20 Years of Leading Analysis
  • Kazakh Concerns: Lessons From Ukraine

    Posted by: Alexey Malashenko September 19, 2014

    Kazakh leaders have been hesitant to speak out about the crisis in Ukraine. To be sure, the EuroMaidan Revolution is an affront to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other Central Asian leaders’ authoritarian regimes. Regional elites fear large-scale protest movements, particularly as the question of presidential succession becomes a subject of debate in two key Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – potentially triggering socio-political tensions. Despite these concerns, a homegrown Maidan is not the biggest problem facing Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev is more troubled by Russia’s aggressive response to the revolution, which has cast a shadow over the entire post-Soviet space. Though Russia and Kazakhstan remain important economic and political allies, Kazakhstan, like other post-Soviet states, has been reluctant to support Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

    Kazakhstan did not support Russia’s position during the UN General Assembly vote on Crimea; it was the only CIS state to send representatives to monitor the Ukrainian presidential election; Astana refused to discuss granting the Russian military forces a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) mandate for “peacekeeping operations” in Ukraine; and the Kazakh government did not support the Russian countersanctions against the EU, refusing to raise customs tariffs on Ukrainian goods, in defiance of Moscow’s precedent.

    Nursultan Nazarbayev has expressed veiled skepticism about the Kremlin’s course in Ukraine. In an interview with Kazakhstan’s Khabar TV channel, Nazarbayev remarked that “Kazakhstan always reserves the right to leave the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) if it poses a threat to the country’s independence.” This statement clearly demonstrates that Astana sees the EEU exclusively as an economic union and rejects Russia’s political ambitions within the union. Nazarbayev has said on multiple occasions that the EEU is not a political organization, but in light of recent events in Ukraine his remarks to Khabar TV are especially significant.

    Nazarbayev also said that “Ukraine’s fate awaits Kazakhstan in the case of an overreach on the issue of language.” In other words, the Kazakh authorities’ neglect of the Russian language may become a major threat to Kazakhstan’s stability and sovereignty. For this reason, Nazarbayev personally supports trilingual a Kazakhstan, with Kazakh, Russian, and English as its official languages.

    While the issue of the status of the Russian language was one of the pretexts for Russia’s invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, it was Ukraine’s European choice that most surprised the Kremlin. Putin did not anticipate Ukraine’s attempt to free itself from Russia’s embrace, which has dealt a blow to his integration projects. Kazakhstan does not intend to turn away from Russia; nevertheless, it is letting Russia know that it will not forgo its political independence.

    Russia’s Ukrainian policy gave the West, and primarily the United States, a significant opportunity to weaken Moscow’s positions in the post-Soviet space, which the Kremlin may not have anticipated. Americans and Europeans happily watch Russia’s neighbors’ cautiously negative reaction to Moscow’s policies. At a meeting with President Nazarbayev in May, Deputy State Secretary William Burns stressed that the U.S. supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the countries in Central Asia, stressing the importance of friendly relations with Kazakhstan.

    Moscow is of two minds about the “neutrally negative” position of Kazakhstan and its other neighbors. On the one hand, it understands that former Soviet republics will be uncomfortable with any breech of national sovereignty, just as they were after Russia supported the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008. On the other hand, Russia expects a level of obedience from Astana. Russian politicians have recently made offensive and even threatening statements towards Kazakhstan. At the Seliger Youth Forum last month, Putin gave Kazakhs cause for concern. Anna Sazonova, a previously unknown student, asked Putin about russophobia and nationalist sentiment in Kazakhstan. Vladimir Putin reminded the audience that Kazakhstan never existed as a state and appeared on world maps only as a result of Nazarbayev’s efforts. Some saw it as a reference to Kazakhstan’s fragility, while others interpreted it as high praise of President Nazarbayev’s state-building work. In the same conversation, Putin emphasized that if Kazakhstan wants to remain a part of the “global civilization,” it must stay in the Russian sphere of influence. The Kazakh politician Aykin Konurov dismissed it as a “gaffe,” saying that “it resembles an awkward message in which the suzerain provokes its vassal.”

    The Ukraine crisis has betrayed fissures in the Russo-Kazakh relationship, even under President Nazarbayev, who has traditionally been a staunch Putin supporter. It is difficult to predict a post-Nazarbayev Kazakh policy toward Russia, but developments in Ukraine suggest that future Kazakh leaders will have to deal with a new source of friction with the Kremlin. Young Kazakh politicians increasingly speak English, and perhaps they will be more willing to leave the Russian world than their predecessors. Of course, it is possible that Nazarbayev will be succeeded by a politician with strong business interests in Russia. Even so, the Ukrainian crisis has taught the Kazakh elite to be much more apprehensive in their dealings with Russia.

  • Europe and Belarus in Changing Times

    Posted by: Richard Youngs Thursday, September 18, 2014

    This summer’s crisis in eastern Ukraine has made the European Union and Belarus keen to develop a more constructive relationship with each other.

  • The Scotland Effect

    Posted by: Thomas de Waal Wednesday, September 17, 2014 4

    Separatists across Europe are hailing Scotland's referendum, but they also know that breaking up is a traumatic process.

  • Worse Than the Cold War

    Posted by: Alexei Arbatov Tuesday, September 16, 2014 2

    The growing hostility between the Russian and American societies accompanies the tensions in state bilateral relations.

  • EU and Ukraine: What a Mess

    Posted by: Balázs Jarábik Monday, September 15, 2014 1

    The EU and Ukraine have suspended provisional application of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) until the end of 2015. Though their decision might look like Putin’s victory, this conclusion is not obvious. It is high time to stop viewing Ukraine through the prism of Russia policy.

  • The Far-Right in Ukraine’s Far-East

    Posted by: Alina Polyakova Friday, September 12, 2014

    Far-right extremists appear to be active on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict. Amid the mounting array of problems facing President Poroshenko, far-rights are only likely to add fuel to the fire.

  • Armenian Maneuvers

    Posted by: Thomas de Waal Thursday, September 11, 2014 2

    Last year, Armenian President Sargsyan committed his country to joining Putin’s Eurasian Union, instead of going toward the EU. A year on, serious discussions between the EU and Yerevan on how to re-launch the relationship have yet to start.

  • Russia and the New South East Asia

    Posted by: Akio Kawato Tuesday, September 09, 2014

    East Asia is coming back to a phase in which economic considerations dominate. In this milieu Russia may lose her place in East Asia, because it will be deprived of an opportunity to play China against the West.

  • Russia and China: “Together Like Teeth and Lips”

    Posted by: Yury Tavrovsky Monday, September 08, 2014 3

    Western sanctions against Russia are driving the Kremlin toward closer economic, political, and potentially military alignment with China.

  • Perception as Policy

    Posted by: Isaac Webb Saturday, September 06, 2014 5

    With tensions running high and diplomacy struggling to find a way out of the Ukraine crisis, inflammatory rhetoric violates the first rule of foreign policy: do no harm.



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