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The Crimea Model: Will Russia Annex the Northern Region of Kazakhstan?

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Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula was unlawfully annexed by referendum arranged by pro-Russian separatists backed by Russia. President Putin denies the annexation was politically motivated and driven by Soviet-reunification desires, but rather driven by the need to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

The swift annexation of Crimea has many former Soviet states worrying they might be next. Outside of Ukraine, multiple pro-Russian breakaway republics such as Transdnestr in Moldova, the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Georgian Republic welcome Russian rule to achieve and secure their independence. Kazakhstan is a prime candidate for annexation of its Northern region, where there is a high concentration of ethnic Russians residing.

The situation in Crimea provides for a new international affairs model, the Crimea Model, which serves as a blueprint for Russian political and imperial ambitions in the Former Soviet Union. The Crimea Model is based on the recent events in Crimea, where a larger and more powerful state violates the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of a smaller nation as a result of political motivations, but disguises its actions as being motivated by humanitarian or “protectionist” reasons. As a result, the targeted territory within a country or a full country itself was annexed or given a more autonomous self-determination status favoring Russia. There are multiple mandatory conditions of the Crimea Model: deep historical and social linkages, a triggering political event, a willing population to submit to the annexing country (Russia), and the perception the population’s well-being will be improved. There must also be a large ethnic Russian population (relative to) concentrated in one geographic area, Russian-speaking ethnic Russians who are aggressive and nationalistic, perceptions of discrimination among ethnic Russians, a weak government that cannot govern, and poor social conditions. The population that wishes to be controlled and governed by Russia is most likely suffering from a culture and identity crisis, as the population is torn between historic and current social identities.

The Russian policy of protecting Russians abroad is not new. In 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin, proposed that ethnic Russians be granted special status where “national minorities” would be guaranteed full citizenship rights within the new Former Soviet Republics (Erlanger 1993, par. 10). This policy, the Karaganov Doctrine—named after Yeltsin’s advisor Sergei Karaganov—allowed Russia to justify intervention in the former Soviet Republics based on poor treatment of ethnic Russians. This was a proposal precipitated by claims of discrimination and the proposal was heavily rejected for concerns about nationalism, expansionism and territorial integrity, chauvinism, and xenophobia (Erlanger 1993, par.  4). Worthy of note, Kazakh President Nazarbayev was quoted at the time as saying that the Kazakhstan Constitution does not allow for violations of Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity. During the 1990s, Russia was unable to implement the Karaganov Doctrine due to an unpredictable political and economic situation, but with increased economic growth, a more assertive foreign policy and a cautious West, Russia now can implement this policy and claim exclusive interest in the region again.

The situation in Crimea resulted from a combination of factors separate from the EuroMaidan protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych which allowed Putin to evoke the Karaganov Doctrine. In Crimea, there is a large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population; Russian military presence in Sevastopol; increased tensions between the Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and ethnic Russians; and poor territorial governance and social problems which made Ukraine vulnerable.  Crimea is the only part of Ukraine that has political autonomy, which was granted by the Ukrainian Constitution. Crimea has its own Constitution, Parliament, and its own Prime Minister who is approved by the President of Ukraine.  According to a 2001 census, 58% of the two million population of Crimea are ethnic Russian, and 24% are Ukrainians. A December 2008 public poll conducted by Razumkov Center, a Kiev think tank, asked, “With which cultural tradition do you associate yourself?”: 55.5% of those polled identified themselves as Russian and 8.3% as Ukrainian (Razumkov Center 2008, chart).  In a 2009 study conducted by the same group, 32% of Crimeans did not consider Ukraine to be their home country, 48% would like to change their citizenship mostly to Russian, and 63% would like for Crimea to join Russia (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 3). This could be the result of the Ukrainian government failing to incorporate Crimea “fully into Ukraine’s political and social context” (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 4).

Kazakhstan-Russian Relations

Kazakh-Russian relations were not harmonious during the period of 1980-1990 (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 257). The 1980s were marred by ethnic conflicts and nationalism, discriminatory laws, unequal representation in governing bodies, and Kazakh-based favoritism reversing Russification by “policies and processes [that] have the objective of redefining multinational Kazakhstan into a [singular cultural] Kazakh State” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 262, 257, 258).  The Kazakh nationalist policy was focused on securing Kazakhstan’s independence, the return of Kazakh lands to the Kazakh people, and the establishment of Kazakh religious and language rights (Smagulova 2006, 307). At this time, Russians were still the majority in Kazakhstan, but were also the “political, cultural, and social elite” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 306).

Post-Soviet Kazakh-Russian relations were also heavily influenced by the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States as there was great concern over economic ties and “this period saw concerted efforts to establish a new model for bilateral economic and political co-operation” (Vinokurov 2010, 2). Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev was interested in keeping the effects of the Soviet collapse contained and renewing relations with Russia and the Former Soviet Republics to preserve a stable internal political situation, to protect Kazakh interests, and to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Kazakhstan considered itself the “Eurasia bridge” which defined Kazakh relations with Russia and the region, arguably from 1991 until today (Vinokurov 2010, 2). These ideals have been the cornerstone of President Nazarbayev’s regional and his “multi-vector” foreign policy.

