The Crimea Model: Will Russia Annex the Northern Region of Kazakhstan?
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).
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.
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Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present – Book Review
The author of the Book “Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present”, is Adeeb Khalid, who is an associate professor, Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor of Asian Studies and History in the Department of History of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His research encircles the history of Islam and Central Asia since the conquests of Russia in 1860s and the fate of Islam under Soviet and Imperial Russian era. He has written many articles, and his four non-fiction books include; The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform (1998), Islam after Communism (2007), Making Uzbekistan (2015) and the book under review.This book was published in 2021 and has twenty-five chapters, each branching out in their respective directions. The central idea of this book is provision of concise history of Central Asia from mid-18th Century until contemporary era, the reshaping of the most diverse and culturally vibrant region in modern world events as it stands at crossroads of Europe, Middle East and South Asia.
In this book, author has emphasized the emergence of Central Asia as a pivotal region with respect to geopolitics after the disintegration of USSR in 1991, which marked the largest transformation in Central Asian geostrategies. The newly independent Central Asian States namely; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan joined International Organizations, established foreign embassies but massive problems were originated. Economic crisis was unleashed that rivaled the Great Depression of 1930s in its magnitude, trade and supply of goods was disrupted. Inflation escalated and people hardly made their both ends meet. The sense of de-modernization prevailed due to backwardness.
The new geopolitics was multilateral; involving a new number of powers in the region as compared to the era of colonial conquests in mid-19th Century, when region was bisected between Russia and China. Russia left in 1991 and Central Asia was open to the Globe. At the end of the 20th Century, Britain was no longer a power and USA was a new major power in the region. Turkey was the first State to establish diplomatic ties with Central Asian States. Though Russia left, but its influence didn’t vanish, it was connected to the region via language, education, transportation and commerce. China was the greatest beneficiary of this disintegration, became a major trading partner, entered into bilateral and multilateral agreements. Being suspicious of US hegemony, China and Russia initiated multilateral efforts to develop cooperation and security policies. Consequently, the formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) took place in June 2001.
In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, communist leaders controlled their states entirely and got reelected several times. Kyrgyzstan experienced several power transfers and its political elite still has links to the late-Soviet period. Tajikistan has a different case, civil war stated in 1992 and ended in 1997, when a peace accord was brokered by the United Nations (UN) which allowed formation of a coalition government dominated by neo-soviets but minor role was given to the opposition. China got lesson from Soviet collapse that it happened due to mobilization of its nationalities, much power was designated to republics by Soviet Constitution, also Soviet policies of indigenization had promoted many minority officials to positions of power. Consequently, similar developments should not be allowed in China. Author has explicated the role of IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan); in order to establish Islamic State, against Uzbek President Islom Karimov’s secular regime. The actions planted threats against security agenda for the region. The incident of 9/11 in 2001 and Global war on terror changed the shape of the geopolitics. Since then, opposition to terrorism and religious extremism became universal language which was also adopted by Central Asia States with ardor and they targeted all adversaries with this language.
Author has explicated the Uyghurs issue, role of China, waves of discontentment in Central Asia and the way Uyghurs are facing complications and hardships in China. He has accentuated that with the process of Sinicization, Uyghurs and Kazakhs are considered minorities and Islam is an alien religion in China. This suppression in China comes from a very different position than it does in Central Asian States. This targeting of Uyghurs as a nationality is compared with Stalinists deportations that targeted entire national groups; Koreans, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Poles; despite their positions, class or political viewpoints. Therefore, it is cultural genocide and war on Uyghurs by China. The current regime of surveillance is imbricated in global networks of science and commerce. The surveillance technology is itself a big business. Darren Byler said, “Controlling the Uyghurs has also become a test case for marketing Chinese technological prowess to authoritarian nations around the world”.
China itself is a big customer, now richer than ever before, can beat down the capabilities and resources in control and surveillance that is beyond everyone’s imagination. In other words, it is called high-tech totalitarianism. Central Asia is at the cutting edge of the global developments.
