The Central Asian states, in particular Kazakhstan, were reluctant to declare their independence upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in August 1991. Unlike the Baltic states and other peripheral regions of the former USSR, the Central Asian ethnic states had, largely, been created by Soviet rule. Even as late as August 1991, then, the Central Asian republics clung to the security of their metropolitan power:
Since the August  coup attempt, the Central Asian leaders had backed Gorbachev in his demand for a strong centre. President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was in the forefront of those arguing for a strong centre in order to keep the military, the nuclear arsenal, the currency and the economy under a single control (Akhmed Rashid, cited in Gammer, 125).
Declaring its independence in December 1991, Kazakhstan became the last republic to secede from the USSR. In contrast to the Baltic states, with their clear desire to rejoin the West, and the Western border states, especially Ukraine, which, as the “breadbasket,” had provided a large source of the Soviet Union’s food, the republics in Central Asia relied heavily on the Soviet Union for their continued existence. As colonial states whose very identities were formed by Soviet nationality policies in 1924, they lacked many of the administrative capabilities to function on their own. As a result, many of the policies implemented in post-Soviet Kazakhstan were very similar to those of the Soviet Union. Others, though, have differed radically in the wake of growing nationalism and increasing awareness of ethnic identities. In a sense, the changes implemented by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Secretary-General of the Soviet Party in Kazakhstan and current president of Kazakhstan, in the Republic of Kazakhstan, represent a continuation of Soviet rule.
Despite the nature of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s origins – mired in Soviet nationalist policies and based on dividing up the lands of Central Asia into useful administrative units – the power of the ‘invention of tradition’ is such that the accepted image of Kazakhstan today is that of a defined nation rising from a noble and primordial past. Such is the power of creating a ‘useable past,’ that it is inconsequential that Central Asia’s “separate new literary languages, national histories and past, national cultures and traditions were invented. . . [and] the boundaries between the newly created nations were artificial” (Gammer, 127). The very extistence, however, of such a state ostensibly ‘for Kazakhs,’ argues the case for the power of historical precedence and the nationalist project.
Central Asian countries, writes Moshe Gammer, were “never meant to exist on their own nor designed to be viable units, but part of a larger body. This is clearly reflected in their borders which do not correspond to geographical and economic [and ethnic] realities” (Gammer, 128). Indeed, even the national elites who, when the Central Asian countries achieved independence had become the ruling class, were merely russified locals who wished to use their high positions in the governments of Central Asia to further their careers. “Positions in the national republics were power bases to be used as springboards for a career in Moscow,” wrote Gammer. “That was the focus of Nazarbayev’s loyalties – not Kazakhstan of which he was then the Secretary-General of the party, and the future president” (Gammer, 134). A strange dichotomy, however, arose in these former Soviet elites who now occupied high-level positions in the new republics’ governments, as they both strove for accord with Russia while implementing increasingly ethno-nationalist reforms in their respective countries.
The imprint of Soviet rule is indelible upon the republics it governed, but its impact is not completely negative. As a result of their past with Russia as both a nurturing mother and a ruthless exploiter of resources, people “have developed a distinction between an abstract ‘Russia’ they hate and Russian culture which they adore” (Gammer, 134). Thus the new republics seem to be patchwork products of desirable and undesirable aspects of Russian culture. Despite the bad blood between some of the independent Central Asian republics and Russia, arguments for remaining economically and politically linked with Russia are quite convincing: “the fear common to all of them of becoming the battleground of rival powers . . . [and] to remain within Russia’s fold . . . means to stay within a familiar environment in which the Central Asian elites feel at home and know which buttons to push” (Gammer, 137-8). Kazakhstan has picked the proverbial ‘devil you know’ as a protector for its fledgling interests in international relations and commerce.
Other states in the region more fraught with conflict tend to be wholly negative about Soviet rule, but Kazakhstan has a more complex history. In contrast to the hostilities between Russia and its other, more recalcitrant satellites over interethnic discord, religion, and resettlement policies, Kazakhstan’s period under Soviet rule was at the same time economically beneficial while being environmentally and socially harmful. “Moscow’s policy was to use Kazakhstan ‘as a kind of contiguous Third World’ source of raw materials and as a dumping ground for prisoners and undesirables. . . [however] Soviet economic policies brought to Kazakhstan agricultural modernization, numerous heavy industries, and science and research facilities (Chua, 80).
Despite the Republic’s identification as a democracy, it follows a single person’s dictates. Nursultan Nazarbaev has grown increasingly autocratic with his lawmaking since 1994 when he “dissolved parliament and took a sharp turn toward authoritarianism” (Chua, 82). In such a way, Nazarbaev’s decisions on how to rule the country revolve around direct implementation with little outside interference or independent law-making. In fact, since his election as president in 1991, Nazarbaev has been continually reelected and is currently still in office – almost two decades later. Thus “[t]he substance of the Kazakhstan government for now is Nazarbayev, who was elected president in an uncontested election, who presides over a largely impotent Parliament, and who can make laws through unilateral decrees” (Chua, 84). Therefore, in considering Kazakhstan’s policies toward Russia and as an independent country, it would be more truthful to refer to them as Nazarbayev’s policies based on his own self-interest.