Between 2009 and 2014, Russia and Kazakhstan developed a closer economic relationship due to an increased focus on energy policy and energy relations. One common theme throughout Kazakh-Russian relations is increased economic integration, with Kazakhstan taking a proactive approach by proposing new initiatives. After 2000, Nazarbayev began a shift towards Russia, most likely due to changes in Russian leadership (when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister), which was described as more “pragmatic, capable of achieving tangible results, and determined to restore Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space” (Vinokurov 2010, 6). The bilateral relationship branched off into other areas of integration, including political and security-based relationships, which have continued to enhance the bilateral relationship.

Kazakhstan and the Crimea Model

The current situation in Kazakhstan does not meet all of the criteria for the Crimea Model. However, Putin’s recent rhetoric and the heightened fear of a possible land grab put Kazakhstan at risk. The main condition of the Crimea Model that places Kazakhstan at risk is Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian population. Kazakhstan has the largest ethnic Russian population in the Former Soviet Union, 25% of a 17.6 million population. The 1954 ‘Virgin Lands Campaign’ program relocated two million Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian persons to Kazakhstan, which caused Kazakhstan’s non-Kazakh population to skyrocket (Peyrouse 2008, 2).

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the trend reversed. Russians emigrated out of Kazakhstan because of a declining standard of living, policies of Kazakhization, and a bleak future for Russian youth, poor educational opportunities, and loss of identity with the new Kazakhstan. In 1997, only 20% of Russians in Kazakhstan identified with the new post-Soviet Kazakhstan (Peyrouse 2008, 22). In a 1998 poll, “13.2% of Slavs [stated] that there [were] conscious efforts to support one ethnic group and exclude the other” meaning that Kazakhs were favored (Smagulova 2006, 304).

Kazakhstan lost half a million people during the 1970s (the Virgin Lands Campaign ended) and in the 1980s, “Kazakhstan lost an additional 784,000 people (between 60,000 and 85,000 each year)” and experienced a negative migratory outflow: for every 1,000 that settled, 1,256 left (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Between 1989 and 1999, the Russian population decreased from 6 million to 4.5 million “with an average departure per year of 150,000 individuals” (Peyrouse 2008, 6). In the 1990s, emigrating Russians came from the southern and western areas and these regions lost approximately 35% of their population: Astana lost 24%, Northern Kazakhstan lost 20%, and the Karaganda region lost 19% of its population (Peyrouse 2008, 4). By 2000, “migration from Kazakhstan alone constituted more than 28% of the internal migration in former Soviet territory” (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Currently, Russians have considerable populations in the North Kazakhstan Province (48.5% in 2006), Pavlodar Region (38.26% in 2007), Akmola Region (36.5% Russians in 2009), Kostanay Region (28.6% in 2009), and central Karagandy Region (39.17% in 2010).  

Even though Kazakhstan and Russia share a 300 year long history, they do not share deep strategic, military, and cultural historical linkages. The Kazakh-Russian relationship has been based on economics, natural resources, integration, and cooperation, whereas the Russia-Crimea relationship is rooted in war. In Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet is stationed at Sevastopol and gives the Russians naval access to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the ability to counter the NATO and American presence in the region. Kazakhstan holds more economic value than military value. Russia and Kazakhstan do share Baikonur Cosmodrome which is used to launch Russia’s Proton-M rockets. Russia and Kazakhstan shared multiple memberships in regional organizations including the CIS, the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the economic-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) to come into force in January 2015. The CSTO and the SCO are to act as a political-military counterweight to the European Union and NATO. The CSTO and SCO organizations have held military exercises to combat terrorism, extremism, separatism better known as the three evils among its member-states.

Russia’s desire to maintain a positive relationship with Kazakhstan comes from its wish to be an energy superpower. Russia has repeatedly taken advantage of Kazakhstan to maintain influence over Kazakh energy assets since there is growing competition from China and European entities. The “Kazakh oil is now transported mainly through Russian territory via old Soviet pipelines…as well as via the new [CPC] system [formed in 1992] (Tengiz-Novorossisk)” (Kazantsev 2008, 1085). The pipelines are old, decrepit, could cause environmental problems if they burst, and are costly to repair (Kuniholm 2000, 553). The instability of Russian energy politics and its “energy arrogance” has driven Kazakhstan to seek other energy partners, including “long-term partnerships with major international oil companies…which will enable [Kazakhstan] to exploit [their] natural resources effectively” (Kazantsev 2008, 1086, 1087). Russia has focused on blocking Western access to gas and oil to reduce competition and “in Central Asia, Russia has carried out the task of neutralizing alternatives to pro-Russian projects of integration in the post-Soviet space” (Kazantsev 2008, 1087).

Russian separatist tendencies existed in the past but dissolved due to Kazakhstan’s progressive policies of tolerance and inclusiveness. The Kazakh government has made the effort to fully integrate Russians in political and social life. The Russian language is still dominant in Kazakhstan, and is recognized as an official language, but not a national or state language.  Kazakhstan annually celebrates Slavic Orthodox Christmas. Russians also enjoy political and linguistic rights as granted by the Kazakh Constitution. There are even symbols of Russian and Kazakh cooperation: a plaque equating Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian author) and Chokan Valikhanov (a leading Kazakh historian and intellectual) stands in Petropavlovsk, a bi-cultural symbol in Kazakhstan, and a monument honoring the poets Alexander Pushkin and Abai Kunanbaev stands in the city (Kucera 2014, par. 7).

