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What Are Behind The Scenes Politics In Kazakhstan? – Analysis

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Speaking at a business forum in his hometown of St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that there would have been neither the ‘special military operation’, probably nor the annexation of Crimea, should the Ukrainian authorities have been behaving like the authorities in Nur-Sultan. This leads to the assumption that at the time two options were considered by the Kremlin to be viable for the future with regard to Ukraine, as well as Kazakhstan. The two options may be referred to as Plan A and Plan B. The first of them was most likely about treating them like allies consent to be Russia’s junior partners in case of their joining to such integration projects of Moscow as the EAEU and the CSTO; the second, considering them as unfriendly countries in the event of their refraining from joining to those Russian integration initiatives, as well as resorting to interventional means against them. Actually, how else can you explain those words by Vladimir Putin?! Yet the most important thing is now that political experts and journalists in Moscow are now starting to say Kazakhstan’s situation in terms of the interests of the Russian Federation should be placed on a par with that of Ukraine.

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Here is how State Duma Member Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman on the parliamentary committee for Russian nationals living outside the country, has tailored the above statement by Vladamir Putin to the context of the would-be prospective strategic plan for enlarging the Russian world area by the inclusion of the adjacent regions of Russia’s neighbors: “We say anywhere and everywhere the following: if what we’ve got here are friendship, cooperation and partnership, it would mean that there is no reason to fear territorial claims. And if not, then everything is possible. As is the case with Ukraine”. This was the Russian MP’s reaction to the words by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev about his nation’s refusing to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics. Konstantin Zatulin also recalled that in Kazakhstan, there are regions ‘with a predominantly Russian population’, which, according to him, have little to do with what was ‘called Kazakhstan’.

Another well-known Russian public personality, first state class adviser to the Russian Federation, editor in chief of Russian Regnum news agency, political analyst Modest Kolerov said that “Kazakh President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev , while visiting Russia, spat in the face of the hosting country’s head, insulted our DPR and LPR by referring to them both as ‘quasi-states’, expressly stated that his country won’t break international sanctions imposed against Russia” and “defiantly dismissed his dependence on the Russian Federation”. In a fit of pique, he even suggested that “Kazakhstan already does not recognize the territorial integrity of Russia and would not do so in future”.

It is evident from the foregoing that the Russian political, intellectual and media elites have been accustomed to see Kazakhstan as a sort of satellite State under the strict control of the Kremlin, as a kind of post-Soviet nation that would never dare make trouble for Moscow. That’s probably why their representatives feel upset and hurt now, after what Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. It seems accurate to say that this is an unprecedented case. The Kazakh high-ranking officials have ever said so many unpleasant things to the Russian leadership’s face before.

This brings to mind the words said by Peter Eltsov, a Washington based political analyst, back in 2015. Here they are: “Concerned with Russia’s neo-imperialist policies conducted under the pretext of defending the Russkii Mir (the Russian World), the Kazakhs may eventually turn away from Russia, particularly when the era of Nazarbaev ends. No doubt this will have political consequences, possibly involving a military conflict similar to what is happening in Ukraine”. Now, that time has come and the Kazakhs look as if they are going to turn away from Russia. At least, that is the way it appears to the Russian and Western observers. 

Another question is what consequences this may have. Judging from the recent events, they did not take long in coming. According to the Kommersant paper, effective this week, Russian officials ‘will intermittently shut down the marine terminal’ – that handles two thirds of Kazakhstan’s oil exports – ‘for the safe removal of large quantities of potential WWII ordnance’. Whether or not the shutdown is needed for safety, its timing has, in fact, cast a shadow of doubt concerning the real reason for such a measure. The partial shutdown of Kazakhstan’s key oil export terminal follows just three days after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that his nation would not recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. ‘Thereafter, it became known’, as the UNIAN agency reports, ‘that Kazakhstan had suspended the transit traffic of Russian coal’.

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It would be interesting to know whether those two measures are interconnected and the latter has actually been taken in response to the former one. Yet people making such presumptions are unlikely to point out the facts to support those allegations. Russia has not yet begun a war of words over Kazakhstan’s new pro-Western course at the official level. Besides this, Moscow and Nur-Sultan still remain careful not to say anything that might be regarded as an evidence of deterioration in relations between them. But the same cannot be said about Russian MPs, political experts and media celebrities, and for quite some time now. 