As a result of Kazakhstan’s checkered past relations with Russia, Nursultan Nazarbayev has had to walk a narrow line between cooperating with and appeasing Russian interests in the region and the growing call for nationalism from his people. The issue is further complicated by the large number of ethnic Russians who live in Kazakhstan (more than any other Central Asian republic). Gammer argues that appeasing the large – approximately 50% – population of Russians in Kazakhstan is vital, but “complicated by the traditional antagonism between it [the Russian population] and the Kazakhs, to whom Russia is a historical enemy and the ‘Russians’ – colonists who grabbed Kazakh lands” (Gammer, 137). Previously, Nazarbayev attempted to slow down the ‘Kazakhization’ of Kazakhstan by encouraging Russian language schools to remain open, elevating Russian to Kazakhstan’s second official language, and allowing some Russians to remain in high visibility positions within the administration (Chua, 85-6). Indeed, his ethnic-Russian friendly policies worked, so much so that “[i]n contrast to some of its neighbors, no significant episodes of interethnic violence have occurred in post-independence Kazakhstan” (Chua, 82).
Recently, however, the process of privatizing Kazakhstan’s economy has led to some conflicts between Putin and Nazarbayev, as well as increasing favoritism shown to ethnic Kazakhs. While “President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan declared in 2003 that Russia has a ‘central place’ in Kazakh policy,” he has also opened up relations with America and China for business negotiations regarding Kazakhstan’s oil and gas reserves (Buszynski, 560). Additionally, despite Vladimir Putin’s demand for a “tighter security cooperation with Kazakhstan to strengthen Russia’s regional presence and to prevent Nazarbaev from moving closer to the West . . . .Nazarbaev . . . has consistently avoided the level of security integration that the Russians have demanded” (Buszynski, 561). Nazarbayev continues his delicate dance between appeasing Russia and asserting his connections to the West.
Meanwhile, in recent years there has been a rise in Kazakh nationalism and favoritism in leadership positions within the government and big business. Despite Nazarbayev’s protestations of democracy and ethnic harmony within Kazakhstan, these claims are far from the truth. Critics argue that the president and the new nationalist government have worked against the marketization of the Kazakh economy in favor of ‘ethnoprivatization’: “The Nazarbayev government is in fact circumventing market forces in order to protect ‘the interests of the ethnocratic state and the nascent national Kazakh elite’ . . . to favor Kazakhs in general and the elite clan of the Great Horde (from which Nazarbayev hails) in particular” (Chua, 88 my emphasis). Note that while Nazarbayev is notorious for taking pains not to emphasize his affinity with the ancient Great Horde, he does show a preference toward this remnant of tribal identification. Indeed, nationalist groups in general have a large say in current policy changes. Ironically, the Kazakhs hark back to Soviet reactionary nationalist policies in the 1930s to inform their backlash against native Russians: “Kazakh nationalists compel the state to enact laws and policies promoting the titular community, as, at best ‘first among equals’ and, at worst, the only group truly belonging within the new state” (Diener, 330). This ‘first among equals’ rhetoric, more accurately describing a privileging of one ethnic group above the rest strongly evokes past Soviet nationalist policy.
With his policies toward minority groups within his country, autocratic actions in the government, and acts of nepotism, Nursultan Nazarbayev, closely mirrors his Soviet precedent. The same can be said of President Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) of Turkmenistan and President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. Ironically, some scholars argue the need for continuity in promoting post-Party members to rulers of the Soviet Union’s former republics. Currently, these very leaders who were hailed as hallmarks of gradual change have, rather than promoting democracy, turned to a dictatorial, conservative mindset. Indeed, Nazarbayev’s grip upon the country and his increasingly autocratic direction of it has only intensified since its eighteen years of independence. People need only to understand the history of this region to see the dangerous direction in which Nursultan Nazarbayev’s leadership is pulling the country.
- Leszek Buszynski, “Russia’s New Role in Central Asia,” Asian Survey 45, no.4 (2005), 546-565.
- Amy L. Chua, “Markets, Democracy, and Ethnicity: Toward a New Paradigm for Law and Development,” The Yale Law Journal 108, no.1 (1998), 1-107.
- Alexander C. Diener, “Kazakhstan’s Kin State Diaspora: Settlement Planning and the Oralman Dilemma,” Europe-Asia Studies 57, no.2 (2005), 327-348.
- Moshe Gammer, “Post-Soviet Central Asia and Post-Colonial Francophone Africa: Some Associations,” Middle Eastern Studies 36, no.2 (2000), 124-149.