In the past, the process of Kazakhization alienated many Russians which increase Russian resentment. Many groups were interested in annexing Northern Kazakhstan, including Russian nationalists and the Cossacks, and beginning in 1992, the “organizations were denied registration or had their registration revoked for engaging in anti-state or pro-separatist demonstrations” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 268).  Nationalists also formed the “Organization for the Autonomy of Eastern Kazakhstan” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 267). Viktor Kazimirchuk, the leader of the separatist group “Rus,” was convicted by the Kazakhstan Government in 2000; the group wanted Russia to incorporate the border town Oskemen into Russian territory (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 5). His efforts were silently supported from Moscow. Kazimirchuk was released in 2006 and in 2007, Kazimirchuk stated that there was discrimination against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in East Kazakhstan Oblast mirroring rhetoric that led to the annexation of Crimea (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 26, par. 28). However, there have been no indications among ordinary Russian citizens that they would like to see Northern Kazakhstan annexed. Seventy percent of ethnic Russians in Petropavlovsk acknowledge that the land does belong to Kazakhs (Kucera 2014, par. 4). No ethnic minority has made serious claims to the Kazakh homeland because they have their own, which tends to be either their ancestral homeland or for ethnic Russians, the Soviet Union itself (Smagulova 2006, 306). Russians in Kazakhstan had political rights and would explain the lack of collective political action or protests by Russian minorities in Kazakhstan.

Adding to Kazakhstan’s worries, Russian nationalist and the leader of the LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has claimed that Kazakhstan needs to be examined like Ukraine in terms of nationalism. Zhirinovsky supported the annexation of Crimea and seems to entertain the thought of annexing Kazakhstan. In February 2014, Zhirinovsky called for the creation of a “Central Asian Federal Region” with the capital as “Verny” (the former Russian name for Almaty); he made similar remarks in 2005.

The security situation in Kazakhstan remains stable despite the rise of Islamic extremism in Central Asia in recent decades. In response, Central Asia governments have become more repressive which has only aggravated the situation. There are multiple terrorist and extremist groups in Central Asia, such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a pan-Sunni Islamic group), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Soldiers of the Caliphate (Kazakhstan), and China’s East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Uyghur-based). There are also several Uyghur separatist groups in Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan Regional Uyghur Organizations, Kazakh Uyghur Unity (Ittipak) Association, and the Uyghurstan Freedom Association (Cheung 2004, 999). There is also the threat from Russia’s North Caucasus, the return of radical jihadi fighters from the Middle East conflicts, and external sources of radicalization.

The unexpected death of President Nazarbayev could trigger unrest as Kazakhstan does not have a Presidential secession plan. Nazarbayev, who is currently 73, has no intention of leaving the presidency. According to Kazakh government officials, he is in good health, despite reports of hospitalization and fewer TV appearances. A succession crisis is unlikely, but if “Nazarbayev begins to lose his ability to manage intra-elite competition in the country,” which is built on “a broad-based economic [base], with significant capacity, financial resources, and political ambitions,” one might occur (Roberts 2012, 2). The dramatic political change could endanger the Russia-Kazakhstan relationship as the new leader might cut Russia out of Kazakhstan’s affairs and trigger a more aggressive nationalist movement, which may result in a drastic change in ethnic equality in the Kazakhs’ favor provoking a Crimea-like response from Russia.

Another concern is growing Kazakh-based nationalism is backlash against Russian-Kazakh integration represented by anti-Russian integration protests in Kazakhstan. Participants in the April 2014 Anti-Eurasia Forum meeting led by ethnic Kazakhs recognized that Kazakhstan will suffer more since it is the weakest among the three member-states (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 8).. The Anti-Eurasia Forum called the EaEU the “axis of dictators,” and claimed that “Eurasianism is a new form of colonization by Russia” (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 9).

After the Crimea annexation, the Kazakh government “announced that it intended to introduce laws punishing ‘illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan by up to 10 years in prison’ ” (Kucera 2014, par. 22). Similar to Russian legislation, Kazakhstan has also promised to provide citizenship to Kazakh oralmans (Kazakh for “returnee”) outside of Kazakhstan. In March 2014, there was an order that required oralmans to settle in “Akmola, Atyrau, West-Kazakhstan, Kostanay, Pavlodar, North-Kazakhstan, and East-Kazakhstan provinces”; all but Atyrau and Akmola border Russia and the required areas have high ethnic Russian populations (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 19-20). There Kazakhstan government has tried to resettle ethnic Kazakhs to restore the ethnic balance in its northern region and to make ethnic Kazakhs a majority.

Russia has attempted to repeat history by again introducing legislation in March 2014 that would grant Russian citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russia, “and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union” (Trilling 2014, par. 1). The legislation would require the new Russian citizens to waive their citizenship of their current country of residence, but would not force immigration (Trilling 2014, par. 4). This would create a situation where a concentrated number of citizens of one country would live inside the geographic area of another country, potentially creating an enclave of Russians in Kazakhstan or triggering an intra-state conflict. It is unclear if the legislation would provide ethnic Russians abroad with national minority status. If ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan were granted special status that would guarantee them more rights than Kazakh citizens in Kazakhstan and this would provoke unrest. This legislation failed and such a move shows that Russia is serious about protecting ethnic Russians abroad and about expansionism.

