Wednesday, March 20, 2019

With Nazarbayev’s Exit, Kazakhstan Becomes a Central Asian Country – and Two Other Major Shifts on the Horizon

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 20 – The resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the last Soviet-era republic head to leave office if not it seems to give up power, has major consequences for Kazakhstan and the world in the longer term because of the generational, geopolitical and cultural shifts that one can see his exit exacerbate or make possible.

            Most commentators, not surprisingly, have been focusing on the short term, on questions like whether Nazarbayev is pulling a Deng Xiaoping, whether he is planning to establish a family dynasty and whether his “replacement” will have any real power – as well as whether Nazarbayev’s actions will become a model for Putin, Lukashenka or Aliyev.

            Those are all important questions, but the answers to them will only be known with time. The larger consequences of his departure, however, are knowable, some because Nazarbayev himself has been responding to them for some time and others because his departure by its very nature will begin a generational shift in Kazakhstan’s governing elite.

            Three seem especially obvious and important now – and most of them are likely to happen regardless of whether Nazarbayev acts as Deng, his daughter or someone else succeeds, or whether any other leader in the post-Soviet space chooses to copy in some way what the Kazakhstan leader does.

            First and most important, with Nazarbayev’s exit, Kazakhstan will become a Central Asian country.  When Nazarbayev came to power, Kazakhs had a small plurality over ethnic Russians in the republic’s population, the result of Soviet engineering designed to ensure that it would never be able to act as a purely Central Asian country lest it lose Russian parts.

Now they outnumber Russians nearly three to one, an advantage that will only increase. Because Kazakhs are Islamic by culture if not always by practice, they will now be able to play a role in Central Asia without worrying about the ethnic Russian fraction of the population as much.

That in turn will allow the Central Asians to unite because the Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Turkmens will be able to use Kazakhstan as a powerful balance against the more numerous Uzbeks, changing the political arrangements of that region in fundamental ways.  At the very least, Moscow’s role will be much reduced.

Second, Kazakhstan will become less Russian and more Muslim, not only because of the continuing departure of ethnic Russians but because Islam will become an ever more important part of the national identity of the Kazakhs as they become more numerous and more involved with Central Asia.

The Russian language will be less widely used, with Chinese and English becoming more often the second language of Kazakhs; and Islamic customs will spread, challenging the predominately secular society and politics that Nazarbayev has promoted.  Over time that could lead to radical changes in the direction of an Islamic country.

Indeed, no matter who the new leader of Kazakhstan is -- and even if it is a member of Nazarbayev’s own family --those in their 40s and 50s who will be coming to power have grown up in a less secular and more Muslim society than did Nazarbayev himself.  That will matter ever more importantly in the years to come. 

And third, Nazarbayev’s exit from the scene will mean that the CIS will lose a non-Russian who still thinks in Soviet terms, something that will weaken the non-Russians as long as they stay in Russian-established institutions but that will increase the likelihood that Kazakhstan and others will exit these Muscovite institutions.

Moscow has relied on Nazarbayev to maintain its concept of a post-Soviet space; but with the Kazakhstan leader’s withdrawal from such a role, Moscow will find it harder to keep the CIS together. Just as Kazakhstan’s separateness from Central Asia in the past has ended, so Kazakhstan’s balancing role in the CIS will disappear – and with it, likely the CIS itself.  

Third, Nazarbayev as a Soviet-era politician was much more oriented toward Europe and the West than his successors will be. It is probably the case that he chose as his locum tenens a diplomat who has worked extensively in the West. But with time, that individual or his replacement will be caught not between Russia and the West but between Russia and China.

In that event, China will play a far more important role in Kazakhstan – and Central Asia as a whole – with Nazarbayev’s departure – and both the West and Russian smaller ones, the former because it will cease to be the most interesting opponent of Moscow and the latter because of its growing economic and geopolitical power.

As a result, it is quite possible that the biggest winner from Nazarbayev’s departure is precisely China, which now stands over the coming years to pick up the pieces there and in Central Asia more generally that Russia has assumed belonged to it and that the West has believed it could win it could effectively challenge.

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