Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev will be re-elected on April 26.  He is running against two nominal opposition candidates who pose little threat. Even if the country had more space for a political opposition and independent civil society, it would still be hard to run against a President whose status as “Leader of the Nation” was codified in a 2010 law. However, in a sign of nerves, the government rushed this election forward one year ahead of schedule because Kazakhstan faces tremendous geopolitical and economic challenges ahead, caused in part by Russian aggression in Ukraine and the economic slowdown those actions have caused throughout the entire former Soviet Union. Holding an early election guarantees Nazarbayev is firmly re-ensconced before these changes lead to any socio-economic discontent. The real problem, however, is that this election just kicks problems down the road: Nazarbayev—who is 74 and has been in power since the Soviet era—has no clear successor when the need for generational change in the country’s political leadership looms large. 

Since the election was announced in February, the campaign period has been lackluster. His opponents are afterthoughts in state-affiliated media, which predicts “a massive victory for the incumbent.”  Nazarbayev has toured the country, opening metro stations, hospitals, and community centers. Parts of Kazakhstan have been devastated by spring floods—a natural disaster that Nazarbayev is using to highlight the state’s capacity to solve problems. He has assured voters the country’s emergency services have the matter under control, although some internet sites claim the water is moving towards his modern new capital of Astana. The floods are conspicuously absent from the homepage of the Astana Times. Just days before the election, it instead reported on hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan’s green energy agenda and polls that suggest the vast majority of its citizens believe the country is moving in the right direction. Nazarbayev’s campaign events, including the April 23 opening of the “People’s Assembly of Kazakhstan,” an annual gala highlighting the country’s multi-ethnic nature and promoting ethnic harmony, paint Nazarbayev  as a visionary dedicated to transforming Kazakhstan into one of the world’s most modern, competitive and peaceful economies.

Ukraine Complicates Everything

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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Despite all these campaign plaudits, Kazakhstan’s problems are numerous. For years, Nazarbayev has effectively promoted a “multi-vectored” foreign policy in which Kazakhstan has tried to balance its relations with Russia, China, and the West, while engaging regional powers from the Gulf to East Asia. Russia is by far Kazakhstan’s top security partner, but Europe is its number one trade and investment partner, followed by China. Having decent relations with the West is particularly important to Kazakhstan’s rising business class, which wants to preserve ties to Western institutions—particularly financial institutions that allow rich Kazakhstanis to move their money offshore. However, Russian aggression in Ukraine, particularly its zero-sum attitude towards Eurasian states looking westward, raises questions about Astana’s long-term ability to play this balancing game, as does the partial disengagement of the U.S. from the region as it scales back involvement in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan’s trilateral balancing act is becoming much more complicated.

Russia’s policies towards Ukraine, particularly its stated desire to protect the interests of ethnic Russians outside its borders and its willingness to meddle in the internal affairs of former Soviet states, also alienate Kazakhstan. While most of the attention in the Western media has been on the military and intelligence threats Moscow poses to the Baltic states (which are all NATO members), Russia’s actions against Ukraine have unnerved many in Kazakhstan—a country that has no guarantee of Western protection. Twenty-two percent of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnically Russian, the bulk of which live in the country’s north.  The country also shares a 4250-mile border with Russia, which is slightly larger than the continental border between the U.S. and Canada (minus Alaska). Some fear that the population of the north is particularly vulnerable to Russian propaganda, probably a legacy of the 1990s when separatist sentiment there was higher. In late 1999 and early 2000, for example, Kazakhstan jailed over 20 people, including 12 Russian citizens, over failed separatist plot in one of the larger regional cities in the north. Russia reportedly demanded extradition of its citizens involved in that plot, raising questions about its role in the whole affair.

Kazakhstan today is still sensitive to separatism. However, the biggest threat to the country’s integrity probably is more likely to come from within Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian community than from deliberate actions by the Russian government. This helps explain why a Kazakhstani court last year sentenced an ethnically Russian Kazakhstani citizen to five years in jail for having fought alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine. Another court convicted an ethnic Russian woman this year of “inciting hatred” after she made derogatory statements about Kazakhs and called for Kazakhstan to be incorporated into Russia. Concerns about separatism and Russian meddling in Kazakhstan are heightened when Russian politicians occasionally pander to nationalist sentiment at home by questioning the legitimacy of the Kazakh state or calling for parts of it to be subsumed into the Russian federation. Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped on this bandwagon briefly last summer when he essentially claimed in public that Kazakhstan was an artificial state, created by Nazarbaev, on “territory where no state ever existed previously.“ By highlighting Nazarbayev’s decisive role in creating and sustaining Kazakhstan as a state, Putin’s could be viewed as raising questions about Russia’s intentions after Nazarbayev is no longer in power. It is unlikely that Russia would actively try to destabilize Kazakhstan, as it is doing to Ukraine. Doing so would alienate one of its closest security partners and fellow Eurasian Union member. But Moscow certainly will do all it can to make sure that a decisively pro-Russian leader is installed in Astana once Nazarbayev leaves the scene.