Putin’s rhetoric in late August about Kazakhstan’s statehood does increase Kazakhstan’s chances of being annexed. President Putin made strong and chilling comments about Kazakhstan’s status of a state. Putin’s comments at the Seliger Youth Forum— answering a question about Kazakh nationalism in southern Kazakhstan— sends the message to his loyal political partner and friend, President Nazarbayev, that Kazakhstan was not a state until it was annexed into the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan needs to remain under the Russian sphere of influence, and Kazakhstan’s cannot survive without Nazarbayev. Essentially, Putin was essentially labeling Kazakhstan’s independence as an experiment in statehood and that Kazakhstan will remain a state as long as it remains loyal to Russia.

In response to Putin’s remarks, President Nazarbayev said they will withdraw from the EaEU if Kazakhstan’s independence is threatened. When the agreement for the EaEU was signed, Nazarbayev firmly stated that the organization will not threaten Kazakhstan’s independence. From Putin’s remarks, it can be extrapolated that Nazarbayev embodies Kazakhstan’s statehood, that Kazakhstan will not exist once Nazarbayev leaves, and that Kazakhstan and its people will need to be taken care of (by Putin). Hopefully, these remarks will force the Kazakhstan government to either hold elections or develop a succession plan for Nazarbayev even if it means undercutting Nazarbayev’s power. Withdrawing from the EaEU might provoke a Crimea-like response from Russia.

Compared to Crimea, the annexation of Northern Kazakhstan (and subsequent governance) would be easier for Russia as Russia has direct access to the Kazakh-Russia border and the ethnic Russian population is concentrated in the north. The hypothetical annexation of northern Kazakhstan would be more beneficial and economical than the annexation of Crimea. To keep access to Crimea, a land-bridge across the Kerch Strait has been proposed but would cost an estimated $4.3 billion (150 million rubles).

If Kazakhstan chose not to cooperate with Russia, it would be held hostage by Russia’s foreign policy. After Crimea was annexed, Kazakhstan was left with no other option than to cooperate with Russian plans for integration and agreement with Russia and Putin’s policies is a way for Kazakhstan to maintain its territorial integrity. Putin’s comments about Kazakhstan’s independence may force Kazakhstan to sacrifice some of its relationships with Western institutions and organizations such as NATO and the OSCE. If Kazakhstan were to express desires to become a full NATO member or choose to make all of their energy agreements with China or the EU, this would most likely provoke Russian action. Nazarbayev’s remarks about Kazakhstan leaving the EaEU might trigger a diplomatic row and shift Kazakhstan away from Russia. Russia has political and economic leverage in the region and over Kazakhstan as Putin has exploited Nazarbayev’s desires for regional integration.

If Kazakhstan were to be annexed or experience a pro-Russian uprising facilitated by ethnic Russians backed by Russia, Kazakhstan would be the biggest loser. If the West is not willing to go to war for the Ukraine, it surely will not go to war for Kazakhstan.

Anceschi, Luca and Paolo Sorbello. 2014.  Kazakhstan and the EEU: the rise of Eurasian skepticism. Open Democracy. http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/vadzim-smok/belarus-and-eeu-caught-between-rock-and-hard-place (last accessed July 11, 2014).

Cheung, Chien-peng. 2004. The Shanghai Co-operation Organization: China’s changing influence in Central Asia. The China Quarterly, no. 180 (December) : 989-1009.

Erlanger, Steven. 1993. Ex-Soviet lands rebuff Yeltsin on protecting Russians abroad. December 25, 1993. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/25/world/ex-soviet-lands-rebuff-yeltsin-on-protecting-russians-abroad.html (last accessed July 2, 2014).

Kaiser, Robert and Jeff Chinn. 1995. Russia-Kazakh relations in Kazakhstan. Post Soviet Geography 36, no. 5 : 257-273.

Kazantsev, Andrei. 2008. Russian policy in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region. Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 6 : 1073-1088.

Kucera, Joshua. 2014. North Kazakhstan isn’t the next Crimea — yet. Al-Jazeera America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/19/north-kazakhstanisntthenextcrimeaayet.html (last accessed July 8, 2014).

Kuniholm, Bruce R. 2000. The geopolitics of the Caspian Basin. Middle East Journal 54, no. 4 (Autumn) : 546-571.

Pannier, Bruce and Karabek, Yerzhan. 2014. A tale of Russian separatism in Kazakhstan. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). http://www.rferl.org/content/qishloq-ovozi-kazakhstan-russian-separatism/25479571.html (last accessed September 12, 2014).

Peyrouse, Sebastien. 2008. The Russian minority in Central Asia: Migration, politics, and language. Occasional paper #297. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/OP297_russian_minority_central_asia_peyrouse_2008.pdf (last accessed August 2, 2014).

Razumkov Centre. N.d. With which cultural tradition do you associate yourself?  Razumkov Centre Web Site. http://www.razumkov.org.ua/eng/poll.php?poll_id=394 (last accessed June 28, 2014).

Roberts, Sean R. 2012.  Resolving Kazakhstan’s Unlikely Succession Crisis. PONARS, Eurasia Policy Memo, no. 231. http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/pepm_231_Roberts_Sept2012.pdf (last accessed July 5, 2014).

