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Why the leaders of Kazakhstan are not (yet) losing sleep over Crimea

People holding Russian flags gather at Lenin Square in the Crimean city of Simferopol following Sunday’s referendum. (Yuri Kochetkov/ European Pressphoto Agency)

The following is a guest post from Galymzhan Kirbassov, a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Binghamton University.  


When Russia mobilized troops to the Crimea and eventually occupied it, many analysts were quick to suggest that the crisis had  implications for Central Asian countries with significant number of ethnic Russians, particularly Kazakhstan. The general rationale is that Russia has intervened in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians who were the majority in the Crimea. Thus the large ethnic Russian population in Kazakhstan and some other countries would potentially serve as a tool for Russia to legitimize intervention there, should it so desire.

However, there are important counter-arguments to be made to this line of reasoning, particularly in the case of Kazakhstan. To understand why the crisis does not keep Kazakh leaders up at night, we need to understand Russia’s two recent military interventions: Ukraine and Georgia.

Both in Ukraine and Georgia, the new leadership that came to power through the Orange and Rose revolutions featured pro-Western rhetoric. They pursued foreign policies that brought rapid and fundamental changes in the directions of their countries, particularly in the security sphere. The new leadership of both countries sought to join NATO, which was perceived by Russia as a threat given that Ukraine and Georgia are both bordering Russia.

As we now know, Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008 (legitimized by claims of humanitarian intervention and protection of Russian and Ossetian population) and recently in Ukraine (legitimized by claims of protecting ethnic Russians in the Crimea). Russian troops stationed in these countries after the interventions have played an important role in preventing NATO expansion due to a high risk of becoming involved in a military conflict with Russia. As a consequence of the interventions, most of the NATO member countries have been reluctant even to start the formal negotiations with Georgia and Ukraine for membership.

What does this mean for Kazakhstan with its large ethnic Russian population? Is there any threat of Russian intervention in the future? I argue there is none as long as the government of Kazakhstan sticks to the same foreign, economic and social policies. Here are the reasons why:

1. The leadership in Kazakhstan, particularly the president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has pursued a balanced, multi-vector foreign policy that never gave a totally dominant preference to any specific major power. Kazakhstan neither recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia nor Kosovo in favor of either Russia or the West respectively, a strong indicator of a multi-vector foreign policy. Kazakhstan has cooperated with the United States, European Union, Russia and China in both economic and security issues. It joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a security alliance led by Russia, which indicates that Kazakhstan is not even near joining a Western alliance. Kazakhstan is also a member of the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus. So both in terms of security and economic issues, Kazakhstan is close to Russian interests although it tries to reduce dependency on a single country. Russia therefore should not perceive Kazakhstan as a potential threat, at least in the short to mid-term.

2. According to a survey conducted by Gallup in 2011, the majority (56 percent) of Russians in Kazakhstan said that their local areas were good places to live for them, and only 25 percent said they wanted to move to some other country.  According to the poll, although the percentage of ethnic Russians suffering increased over one year, it was not associated with employment. This poll is just one of the indicators that ethnic Russians are unlikely to be provoked against the government and become a tool for the legitimization for Russian intervention.  Moreover, in the lower house of the Kazakh parliament (Mazhilis), 21 members out of 107 are ethnic Russians, which indicates that the Russian population in Kazakhstan (23.7 percent) is fairly well represented in the parliament. Similar levels of representation can be found in academia and sports.

3. Both South Ossetia in Georgia and the Crimea in Ukraine are/were autonomous regions. However, there is no such autonomous region in Kazakhstan. That being said, although ethnic Russians live all around Kazakhstan, the majority of them live in the North and the East.

4. Right after the crisis in the Crimea, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry issued a very balanced statement that stressed the importance of negotiations in resolving the crisis without further escalating it. President Nursultan Nazarbayev had phone conversations with President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to mediate the conflict and resolve it with diplomacy and negotiations, rather than by military force or sanctions. This mediation efforts and a statement clearly signal that the leadership of Kazakhstan sleep well at night. If they had kept a low profile during the crisis, it would imply that there was a similar danger of Russian intervention and that it would be a good idea to stay low.

Surely this is not to say that Kazakhstan’s leaders are comfortable in their beds. But as long the current policies of non-discrimination against the minorities including Russians, assuring equal participation and representation in economy and politics, and pursuing a balanced and multi-vector foreign policy continue, the likelihood of Russian intervention should remain low.