Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Moscow’s Five Fears about Kazakhstan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 8 – Soviet authors invariably spoke of “Central Asia and Kazakhstan” rather than lumping the latter into the former category, a reflection of the special role that republic played in Russian eyes sometimes as a bridge to and often a barrier against the spread of developments from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

            Since 1991, ever more Moscow commentators have spoken of Central Asia as a whole and included Kazakhstan within it even though most have continued to view it as different, a place with a still sizeable ethnic Russian minority and a bulwark of stability against threats from the four other Muslim countries in the region.

            And at the very least, present-day Russian writers have assumed as did their Soviet predecessors that Kazakhstan will align itself with Moscow rather than combine with the other Central Asian states to challenge Russia’s influence across that critical region, a testimony to the continuing impact of the logic behind Stalin’s borders in Central Asia.

            The events of the last few days in Kazakhstan, both in the capital and in the northwest region, have shaken Russian confidence about their assumptions regarding that country even though these events have not yet played out, been fully explained, or the forces behind them identified.

            As in any such fast-moving and murky situation, speculation is rife with some writers blaming the Kazakhstan government, others the Chinese or the Americans, still others Islamist fundamentalists, and a few even the Russian government which supposedly wants to punish Nursultan Nazarbayev for his independent stands (

            But enough commentary has appeared since last weekend to show that the Russian leadership is deeply frightened by what is taking place in Kazakhstan for at least five reasons and is uncertain what to do because the events in Astana and Aktobe have left its working assumptions about that country and Central Asia in ruins.

            These fears include among others the following:

·         First and most important, the Kremlin is terrified of any instability in the political elites of the countries in its neighborhood, understanding full well that that calls into question its promotion of stability as the chief value of allying with Russia and fearing that any turbulence could open the way to Maidan-like developments that would challenge Moscow’s rule. For examples of this kind of argument, see and  

·         Second, with instability and Islamism approaching the Russian border, Moscow is clearly fearful about the spread of these things onto its own territory both as the result of the work of activists who will  now find it even easier to penetrate Russia and as collateral damage from what might be a new massive influx of refugees from Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation, an influx that could shake Russian society just as much as refugee flows have affected Western Europe. On this, see, and

·         Third, Moscow fears that the US is behind this, to disrupt Moscow’s links with China, and simultaneously fears that China, which is now investing more heavily in Kazakhstan than in the Russian Federation, may have played a role in order to displace Russian influence in Central Asia with Chinese domination.  See, and

·         Fourth, Moscow seems convinced that the situation in Kazakhstan emerged precisely because the share of ethnic Russians in the population there has declined so precipitously over the last 30 years. Up until 1985, ethnic Russians had a plurality; now, they are outnumbered two to one by ethnic Kazakhs. Because similar trends are occurring in all the post-Soviet states, some in the Russian capital fear that what is happening in Kazakhstan could happen elsewhere sooner or later. On that, see

·         And fifth, although it is unclear how widespread this fear is, at least some in Moscow are expressing concerns that what has occurred in Kazakhstan is what faces Russia in the near future. That is, they view Kazakhstan as a petrostate, which Russia is as well, and with its income down and its authoritarianism growing, the regime there and perhaps in Russia as well can’t escape popular challenges unless it liberalizes -- something neither Astana nor Moscow is ready to do.  On that danger, see the sources cited in

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