Shapovalova, Natalia and Balazs Jarabik. 2009. Crimea: Next flashpoint in the European neighborhood? Fundacion Para Las Relaciones Internacionales Y El Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE). Policy Brief no. 14. www.fride.org/descarga/pb14_crimea-flash_point_eng_jul09.pdf (last accessed June 29, 2014).

Trilling, David. 2014. Amid Crimea crisis, Russia proposes expanding citizenship in Ex-USSR.
EurasiaNet.org. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/68112 (last accessed August 1, 2014).
United States Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2013. Kazakhstan. http://www.eia.gov/countries/analysisbriefs/Kazakhstan/kazakhstan.pdf (last accessed June 26, 2014).

Vinokurov, Evgeny. 2010. The Evolution of Kаzakhstan’s position on relations with Russia in 1991-2010. Eurasia Development Bank. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/22187/ (last accessed August 1, 2014).

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Tokayev’s Second Republic and its future

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Since Tokayev’s assumption of presidential office in March 2019 and election in June the same year, there have not been many changes so far, although he has been promising large scale political reforms. President Tokayev has even coined the term of “Listening State” which means a state that listens to the complaints of its citizens and considers them. Till the tragic January events of 2022, it was felt that despite being the Head of State, President Tokayev did not exercise his authority fully. There was a deep belief of Nazarbayev still ruling the country. It was natural since Nazarbayev was the chairman of the security council of the country and was de-facto power holder. President Tokayev had to align all his policies with the chairman of the security council with Nazarbayev. Furthermore, President Tokayev has inherited the immense state apparatus with old members who were cronies of his predecessor.

This year started with massive unrest in the western regions of Kazakhstan and spread later to other regions, ipso facto state of emergency was declared in most part of the country. Twofold increase of gas price fuelled people’s anger and for people of oil-producing country it was beyond comprehension. Protestors were demanding the Government to take control over gas prices, however later economic demands grew to social and political ones. In his messages to the population, President Tokayev declared that soon he would present his political reforms. He did not make the Kazakh society to wait long. After two months of tragic events, in March President Tokayev delivered State of the Nation Address, in which he presented his plans of political reforms.

In one of his interviews, the Secretary of State, Erlan Karin, elaborated on the newly presented reformation plans and commented that: “First and foremost, reforms mark the end of the super-presidential form of government and open the path towards a presidential republic with a strong parliament”. The current electoral system has been fundamentally changed following the announcement of the transition to a mixed proportional-majority model and the liberalisation of the process of registering new political parties’’.

It means that individuals who are not members of a particular party will be able to participate in parliamentary elections, which will increase the degree of direct participation of citizens in the formation of the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament). State secretary also emphasized that initiatives which were revealed recently would have been announced regardless of the tragic January events that took place in the country.

It should be noted that president Tokayev said the reforms cannot be put in place overnight and at the same time they cannot be prolonged. This year parliament will have to work intensively in order to provide legal platform for the reforms, adopt and make great deal of amendments to the existing constitution. However, before making projects of law, the initiatives must be widely discussed with the representatives of the civil society and public figures. Tokayev also made it impossible for future presidents to adhere to any political party and that their close relatives cannot occupy positions in state organs.

In his interview to a reputed American magazine The National Interest, he shares his views on the connectivity of the current international situation on the reforms ongoing in Kazakhstan. He stressed “Turbulence across Eurasia Will Not Slow Kazakhstan’s Progress”. Tokayev pledged to build a “New Kazakhstan” and in closing out his speech stressed that amid the “geopolitical storm” Kazakhstan’s strategic course, aimed at protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, was the most important task.

From the first days of independence the state system had to be changed and the first president has carried out liberalization and democratization reforms as far as he could. But his rule of 28 years became an era of personalization of the state and all laws and norms were changed upon the wishes of the first president. He introduced several reforms and programs of modernization, industrialization and sustainable development. Most of his development programs were ineffective and “theatrics”, even if he harboured most kind intentions majority of these programs were in vain, as they could not provide sustainable growth in all spheres of life. State propaganda machine was financed enough to make people believe that the country is quickly advancing and famous expressions of “Kazakhstan is the leader among all central Asian countries in terms of social, economic and infrastructural development”. “The GDP of Almaty city is bigger than whole GDP of Kyrgyzstan”.

Some politically-conversant people do not share optimism of Tokayev’s supporters. During these 30 years people have been told about “bright future”, well-being and prosperity and they are afraid that this state of the nation address is also long litany of beautiful words and nothing more than that. Or at least, they believe that Nazarbayev’s loyalists could sabotage his initiatives and instructions. President Tokayev inherited Nazarbayev’s gigantic state apparatus and staff. He has to work with his predecessor’s ministers, governors and public servants.

Even though, duumvirate which has kept the country in a relative stability for short term, later showed that there cannot be two suns in the sky. Earlier or later it would result in political misperception as well as confusion.  Furthermore, ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhygeldin tells the fact that when he was serving as prime minister, Tokayev was his foreign minister. According to former prime minister, the current president Tokayev is not an independent politician, that there is a power dichotomy in the country, president Tokayev is not courageous enough to take power into his hands. If President Tokayev wants to be an independent President, he must send Nazarbayev to retirement thus ending his political influence.