Concisely, Central Asia has experienced huge transformations and waves in two and a half centuries; colonialism, anti-colonialism, development, social revolution, nationalism, state-led modernization and social engineering. Author has argued that colonialism is an inherently diverse phenomenon and its standard definition can not be considered to interpret whether Central Asia was colonial or not. In late 20th Century, the idea that the nation was the most efficacious form of political organization reached Central Asia and since then, it has been the significant force in the region. In Central Asia, the role of Islam is undefined, its contentedness and indeterminacy can be visualized intensely. Central Asian States didn’t perform well in the corona virus pandemic like other states. The history of Central Asia revolves around two global forces; Islam and Communism. Islam is visualized as a threat in contemporary security debates about Central Asia and China has invoked it to justify its Uyghurs’ cultural genocide.
Russia and Central Asia: A Great Peaceful Game
The fact that Russia assumed responsibility for the security and development of the peoples of Central Asia was historically accidental, although it was connected with obvious geopolitical circumstances. Now relations between our countries are undergoing a new transition period, as is the internal development of Moscow’s partners in this vast but sparsely populated region. Inevitably, there is a temptation to assess their prospects by comparing them with existing practices of interaction between major European powers, or the United States, and their immediate neighbours. Such comparisons reveal that there is only one example where a neighbour of a large industrial power does not find itself in distress — this is Canada, which shares its main cultural practices and political institutions with America. In all other cases, whether we are talking about countries south of the United States, or about the states of North Africa and the Middle East, being in the same neighbourhood as a powerful nation does not benefit the southern neighbours. However, what provides relative confidence in the future is that Russia, by its nature and in the perception of its neighbours, is not a typical country of the developed North. Therefore, getting into a situation similar to Mexico or Libya will require much more effort from the countries of Central Asia than it might seem at first glance.
So far, the states of Central Asia are showing rather contradictory signs in their internal political and socio-economic evolution. On the one hand, all of them emerged as independent countries within a fairly short historical period of 30 years. Despite numerous internal political conflicts, none of these states collapsed, as many in the West expected, and even hoped, in the first stages of their independence process after the collapse of the USSR. Each of the countries in the region is developing along its own unique path, reflecting historical experience and cultural characteristics. Speaking of public administration practices, it is hard to find anything in Central Asia from the era of modernisation in the 20th century with a legacy powerful enough to overshadow earlier practices of maintaining comparative stability. Virtually none of the current development trends have destroyed Central Asian societies; rather, they are absorbed by them, adapted by the powerful cultural and civilisational layers accumulated over the centuries.
Due to its geopolitical and ethnic composition, the Central Asian region cannot serve as a jumping-off point for the formation of states or their unions that would pose a danger to neighbouring powers. Here, first and foremost, we are talking about the interests of Russia and China, connected with the region by long common borders on both sides, where ethnically and religiously related people often live. Theoretically, the Central Asian countries could be considered by the West as an excellent territorial base for launching an offensive against the rear of Moscow and Beijing. However, the lack of direct access to these countries, as well as their own responsible policies, makes such a prospect unlikely. Moreover, these same factors determine the serious influence of Russia on the security of Central Asia and potentially significant influence from China. Although Beijing has so far shown no desire to take direct responsibility for security in Central Asia, in the future we may see a more active policy from the Chinese government.
We have observed that clandestine American and European diplomacy is doing more and more to undermine the internal stability of the countries of Central Asia. The mood of segments of urban population (albeit extremely insignificant given the general background) is partly related to these efforts, and the authorities, who also seek to use external factors to channel public discontent, respond to them. It seems that numerous initiatives whose content is directed against the interests of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, sometimes feel invisible support from those who make political decisions. At the same time, the governments of the Central Asian countries themselves feel confident and have no doubt about their ability to keep such destructive moods under control. This confidence deserves respect — in 30 years of independence, we have not seen a single example when movements inspired from abroad became strong enough to threaten social stability. Moreover, a significant proportion of the resources allocated by the West to undermine internal stability in the region is successfully absorbed within the framework of traditional public institutions.
The most striking examples of an internal crisis were after the dramatic civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) as well as the mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022, when the authorities even had to turn to Russia and other CSTO allies for help normalise the situation in the country. However, most observers still believe that there were very few driving factors of foreign origin in these incidents. The main reasons lay in internal socio-economic problems, the “facade” economy and public institutions. Now the Kazakh government is showing a desire to rebuild the state and society that it received from the hands of its first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. But recent protests by oil workers in Kazakhstan’s westernmost regions show that these efforts are still struggling to meet the needs of the population. According to reports, the situation in the infrastructure inherited by independent Kazakhstan from the USSR is not getting much better either. Thus, the question arises of how long the country’s peaceful development period will last and what may follow. To a lesser extent, this applies to smaller Kyrgyzstan, which also experienced several revolutionary episodes over the past 15 years, the results of which were consolidated for the time being.