It has now become customary in their midst to speak of the need to intervene militarily in the Republic of Kazakhstan. To mention just one example: Regnum.ru, in an article entitled ‘Nazarbayev may become leader of independent Northern Kazakhstan’, quoted Anton Bredikhin, scientific director of the Center for ethnic and international studies and editor-in-chief of the Archon magazine, as saying the following: “The CSTO forces should return to their January positions in Kazakhstan… We can’t rule out the possibility that Nazarbayev would be among the [would-be] signatories of a new Union State which is planned to be set up with the participation of Russia, Belarus, the liberated territories of Ukraine, the DPR and the LPR, as well as Transdniestria [also called Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublika and Pridnestrovie, separatist enclave in Moldova, located on the east bank of the Dniester River], Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is quite possible that he will lead Northern Kazakhstan. As for Tokayev, he is moving too dangerously and he, despite his diplomatic experience, has a short memory”.

Some circles inside the Russian political, intellectual and media elites apparently are hatching plans to seize the Northern region of Kazakhstan and incorporate it into the Community of Russia and Belarus which is being created by Moscow and Minsk.

They are revolted by a situation where Kazakhstan is now not only strictly complying with the Western sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, but also, as the Vzglyad business newspaper notes, ‘helping the economy of Russia’s worst enemies, the Baltic countries’ and continuing to be the largest supplier of oil to Lithuania, which just has cut off transit between Russia and its Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad.  

Anyway, one cannot but notice how today the Kazakh economic and political interests are being increasingly seen as diverging from the Russian ones. So it appears that Kazakhstan is becoming more and more at odds with one of the two key external forces playing an important role in providing political and even military support to the Kazakh ruling regime. Well, let’s figure out what all of that means.

In the English-language press, there are sometimes comparisons of the policies of the Western powers in Ukraine and those of Moscow in Kazakhstan with the actions of those who are called ‘kingmakers’. It seems to us that this fails to take into account one thing. And that is that not only the Kremlin, but also the West, assumed the ‘king-making’ functions in Kazakhstan. Our guess is that obvious signs of the consistently favorable attitude by both Moscow and the Western capitals towards the Kazakh regime are exactly what contribute significantly to the stability of its rule for many years. And Kazakhstan has been and is being ruled by the elites of the Senior (Southern) zhuz. An implied right of that regime to rule the country for a prolonged period or indefinitely is secured by, among other things, the informal consent initially received from Moscow and the West – the two power center with the greatest impact on the Kazakh politics and economy – to support its status as such in exchange for obligations to ensure the protection of their often mutually conflicting interests in the Kazakh context. 

Official Nur-Sultan, on the one hand, has guaranteed and will continue to guarantee the invariability of conditions for the implementation of capital investments and the conduct of business in the performance of the contracts concluded with Western transnational corporations at the dawn of Kazakhstan’s independence. On the other hand, the current Kazakh leadership remains committed to supporting all of Moscow’s integration initiatives in the post-Soviet space. It therefore appears that Kazakhstan continues to be both a pro-Moscow and a pro-Western country even in a situation where the confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West reaches its climax. And one may not like that, but it’s true. Here are a couple of pieces of evidence in support of this allegation. Not so long ago, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed that ‘during the 44-day Patriotic War’ [an armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh], official Nur-Sultan had allowed Russia to supply weapons to Armenia via Kazakhstani territory, despite official Baku’s request to the Kazakh authorities not to do that. Specifically, he said: “We have sent a letter to the Caspian littoral states to ban Russian cargo planes with weapons bound for Armenia from flying over their territories. On this occasion, we turned to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. But, unfortunately, these territories were used to transport weapons to Armenia”. The same days, the Russian media outlets reported that ‘the fuel currently being used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, comes from Kazakhstan through Romania’. Those allegations have never yet been disproved by the Kazakh authorities.