The rationale for Putin’s actions is not always transparent, as the war with Ukraine suggest. Therefore, his comments about Kazakh statehood rightly unnerved Kazakhstani government officials. Nazarbayev responded late last fall by detailing elaborate celebrations to mark 550th anniversary of the Kazakh khanate in 2015—a clear effort to showcase a long history of Kazakh statehood. Nazarbayev, however, is an astute politician and is careful not to overdo it. When announcing the Kazakh khanate celebrations, he also highlighted Kazakhstan’s intention to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, underscoring that the “deeds of World War II are sacred to us and unite us.” Since the country gained independence in 1991, Nazarbayev has tried and generally succeeded in balancing the need to celebrate Kazakh heritage with messages of inclusivity and ethnic harmony. At a time when Ukrainian politicians are criticized by the Russian propaganda machine for trying to erase their country’s Soviet history, Nazarbayev’s decision to incorporate Kazakhstan’s World War II heritage is not only a smart move to preserve the country’s multicultural harmony, but also provides Kazakhstan protection from Russian chauvinists who complain about extreme nationalism and nationalist politicians in Ukraine and elsewhere.   

Complicated Economic Environment

This election is taking place at a time of growing economic difficulty in Kazakhstan. The country saw unprecedented growth over the past 15 years, riding largely on high oil prices and giving rise to an emerging middle class. Energy makes up about one-quarter of Kazakstan’s GDP, but low oil prices over the past year caused the government to lower its GDP growth forecast for 2015 from 4.5 percent to 1.5 percent.  The collapse of the ruble also makes Russian exports cheap, while Kazakhstan’s exports have become more expensive, a factor that led several large companies in Kazakhstan to cut salaries and production. Kazakhstan’s currency is overdue for devaluation and we should expect it to come after the election. Furthermore, other aspects of Russia’s economic troubles impact Kazakhstan. Western sanctions on the Russian financial sector likely are hurting Kazakhstan, in part because of the close ties between companies in both countries and the fact that Russian banks now have more limited resources and ability to lend to struggling Russian companies, not to mention those of other former Soviet states.

Finally, there is no love in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). It exists on paper and in highly publicized leaders’ summits, but Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) bucked Russian pressure last year to impose counter-sanctions on U.S. and European agricultural products—a move seemingly in line with Nazarbayev’s multi-vectored approach to foreign affairs. Nazarbayev has made clear Kazakhstan’s intention to leave the organization if it used by Russia to undermine Kazakhstan’s independence. In light of the ruble’s weakness, cheap Russian imports now are flooding across the border into Kazakhstan, hurting Kazakh manufacturers and agricultural producers. In March, Kazakhstan began pulling some Russian food products (meat, candy and butter, among other items) off the shelves of supermarkets.  They cited health concerns, but the real reason was because cheap Russian products undercut those produced in Kazakhstan. Russia’s food safety regulator Rospotrebnadzor—an agency the Kremlin regularly uses to block imports from the U.S. and Western-oriented former Soviet states—in turn blocked Kazakhstani dairy products and some produce in April for similar reasons. In effect, the economic relationship between the two most important EEU members has devolved into a trade war.  This is likely one of the reasons Nazarbayev for the most part has avoided discussing the EEU during his campaign. His comments at a recent youth forum focused not on that organization, but on his aspirations for Kazakhstan to join the ranks of the top 30 richest economies in the world, such as Western Europe, the U.S, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

Kazakhstan faces numerous political and economic challenges in the coming years. The political and economic elites (not to mention foreign investors) likely see Nazarbayev as the man who can steer Kazakhstan through the challenges and ensure the country’s stability. However, that attitude may turn out to be shortsighted because the most pressing threat to Kazakhstan’s stability may turn out to be Nazarbayev himself. He is an elderly man, particularly aged by the standards of the former Soviet Union, where life expectancies are short. He also reportedly suffers from cancer and has no clear successor. Nazarbayev will not be in office forever and it remains unclear whether the country’s next president—whoever it turns out to be—will be as skilled in balancing the country’s competing domestic and foreign policy interests.

  • Paul Stronski