Now the efforts of all the governments of the countries of Central Asia, without exception, are aimed at gradually increasing the degree of economic openness and involvement in international relations. The leader in this regard is Uzbekistan, where a policy of openness has been pursued for several years, often bringing very impressive results. Other states act less consistently or do not have such serious demographic resources as those that are at the disposal of Tashkent. However, in general, we can be quite optimistic about the stability of the state systems in the region and should not be afraid that they may fall into the abyss of disasters in the coming years, as has happened with Afghanistan, Syria and a number of African countries.
This, however, does not mean that it will be easy for the Central Asian states to achieve the level and quality of life of their largest neighbours — Russia and China. Taking into account the fact that all five countries are relatively protected from the most terrible existential challenges, the most important question may be their ability to overcome the trap where they’re at a level of development when the destruction of the state is impossible, but so is reaching a new level in terms of the quality of life of the population. A number of countries have followed this path, often showing relatively good figures for the overall development of their economies: Mexico, Algeria, Morocco, and some of the countries of Southeast Asia. It is unlikely that Russia wants its most important southern neighbours to be in a position where the gap is insurmountable. The answer to this challenge can be, among others, more active regional integration, the creation of common labour markets and the spread of related social policy practices, as well as the avoidance of the archaisation of society through the formation of a common cultural and educational space.
From our partner RIAC
New Frontier: China Makes Inroads into Kazakhstan
China has made significant inroads into the central Asia region during Russia-Ukraine crisis. Russia has award the Chinese many opportunities in efforts to strengthen bilateral relations within the context of pushing forward multipolar solidarity.
Kazakhstan is currently widening its economic cooperation with the Chinese, thus China has gained stronger economic muscles in the region. Kazakhstan and China signed 47 agreements worth $22 billion during Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to China, Tokayev’s press service said following a Kazakh-Chinese investment round table.
“Last year, bilateral trade reached a record $31 billion. China is one of the five largest investors in the Kazakh economy with total investment amounting to $23 billion,” the head of state was quoted as saying. Tokayev said that despite the challenging economic situation in the world, trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and China continue to develop dynamically.
The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline expansion will cost about $200 million, said Magzum Mirzagaliyev, the chief executive officer Kazakh national oil and gas company KazMunayGas (KMG). “The cost of the expansion project will be about $200 million. We intend to start work next year and complete it in two or three years,” Mirzagaliyev said on the sidelines of the Kazakh-Chinese talks in Xi’an, according to Orda.kz.
The project will allow Kazakhstan to increase oil exports. Today’s throughput capacity of the Atyrau-Kenkiyak and Kenkiyak-Kumkol sections of the oil pipeline is only 6 million tonnes, so KMG and CNPC have signed today an agreement to expand the capacity of these pipelines, Mirzagaliyev said.
Theoretically, Kazakhstan could boost oil exports to 20 million tonnes from today’s 1 million-2 million tonnes, according to Mirzagaliyev. “The throughput capacity of the Atasu-Alashankou section is 20 million tonnes, which, theoretically, could be filled with our oil. Today, the transit of Russian oil is 10 million tonnes, and Kazakhstan exports about 1-2 million tonnes. That is why, we have reached agreement on the expansion [of the pipeline capacity],” the head of KMG said.
In addition, construction of Kazakhstan’s logistics center gets underway at Xi’an Dry Port. “This hub linking the Shaanxi region with Kazakhstan and Central Asia will open the way to Europe, Turkey and Iran. The project will give a new impetus to cooperation between the two countries,” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said at the groundbreaking ceremony.
He said that last year 23 million tonnes of cargo was shipped between the two countries by rail, which is a record-high figure. Transit shipping of goods in the first quarter of this year increased by 35% and exceeded 7 million tonnes. Tokayev said that over the past 15 years, Kazakhstan had invested $35 billion in the freight transportation sector.
From next year, the dry port is expected to handle electronics and computer components, automobiles and auto components, textiles, clothing, footwear and accessories, food and agricultural products, construction products and building materials, as well as ores, metals and chemical products.
Leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would take part in this special economic summit. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that China’s Xi’an would host the China-Central Asia Summit on May 18-19 in the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province.
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