On 22nd of April, President Tokayev stepped down as the chairman of the ruling party “Amanat” heritage from Kazakh which was renamed on 1st of March from “Nur-Otan” to its current name. He explained his decision that Kazakhstan will not be a super-presidential country anymore.

On 29th of April, President Tokayev announced the he would initiate referendum to have a public support for more than 30 amendments to be modified in the constitution. Next week, Tokayev announced the date of the second referendum in the history of the country. 5th of June was chosen suitable for the referendum. “A general vote by citizens on the draft of constitutional amendments will demonstrate our strong commitment to democratic principles. The referendum allowed every citizen to directly participate in a historic event that took place in Kazakhstan. The constitutional reform is aimed at a comprehensive transformation of the entire state model,” said Tokayev. Some major amendments include limiting presidential powers, giving more power to the Parliament and making it more representative of the country’s 19 million population through replacement of the proportional system of elections to a mixed majoritarian-proportional one, as well as significant decentralization of power with more competences given to regional and local authorities.

The recently held referendum showed that people wanted changes and novelties. “The referendum can be considered validated,” electoral commission chair Nurlan Abdirov said, citing preliminary results that 77 percent of voters had backed the move. Although the referendum was a matter of purely political motives, it clarified people’s wants and desires in the country’s politics 

Tokayev seems gained power relatively recently and still, it is too early to do any kinds of prognoses. His declarative speeches seem promising and emboldening, although one must stay attentive in order to be able to evaluate the developments objectively. Since his tenure in the presidential office, he has been introducing new faces to Kazakh political life, however, it should not be forgotten that the majority of his environment and government members are the heritage inherited by him from Nazarbayev. Furthermore, the vicinity to unpleasant geopolitical storms and instabilities make it difficult to conduct solid reforms and even they can be halted and waited for better times.

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Contesting Russia requires renewed US engagement in Central Asia

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When US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declared that Washington wanted to see Russia so “weakened” that it would no longer be able to invade a neighbouring state, he lifted the veil on US goals in Ukraine. He also held out the prospect of a long-term US-Russian contest for power and influence.

Mr. Austin’s remarks were problematic on several fronts. For one, they legitimised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine as a defence against US-led efforts to box Russia in and potentially undermine his regime.

“US policy toward Russia continues to be plagued by lack of rhetorical discipline. First calling for regime change, now goal of weakening Russia. This only increases Putin’s case for escalating & shifts focus away from Russian actions in Ukraine & toward Russia-US/NATO showdown,” tweeted New York-based Council of Foreign Relations president and former senior State Department official Richard Haas.

Mr. Haas was referring to President Joe Biden’s remark last month, which he subsequently walked back, that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power.”

Leaving aside that Mr. Austin’s remark was inopportune, it also suggested a lack of vision of what it will take to ensure that Mr. Putin does not repeat his Ukraine operation elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. That is an endeavour that would involve looking beyond Ukraine to foster closer ties with former Soviet republics that do not immediately border Ukraine.

One place to look is Kazakhstan, a potential future target if Russia still has the wherewithal after what has become a draining slug in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin has long set Kazakhstan up as a potential future target.

He has repeatedly used language when it comes to Kazakhstan that is similar to his rhetoric on the artificial character of the Ukrainian state.

Referring to his notion of a Russian world whose boundaries are defined by the presence of Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than its internationally recognised borders, Mr. Putin asserted last December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”

Mr. Putin first sent a chill down Kazakh spines eight years ago when a student asked him nine months after the annexation of Crimea whether Kazakhstan, with a 6,800 kilometre-long border with Russia, the world’s second-longest frontier, risked a fate similar to that of Ukraine.

In response, Mr. Putin noted that then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”

To be sure, Russian troops invited in January by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to help put down anti-government protests were quick to withdraw from the Central Asian nation once calm had been restored.

Mr. Putin’s remarks, coupled with distrust of China fuelled by the repression of Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs, in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and the shutdown of Russia’s Black Sea Novorossiysk oil terminal, Kazakhstan’s main Caspian oil export route, creates an opportunity for the United States.

Last month, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, its sovereign wealth fund announced that it would no longer do business in rubles in compliance with US and European sanctions against Russia. This week, Kazakhstan stopped production of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.

In an apparent effort to stir the pot, Russian media accused Kazakhstan of preventing Russian nationals from expressing support for Mr. Putin’s invasion and firing Kazakhs who supported the Russian president’s actions from their jobs. At the same time, opponents of the war were allowed to stage demonstrations.

“As Washington policymakers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighbouring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.

Last month, Mr. Tokayev, the Kazakh president, promised sweeping reforms in response to the January protests.

A high-level Kazakh delegation visited Washington this week to discuss closer cooperation and ways to mitigate the impact on Kazakhstan of potentially crippling sanctions against Russia.

Supporting Kazakhstan would involve a renewed US engagement in Central Asia, a key region that constitutes Russia as well as China’s backyard. The United States is perceived to have abandoned the region with its withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.

