The Moscow Times newspaper, citing a Kazakh source, recently wrote that ‘China has for the first time surpassed Russia to become the top trade partner of Kazakhstan’ in 2022. It seems likely that the meaning here is that Astana has for the first time officially acknowledged China’s leadership among Kazakhstan’s trade partners. Since, judging from earlier published data, it occurred back in 2010. In that year, the volume of Russia-Kazakhstan trade amounted to $ 15.140 billion, and that of China and Kazakhstan, according to the then Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, exceeded $20 billion.
Either way, this is now a fact. And it, among other things, kind of marks the beginning of what was described by Oleg Maslov and Alexander Prudnik, well-known Russian political experts, as ‘Kazakhstan plus China minus Russia’. Their article entitled ‘Kazakhstan at the beginning of the 21st century is like Poland prior to 1939. Partition of Kazakhstan, or the new Molotov-Ribbentrop plan’ appeared on Polit.nnov.ru January 30, 2007. It said: “It is impossible for Russia to not take into account the Chinese interests in Kazakhstan in building mutually beneficial relations with China. This is reality. Are there Russian interests in Kazakhstan? Of course, there are. What does Kazakhstan represent today? Kazakhstan of the beginning of the 21th century is woven from PR like no other ex-Soviet State”. Oleg Maslov and Alexander Prudnik then added: “Kazakhstan appears to the world as an oasis of well-being and prosperity. Such a positive picture of the country has been created by intellect of the Russian political technologists and PR people who had found no application for their talents in Russia”. Starting from such characteristics, they put the question this way: “Will that PR State be able to withstand actual challenges?”
According to them, the formula called ‘Kazakhstan plus China minus Russia’ seems to be ‘a universal formula for understanding what is going on in Kazakhstan’. “In our country, many continue to pretend that they do not notice Kazakhstan’s going into the Chinese sphere of influence.The danger for Russia lies not only in the possibility of Kazakhstan’s leaving the Common Economic Space (now the EAEC – the Eurasian Economic Community).., but also in its foreign policy’s possible refocusing on the ‘minus Russia’ format”, they wrote. The worry is, as it appears from their piece, that Kazakhstan, while trying to play its own game, might ‘become a part of the new structure that would allow the Euro-Atlantic structures to control Eurasia from within’.
As of January 2007, the topic of dividing Kazakhstan, according to Oleg Maslov and Alexander Prudnik, “already went beyond the ‘closed clubs’ and is now being discussed within a narrow circle of the Russian expert community”. Three things, so far as could be guessed from the context of their article, seemed to be necessary for those discussing this topic in Russia to raise the question of launching its practical implementation: 1. proof of translating the ‘Kazakhstan plus China minus Russia’ format into action; 2. the appearance of a real aggressor vis-à-vis Russia and revealing that China really is an important ally of Moscow in its confrontation with the ‘collective’ West; 3. the reorientation of Kazakhstan toward the West and the potential laying of pipelines across the Caspian seabed to Baku. All of them already seem to be – in one form or another – present today.
Does this mean that Moscow will come up to Beijing with a far-reaching project concerning Kazakhstan, similar to what the USSR and Germany accomplished in Poland in 1939? In fact, this is a very difficult question, because definitely to answer is impossible, because nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind. Two years ago, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine seemed completely impossible too, right?!
It is worth recalling that since the collapse of the USSR, in Russia, there have always been calls aimed at tearing away a part of the territory of Kazakhstan. Let us now compare what had been said earlier with what was said lately. Here is what Oleg Maslov and Alexander Prudnik exactly did propose in 2007: “The crucial question today is about where the line of division of Kazakhstan between Russia and China will be drawn. It is extremely important for China to have access to the Caspian Sea, so one can predict that the new border between Russia and China will pass along the Emba River at the 47th parallel north. The partition of Kazakhstan along the Emba River and at 48th parallel north is unacceptable for Russia because of Baikonur [cosmodrome]. Other, more flexible partition configurations are possible as well. Everything depends on mutual agreements between the leaderships of China and Russia”.
Yes, it’s been a long time since the appearance of the above article. However, it would be naive to believe that its authors have been the only ones with this attitude towards the future of Kazakhstan. Anyway, their idea has fallen on fertile ground and taken good root in Russia.
Here is a recent example of this. Eadaily, in an article by Albert Hakobyan (Urumov) entitled ‘Who did give the go-ahead for the “the Russian question” to be finally resolved’, said: “The main strategic task [for Kazakhstan] set by Tokayev is as follows: “We must ensure the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan through the completion of the construction of a mono-ethnic state”. In other words: “Get away from Moscow!”… So, there are two options for Russia. The first is to move the actual state border of the Russian Federation moving southward [at the expense of Kazakhstan] as far as possible – along the line: ‘Balkhash – Baikonur – Bekdash’. The second is to federalize Kazakhstan through the creation of two super-regions – ‘the Northern’ and ‘the South’ along the line ‘Ural – Ishim – Irtysh”.
As you can see, Baikonur is mentioned in that case, too. There are a lot of such statements lately, and they are appearing regularly in the Russian media. There seem to be some projects behind all this, developed by the Russian strategists, which provide Moscow’s interference in Kazakhstan’s territories.
This course of events is largely reminiscent of what happened with Ukraine. The only difference is that Kyiv has been accused by the Kremlin’s mouthpieces of having closer relations with the West, and Astana is now suspected by them of having increasingly closer links with Beijing and Ankara, to the detriment of its attachment to Moscow. The latter idea is now being promoted even by well-known Russian opposition figures, such as Gennady Gudkov and Igor Strelkov, the former FSB officers.
The question is: what should we in Kazakhstan expect from Moscow?