When country after country became an independent state in the five decades after the end of the Second World War, its leaders discovered that in addition to all the other urgent needs pressing on them, economic, social, organizational, they were also supposed to have a foreign policy. Any government could purchase some buildings in the capitals of the foreign countries that seemed most important and install ambassadors in them, but a foreign policy cannot be made by ambassadors each going his own way. There have to be non-contradictory guidelines that all can follow derived from the government’s definition of a foreign policy, which should itself reflect the national interest: very hard to do in any way case but more so in those states that comprised different nations.
For quite a few independent states that was just too much effort amidst their many internal difficulties.
The result was the emergence of “blocs” that shared common foreign policies with bloc-voting at the United Nations: one included most sub-Saharan African states, another the members of the Arab league, a third formed by the countries converging in the European Union, and for a while there was also a much bigger Afro-Asian bloc that gathered in Bandung. The Soviet Union of course had its own bloc which even included China for a while.
Membership in a bloc allowed governments to concentrate on more pressing internal problems while putting their foreign policy on the bloc’s autopilot, and that worked well enough until it did not: over the years, country after country found itself with unwanted enemies and uncomfortable allies, and so the blocs started dissolving. That cast many states in the cold water of world politics, in which it is easy to make costly mistakes, and hard to make choices that are advantageous.
Kazakhstan’s fate was different.
In the first place, unlike many other newly independent states, it was not suddenly cut loose on the world scene with no defined national identity, no institutional preparations, and untrained leaders.
Instead its emergence was gradual and organic. The Kazakh nation itself reached self-awareness from narrower loyalties over some four centuries, which included a calamitous struggle for survival in the eighteenth century that did much to sharpen its identity.
As for the state structure, it too emerged gradually from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic formed at Moscow’s ordersin December 1936 , whose slow acquisition of the administrative elements of a state was not accompanied by any advance towards any form of autonomy until very much later, with the turning point only coming in December 1986 in the widespread demonstrations over the principle that the Kazakh Soviet Republic should be lead by a local Kazakh party leader. In spite of their violent repression, the principle was affirmed by the elevation of Nursultan Nazarbayev as Party leader in June 1989 and de facto head of state (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Council) in February 1990.
By then Nazarbayev had served in administrative roles of increasing scope for many years up to the highest level as de facto prime minister (Chairman of the Council of Ministers, so that he had both the political authority and a thorough knowledge of the state apparatus by the time he asserted that Kazakhstan until then formally the Kazakh SSR was a sovereign state on October 25, 1990.
Again this was very different from the fate of other newly independent states, whose leaders went straight from the political or even violent struggle for independence to the control of the state, with little or no administrative experience—and it was the population at large that paid the price of the resulting mismanagement or worse.
Subsequent events show that Nazarbayev was able to dedicate serious thought to the country’s foreign policy, in spite of the dramatic urgency of the economic situation, and all the other pressing problems .
Paradoxically this is most clearly proven by the most important component of his domestic policy: the language question. Under the Soviet system, Russian was the language of “Soviet man” and all other languages were essentially folkloric, even if widely spoken, written and read.
Obviously that had to change but instead of simply imposing Kazakh on a multi-lingual population which would have caused enormous inconvenience, and before that acute anxieties which might in turn have destabilized society even in violent ways, Nazarbayev lead a careful progression to a language law that –crucially- was enacted in September 1989, more than a year before independence.
In retrospect, it can be seen that it was a very clever law, which, in effect, outmaneuvered the problem: it affirmed that Kazakh was the national language whose use for all purposes would be vigorously promoted, but at the same time, Russian was defined as a second official language, immediately relieving the anxieties of the substantial minority of Russian-speaking Kazakhs as well as Russians and many other Russian speakers.
That was a good compromise but it was the next component of the language law that presaged the country’s foreign policy: Nazarbayev promised that the other languages spoken in Kazakhstan would also be promoted and supported educationally, including German, Korean, Polish and several others , ranging from Lithuanian to Greek.
This message of inclusion was reinforced by an equally early opening to the country’s religions, previously repressed and then tolerated at best, but which the new Kazakhstan would not only recognize but support.
Again, Nazarbayev acted very early: on September 25 ,1989 while still nominally a Soviet leader, and concurrently with the law that guaranteed linguistic inclusion , he met with the most prominent Muslim, Orthodox, Baptist, and other religions to affirm religious inclusion as well.
The message was heard near and far: independent Kazakhstan was joining inherently pluralist international society not as a monolithic national state whether natural or made so by repression, but rather as a consciously pluralist state inherently open to the world.
This are all fine words easily proclaimed to make a good impression but in Kazakhstan’s case it was all real: the promises of inclusion were kept, and the result was that Kazakhstan was spared the inter-ethnic tensions and even violence of many if not most newly independent states.
For this the good character of the Kazakhs could claim some of the credit –it emerged in generosity in the worst of times– but Nazarbayev himself provided the leadership.
For this he could draw from his own personal experience: this author has spoken to a person who was in high school with Nazarbayev in Karaganda, in a class whose composition reflected the city’s population of Kazakhs, Germans, Poles, Jews and Russians. Nazarbayev, he says, was already a leader, not because he asserted himself, but because others wanted to follow his example.
Because Kazakhstan’s independence was preceded by its convincing message of inclusion, it evoked some goodwill from attentive foreign countries as well Russia itself emerging as a new state.
But independence must also be actively protected by a balance of power, and that is not easily achieved in any case but was an especially difficult requirement for Kazakhstan given its geographic positioning, far from the open ocean and extending between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.
It was a heroic undertaking to overcome those truly difficult circumstances, but again Nazarbayev rose to the challenge in a manner that reflects very accurately the always paradoxical logic of strategy: Kazakhstan inherited some of the most powerful nuclear weapon systems of the USSR, and could have started off as a major nuclear power from the day of its birth. That might even have been useful to pressure other countries, initiating a cycle of conflict.
But instead Kazakhstan gained much more because Nazarbayev chose to eliminate all nuclear weapons : he wanted to build Kazakhstan as a successful state for its inhabitants, not as an aggressive nuclear power.
By unilaterally and freely giving up its nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan attracted the immediate diplomatic support of its neighbors large and small , and equally of the United States, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada and other states large and small attentive to world affairs.
That was of crucial importance: it meant that from the start Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was not captive to its geography, and could instead develop as a multi-vector effort to reach out to the world—an effort that was duly reciprocated.
With that, Kazakhstan became an axiom of world politics, with many other countries large and small invested in its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
All that remained to complete the invention of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was the administrative part: the selection of the most competent people available to serve as ministers, high officials and ambassadors.
That was a task which was accomplished with the particular aptitude that Nazarbayev had demonstrated even in Soviet times –when it was risky to do so– to resist nepotism, cronyism, and mediocrity , to instead choose the best.
Whatever else Nazarbayev may have accomplished, it is Kazakhstan’s successful foreign policy that reveals the quality of his leadership most clearly, as governments around the world have duly recognized, not just verbally but also substantively by eagerly participating in his peacemaking and other international initiatives. Nazarbayev’s authority, his impartiality and substantive goodwill gave birth to the “Astana format” whereby rival powers can meet in Kazakhstan with its Founding President in the chair to moderate and mitigate not only tensions but also active conflicts underway. That too enhances Kazakhstan’s role in world affairs to the benefit of its entire population.