It would also mean enlarging the figurative battlefield to include not only military and financial support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia but also the strengthening of political and economic ties with former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are, alongside Kazakhstan, members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Mr. Putin, referring to Kazakhstan, described as a bulwark that “helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”

The invasion of Ukraine has given Uzbekistan second thoughts. Uzbekistan failed to vote on the UN resolution, but Uzbek officials have since condemned the war and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

As a result, Uzbekistan appears to have reversed its ambition to join the EEU and forge closer ties to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the region’s Russian-led military alliance.

“The way Central Asia thinks about Russia has changed. While before, Russia was seen as a source of stability, it now seems that its presence in a very sensitive security dimension has become a weakness for regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” said Carnegie Endowment Central Asia scholar Temur Umarov.

“I think that Central Asian governments will seek to minimise the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power.” Mr. Umarov predicted.

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Central Asia

Turkmenistan’s Presidential Elections: What to Expect from the New Head of State?

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Not much is known about Turkmenistan – it is a rather closed-off country. While fairly credible information on the nation’s foreign policy can be found, there is no opportunity whatsoever to glean credible information on its economy, society and domestic policy. This article is an attempt to forecast the new president’s agenda by looking back to the presidential elections of the past.

Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s Rise to Office

Serdar’s father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was in power since 2006. He won the latest election of 2017, securing 97% of the votes. The Constitution of Turkmenistan stipulated that the next election was to be held in 2024, but Berdimuhamedow announced an early vote in February 2022, marking the end of his 15 years in office. He specifically emphasized that he did not intend to run for president, instead remaining head of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper chamber of Turkmenistan’s parliament: “I support the idea that young leaders who have been brought up in a spiritual environment and in accordance with the high requirements of our time should be given an opportunity to lead our country,” he said on the occasion. “As the Chairman of the Halk Maslakhaty, I now intend to direct my vast life and political experience to this area.”

Political pundits and the media rushed to declare that Berdimuhamedow was preparing for a transfer of power. Special emphasis was laid on the fact that Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the president’s son, recently turned 40, which is the minimum age to become president under Turkmenistan’s Constitution. One of the possible reasons for the president’s retirement was his health, which can neither be confirmed nor disproved on the basis of the available information.

Two days into the statement by Berdimuhamedow Senior, on February 14, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s candidacy was indeed proposed at the meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

Two more days after, the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan proposed the candidacy of Agajan Bekmyradov, deputy head of the Mary Region. On February 18, 2022, it was announced that at least six other candidates would compete for Turkmenistan’s presidency if they collected enough signatures. Then, two candidates emerged on February 19 – Berdymammet Gurmanov (a doctor from the Balkan Region) and Perhat Begenjov (a school principal from the Lebap Region). On February 22, more candidates were registered, most prominently Hydyr Nunnayev, Vice Rector for Research at the Turkmen State Institute of Physical Culture and Sports. The registration ended soon after, and the electoral campaign began on February 23.

As expected by observers, Serdar Berdimuhamedow took the election in a landslide. It should be noted, however, that the share of his supporters (72.97%) looked more realistic than the last result of his father.

Who is Serdar Berdimuhamedow: How He Prepared for His Presidency and What to Expect

On March 19, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow officially became Turkmenistan’s third president.

Serdar Berdimuhamedow was born on September 22, 1981, in Ashgabat. He graduated from the Turkmen Agricultural University as an engineering technologist in 2001, at about the same time when his father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, started his political career. Berdimuhamedow Senior provided his son with plenty of opportunities to explore the many levels and dimensions of civil service.

The first step was to acquire some experience in foreign policy. In 2008–2011, Serdar Berdimuhamedow held the post of minister-counsellor in the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation. During that period, he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia with a degree in International Relations. In 2011–2013, Serdar Berdimuhamedow worked as an adviser in the Permanent Mission of Turkmenistan to the United Nations in Geneva, where he studied European and International Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). On returning from Switzerland, he became Head of the European Department at Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, overseeing the country’s relations with the entirety of Europe. In 2016–2017, he held the position of Head of International Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan. Finally, in 2018, he became Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan.

It should be noted that Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality status—officially confirmed at a United Nations General Assembly meeting on December 12, 1995, during the rule of Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashy), but largely thanks to the efforts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov—is a key trait of the country’s identity in foreign policy. Serdar Berdimuhamedow has picked up the baton of this tradition. Since 1995, Turkmenistan has not been part of any bloc or integration, even opting to be an associated member rather than a full member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. This allows the country to pursue a pragmatic multi-vector foreign policy based on engaging with all interested countries in hydrocarbon trade. In his inauguration speech, Serdar Berdimuhamedow declared that he would be committed to the “principles of neutrality and good neighbourhood.”

Oil and gas remain the most important dimension of Turkmenistan’s economy: gas accounts for the majority of the country’s GDP. The new president has dabbled in this as well: in 2013, he was appointed Director of the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources.

Turkmenistan’s notable feature is that the president is often perceived as a “leader” in science and the arts. Saparmurat Niyazov actively contributed to history, religion and literature, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow published works on a wide range of topics, most of all medicine and healthy living. In Turkmenistan’s political culture, the subject taken up by the president becomes the key focus of the country’s ideology. Having obtained degrees of Candidate of Technical Sciences (roughly equivalent to a PhD) in 2014 and Doctor of Technical Sciences (a still more advanced degree) in 2015, it is quite possible that Serdar Berdimuhamedow will start publishing on technical and economic issues, technological innovation, etc.

