Sunday, September 23, 2018

Why Weren’t Kazakh Forces Invited to Participate in Russia’s Vostok-2018 Exercises?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – Sometimes the most important developments, like the classic case of the dog that didn’t bark, are those that don’t occur. One of these has just taken place: Despite Moscow’s inclusion of forces from China and Mongolia in its massive Vostok-2018 maneuvers, it did not include any from Kazakhstan, despite Astana’s formal alliance with Russia. 

            In a comment for Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security, Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the After Empire portal, suggests that the absence of Kazakh troops in this case suggests that everything isn’t as advertised in Russian-Kazakh relations and that there may be more problems ahead (

                There is mounting evidence of this, Shtepa says. Kazakhstan was furious when Vladimir Putin suggested in August 2014 that Nursultan Nazarbayev had “’created a state on a territory where there had never been a state before,’” something that isn’t true and that sounded to many Kazakhs like the Kremlin leader’s repeated claims that Ukraine is not a country even now.

            Moreover, Kazakh Eurasianism is something very different from Moscow Eurasianism: It does not set itself against Europe but rather seeks to become a basis for cooperation with Europe on the basis of mutual interests.  Further, Kazakhstan is promoting trilingualism (Kazakh, Russian and English) and replacing Cyrillic with the Latin script, things Moscow doesn’t like.

            Kazakhstan has not recognized Moscow’s Anschluss of Crimea as legitimate, and its economy, based as Russia’s is, on the export of raw materials is more a competitor to Russia than a complementary one. The real competition in Kazakhstan, Shtepa continues, is between China and Russia, with the former growing and the latter declining in importance.

            Some in Kazakhstan fear Chinese expansionism, but they also fear Russian demands for special privileges. And consequently, Astana continues to pursue a multi-vector, balanced foreign policy that is anything but what Putin and his regime would like to see in a former Soviet republic.

            But “Kazakhstan is not Ukraine,” the Russian regionalist continues. “’A Novosrossiya’” in Kazakhstan is hardly likely.  Kazakhs form an increasing share of the population even in the Russian-dominated north, and Astana is promoting that.  And there is perhaps an even more important reason.

                “The majority of people who speak Russian in Kazakhstan are ethnic Kazakhs and not Russians,” Shtepa points out. As a result, Moscow is seeking to increase its influence in Kazakhstan as a whole rather than moving to seize Russian areas, something that would only drive Astana further away from the Russian Federation.

            That is likely to continue to be Moscow’s approach and helps explain why the Russian side is proceeding so cautiously in its dealings with Kazakhstan.  But “nevertheless,” it is theoretically possible that there could be a Novorossiya in Kazakhstan under three different conditions, the regionalist argues.

            First, if Putin is unable to orchestrate a successfully union with Belarus by 2024, he might want to try to do that with Kazakhstan in order to create a new position of president of such an entity as a means of extending his power.

            Second, if after Nazarbayev leaves the scene, a pro-Western politician takes power in Astana, it is entirely possible that Moscow despite everything might take pages from its Ukrainian playbook and apply them in Kazakhstan.

            Or third, if the Russian Federation collapses, Moscow wouldn’t invade, but the emergence of new post-RF Russian states might attract some of the ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan to join one or another of them. 

            Such a scenario, the Russian regionalist concedes, may seem improbable now, but no more so than the demise of the USSR did “at the start of 1991.”

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