan Kodar says relations with Moscow were always more solid than ties to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.


"It is the same today. Integration with Russia is a priority for Kazakstan and this is our chosen path," he said. "The survey shows most Kazakstan citizens are making the right choice."


Saniya Serajieva, who works for an Almaty-based think-tank, says there is a simple explanation for the country's pro-Russian drift - cultural brainwashing.


"We were educated to read Pushkin and Dostoevsky, rather than (Alisher) Navoi (a leading medieval Central Asian poet)," she said. "And under the Soviet Union we learned more about Russian history than our own country. Most city people also speak Russian, so the attraction for Russia is hardly surprising."


But as political scientist Konstantin Syroezhkin points out, a positive attitude to Russia is not the only factor behind Kazakstan's disengagement from Central Asia - disappointment with the development of the country's regional neighbours has played a part.


"Integration processes with Central Asian countries are just not happening," he said. "And Russia, unlike the Central Asian countries, at least has some money to invest in Kazakstan."


The attitudes of the intellectuals dovetail with the views expressed by the people who took part in the survey. "We are rich in resources, so there is little point in having close relations with our poor neighbours," said Anatoly Smelyakov, an entrepreneur from Almaty.


"I love and respect Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik and Kyrgyz culture but we need economically profitable partners."


Smelyakov pointed out that the political climate in the region was not encouraging, with a deeply authoritarian regime installed in Uzbekistan, a neo-Stalinist cult of personality prevailing in Turkmenistan and constant internal conflicts plaguing Kyrgyzstan.


Almaty teacher Meruert Adambekova said an alliance with Russia was merely the best of a bad lot. "Russia's economy is improving, while we can't expect anything from our poor neighbours," she said. "They look to us with hunger in their eyes."


Few people echo the views expressed by Tlekbai Akhmetov, a builder from Almaty, who expounded a more historic view of the Central Asians as kindred peoples, bound together by their position on the old Silk Road and by ties of ethnicity and religion.


"Until the 19th century we developed without Russia but with our neighbours," he said. "We should preserve good relations with Russia but give more preference to Central Asian countries."


Momentum has been building up behind Kazak-Russian relations for several years. The political relationship has been easier under Putin than it was while the more erratic Boris Yeltsin was in power. Russia remains a major trading partner, at least partly because of the two countries' long shared border, and most Kazak oil is exported through Russian pipelines. The fact that they now share an interest in developing oil fields in the Caspian Sea has given cooperation between the two countries an extra fillip.


An additional geo-political factor is widespread caution, even fear, among Kazaks of the Chinese colossus to the east. In this light, the trend towards closer ties with Russia is quite logical, as none of the Central Asian states would be able to offer Kazakstan significant aid in a territorial conflict with China.


Russia is also fostering a rosy view of Kazakstan among its own citizens. The authorities have declared 2003 as the Year of Kazakstan in Russia. Kazaks living in Russia may not be very impressed with the level of Russian commitment to the event - some grumble that it has been overshadowed by the run-up to the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg, and say the only highlight so far has been a few Kazak films.


Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist in Almaty


More IWPR's Global Voices