In 2016, the future president started his career in domestic policy: in November, he was elected member of the Mejlis (lower chamber of parliament) of Turkmenistan. The following year, he became Chairman of the Legislative Committee.

In 2019, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed head of the Ahal Region, a key province where the capital is located as well as where the politically dominant Teke tribe lives. In 2020, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed Turkmenistan’s Minister of Industry. After a year in this capacity, he was appointed Vice Prime Minister, which equates to being the “second in command” in the country, since the president and the prime minister are one and the same person. It is from this office that Berdimuhamedow Senior had risen to the rank of president once Saparmurat Niyazov passed away. At the same time, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed to the State Security Council of Turkmenistan.

What Should We Expect from Turkmenistan’s Third President?

Serdar Berdimuhamedow started his presidential term by dismissing the government, which was entirely in accordance with the Turkmenistan’s Constitution. With this, he’s set about forming new government and elaborating new policy. Experts are still out as to what his rule will be like. Some say that Berdimuhamedow Junior will maintain the system his father had erected. Others, including the author, expect that he may carry out some reforms, albeit at a limited scale.

The first reason why we could expect reforms from Serdar Berdimuhamedow is tradition. Serdar’s father likely advises his son to make the same political steps he made himself when he rose to power.

In this context, we may recall that Berdimuhamedow Senior’s presidential term started with moderate reforms. In large part, it was due to his background: unlike most heads of post-Soviet states, who came from business, military, security or intelligence agencies, or from the Soviet political establishment, Berdimuhamedow Senior was a representative of intelligentsia, just like Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current President of Uzbekistan. Before his political career, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was quite a successful dentist.

Berdimuhamedow Senior did away with some of Saparmurat Niyazov’s most notorious policies governing culture and everyday life, like the ban of opera and ballet as “contrary to national traditions.” In the social and economic domains, the second president made every effort to redress the utter breakdown of education and healthcare that occurred under Niyazov.

Certainly, when it comes to the political part, it is unlikely that Berdimuhamedow Senior will advise his son to repeat his history of reforms to the letter. The cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, who had declared himself a “prophet equal to Mohammed,” was quietly laid to rest. Berdimuhamedow Senior also replaced all the officials installed by Niyazov, with the most active “cleansing” taking place from mid-2007 to early 2008. Among those who lost their posts were key security and military officials, the Minister of Energy, Minister of Automobile Industry and Construction, Prosecutor General and Supreme Court leadership, as well as a number of other key figures. A significant number of political prisoners convicted under Niyazov were set free through the work of extrajudicial commissions. This time, however, the only political change we can expect is to see more younger faces, but even that would likely happen gradually.

Second, when speculating about possible reforms, we need to remember that Turkmenistan is undergoing a deep socio-economic crisis caused by an ineffective state bureaucracy and a less than advantageous gas contract with China.

Reports about the country’s progress in the fight against COVID-19 are also contradictory. According to the official sources, Turkmenistan’s healthcare system was well prepared for the pandemic: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said that healthcare facilities are receiving all the resources they need. It is important to note that Berdimuhamedow served as the minister of healthcare under Niyazov, so effective medicine is one of the pillars of his legitimacy in his post. At the same time, opposition sources paint a different picture: a dire need of beds, qualified doctors, testing facilities and personal protective equipment. Furthermore, opposition sources report that mass gatherings were held in Turkmenistan from March to April 2020 because political celebrations were not cancelled out of ideological considerations.

Crisis in the neighbouring Kazakhstan, another post-Soviet commodity exporter, is an important circumstance that reflects on risk assessment of the Turkmen leaders. During the civil unrest of January 2022, Turkmen security forces were put on high alert, and it was then that the decision to convene the upper chamber of parliament was made, which the president used to announce extraordinary elections.

Reforms may not only help to resolve difficult domestic situations, but also to successfully overcome challenges in foreign policy. If the civil war in Afghanistan escalates, hostilities might spill over the Turkmen-Afghan border. Other foreign policy risks include the consequences of mass migration into Turkey. Many of the Turkmen migrants have fought in Syria, and their return may create certain risks for the government.

Given the current reality of Turkmenistan, an important factor in maintaining the stability of the existing regime could be Berdimuhamedow Senior, who is apparently going to follow the Singapore/China model by gradually transferring power to his heir—much as Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping did in their time. On the whole, a gradual transfer of supreme power from father to son is not new on the post-Soviet soil. This has been done by Heydar and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, and a similar process is currently unfolding in Tajikistan.

Speaking about reforms in Turkmenistan, we should understand that they will be rather limited, mostly aiming at economic aspects – specifically, expanding foreign investment opportunities and modernizing the country’s economy. Far-reaching political reforms, however, do not appear to be on the agenda. The Turkmen government’s main focus seems to be maintaining stability in a difficult international situation. It may find a possible model for economic reform in the experience of the neighboring Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, both far ahead of Turkmenistan when it comes to modernization.

Russia may benefit from enhancing its economic ties with Turkmenistan, especially given the current foreign economic environment. Export items likely to be in demand on the Russian market include Turkmen vegetables, fruit and cotton textiles. The experience of quickly expanding trade with Uzbekistan after Mirziyoyev began his reforms may prove useful in this regard.

From our partner RIAC

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