All of this is on one side of the scales. On the other side of the scales is provision of support to the ruling regime of the Republic of Kazakhstan and, accordingly, to the maintenance of peace and stability in Kazakhstan – by both the Russian Federation and the West at the same time. Well, yes, it is true that there was an attempt to destabilize the situation in January. But it apparently was due not to an external challenge to the ruling clan, but rather to the emergence of contradictions within those same elites. There probably was a lot of concern in Moscow and, say, in Ankara, until the situation in Kazakhstan had been clarified. This presumably explains numerous media appearances by foreign experts in early January in which they began to publicly unveil and vociferously criticize the Senior zhuz elites monopoly rule in Kazakhstan. But shortly after order was completely restored, all conversation in foreign media concerning the Kazakhstani practice of political tribalism ground to a halt.

Now everything looks as though none of this happened. The point, apparently, here is, on the one hand, that now, after the leadership of Kazakhstan turned to the CSTO for help last winter, the Kremlin ‘makes it clear that Russia is ready to continue to support its neighbor’, that is, the Kazakh ruling regime, currently represented at the highest level only by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev; and, on the other hand, the incumbent Kazakh president dispelled Ankara’s and the West’s fears about his presumed inclination for an increasing rapprochement to Moscow by stating that Turkey is ‘an extremely important strategic partner’ for Kazakhstan, as well as by expressing his country’s readiness to expand and improve the transport links and communications with the West across the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus, which means bypassing the Russian Federation. In the light of the foregoing, the question of why the numerous January claims, say, in the Russian media about those distortionary practices of political tribalism in the Republic of Kazakhstan no longer arises.

The same could be said on the issue of the Senior (Southern) zhuz representatives’ dominance and the Junior (Western) zhuz representatives’ almost complete absence among the highest ranking officials in State administration. A greater irony is that since the January 2022 unrest, decisions have been and are being adopted to make the above kinds of imbalances become even more striking. Thus, before the January events, two out of the five highest state leadership positions established by the Constitution, had been occupied by people from Southern Kazakhstan (the Senior zhuz) represented by  Kassym-Jomart Tokayev  (President) and Maulen Ashimbayev (Speaker of Parliament’s upper chamber, designated as first in the presidential line of succession); the next two (in ranking them in order of importance) by people from Northern, Central and Eastern Kazakhstan (the Middle zhuz) represented by Nurlan Nigmatulin (Speaker of Parliament’s lower chamber, designated as second in the presidential line of succession) and Askar Mamin (Prime Minister, designated as third in the presidential line of succession); and the last one, by a person from Western Kazakhstan (the Junior zhuz) in the face of Krymbek Kusherbayev (State Secretary).

Since then, there have been made significant changes at the top of the Olympus of Kazakh state power. Representatives from South Kazakhstan now hold four of those five highest state leadership positions.  These are: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev  (President), Maulen Ashimbayev (Speaker of Parliament’s upper chamber), Alikhan Smailov (Prime Minister) and Erlan Karin (State Secretary, State Counselor). The fifth, that of the Speaker of Parliament’s lower chamber, is now occupied by Yerlan Koshanov, a representative from Northern, Central and Eastern Kazakhstan (the Middle zhuz). For the first time since independence, Western Kazakhstan, which, due to its oil and gas industry, constitutes the cornerstone of the State’s economy and subsidizes all other regions of the country as the main donor, remains totally unrepresented in state leadership positions.

Only 18 per cent of the provinces are the donors in Kazakhstan. These are the provinces of Atyrau and Mangystau, the cities of Nur-Sultan and Almaty. Almost 90 per cent of the provinces are in need of help from the national budget. These include all five provinces of Southern Kazakhstan and all eight provinces of Northern, Central and Eastern Kazakhstan (three of which have just recently been established by President Tokayev). But it is their representatives rather than Western Kazakhstan’s politicians who hold all of the highest state leadership positions, leaving the latter ones with nothing. Up until recently, the post of State Secretary, the least important of the five highest state leadership positions established by the Constitution, was kind of designated to be held by people from the Junior zhuz. Now it, too, is occupied by a representative of South Kazakhstan. This is how the Kazakh ruling regime have answered to a Russian media initiative on promoting the topic “The country is commanded by the Senior Zhuz, whereas the people of the Junior zhuz are working,” and “their leaders believe that this is unfair, because oil and gas are on their traditional land, while people from Alma-Ata are in command”. And there is nothing more to be said about it.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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