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Kazakhstan: Between Scylla And Charybdis?

by serik berik Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 08:13:33 AM EST

Nursultan Nazarbayev frequently draws parallels between his presidential reign in Kazakhstan and the rule of legendary Abylai khan over the (short-lived) confederation of the three Kazakh tribal unions (zhuz) in the eighteenth century. For instance, he usually takes credit for the independence we acquired in 1991, claiming to have protected the unity and freedom of the Kazakh nation in times of political tumult associated with the disintegration of the USSR. Usual are also the simultaneous references he makes to Abylai khan who did save the frail Kazakh nation from destruction during the Dzhungarian and Chinese aggression more than two centuries ago. Never mind the stark contextual differences between the two cases.

Such allusions to the aruak (the sainted forefather of the Kazakh nation) are intended to strengthen the President's popularity at home, which presently does not give much of a result. The multiethnic composition of Kazakhstan implies that only a portion of the population - the ethnic Kazakhs - receives the disguised nationalistic messages of this nature. The rest look at other aspects of the President's governance in making judgements about his suitability for the position he occupies.

Despite the ambiguous effect of the analogy on the President's domestic political image, his deliberate attempts to employ it for these purposes are themselves worth an analysis. Abylai khan is famous for his outstanding diplomatic skills that supposedly played the critical role in the preservation of the Kazakhs in the period of political and military pressures from both China and Imperial Russia. He was successful in his policy of double allegiance and in diplomatic juggling between the two formidable neighbors. A like success Nazarbayev is apparently hoping for today.

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Abylai khan

Post-Cold War developments in world politics have turned Kazakhstan into a place of special interest for three "Great Powers." The political vacuum that resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union was readily filled in, first [1], by the United States, the victor in the just ended East-West confrontation. Today, however, the influence Washington has over Kazakhstan's domestic political life is not what it was a decade ago. The reason lies in the uncomfortable issue of the involvement of certain high-ranking Kazakhstani officials in the James Giffen corruption case, right now under way in the USA. The fact was immediately recognized by the Chinese and Russian leaderships that rushed to reposition themselves in the region.

The Chinese presence in Kazakhstan and "Middle" Asia has noticeably grown in recent years. The geopolitical dimension of this presence should not, in my opinion, be underestimated: we may not be witnessing another Great Game, but a degree of competition between the biggest states for influence in the region is certainly there. However, the main reasons of the increased attention are more pragmatic: the People's Republic is currently in great need of fuel for its economic boom; the Caspian basin is where it is in abundance.

As recently as last year, Turkmenistani President Saparmurat Niyazov announced his willingness to export gas to eastern markets. Kazakhstan was then proposed as one of the possible transit routes for the (yet non-existent) gas pipeline:

During talks between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Astana in early July 2005, Nazarbayev said that constructing a Turkmenistan-China pipeline through Kazakh territory would be beneficial for all three countries. (Eurasia Daily Monitor)

While the prospects of the eventual construction of this Turkmenistan-China pipeline are still uncertain, a like project has already been initiated with regard to Kazakhstani oil. Much has been said elsewhere about the trans-Kazakhstan pipeline that is being built on the money of the Chinese. The progress may be slow, but the amounts of money that have been and are yet planned to be invested into the construction speak of the commitment that the two parties have in the project.

In addition to that, China's CNPC has recently acquired the assets of PetroKazakhstan - the Calgary-based largest oil-producer in the country. The price of the deal that the Chinese paid ($4.2 billion) was seen as "very high" but still acceptable for such a "strategic investment." The deal is, admittedly, "far from being completed," due to the last-minute bargaining the Kazakhstanis are trying to undertake in order to secure their influence in the oil production sector at home. Nonetheless, the political significance of the takeover is immense.

In a new attempt to boost the Astana-Moscow "strategic partnership," President Nazarbayev has paid an official visit to his Russian counterpart, during which a number of important and mutually beneficial agreements were reached. Russia, for example, pledged to help the Kazakhstanis with putting their first satellite into orbit, which will have a great impact on the quality, quantity, and price of the communication services in Kazakhstan. In response, Nazarbayev generously agreed to allow the leasing of a Kazakhstani testing site to the Russian military.

The main treat of the April negotiations, however, was the launching of the Common Economic Space project, which Nazarbayev has been anticipating for years. The plan of integration, as envisioned in 2003 by the heads of state of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, is very similar to that of the founders of the European Union. The initial goal was the creation, as a minimum, of a customs union or, as a maximum, of a full-fledged economic union with a single currency and a coordinating framework of supranational institutions. In reality, however, only the achievement of a free-trade zone seems feasible at the moment. (Nezavisimaya - I am sorry, but the source is in Russian)

For the project to succeed, it must be carried out as first envisioned and planned: with all the four members participating. Otherwise, it will make little economic sense. Ukraine is, however, unwilling to sign all of the 38 initial documents prepared for ratification. Kazakhstani President [2], apparently, does not see a problem in that. He stated that the three partners are not going to wait for the Ukrainian participation in the ratification process, which was later seconded by Moscow.

Whatever his personal rationale, Nazarbayev seems to have grasped what the most effective strategy in foreign policy for Kazakhstan is in the present situation. Using the benefits that Kazakhstan's geographic proximity with the two state colossi brings, Nazarbayev has turned to the traditional political "flexibility" of the Kazakhs, alluding to legendary Abylai - the most skillful in this type of diplomacy, according to the preserved historical accounts of the time.

What is the ET's opinion on this matter? Do you think the President will succeed in balancing between the two (three) Powers, without falling under total control of one or the other?

[1] The USA was the first country to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the newly independent state of Kazakhstan in 1991.
[2] Has a doctorate degree in economics.

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Excellent diary and very informative! I know much more about Kazakhstan now.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 08:20:31 AM EST
Thanks!

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey
by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 08:28:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And "Rakhmat" to the Azeri contribution! :)

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey
by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 08:57:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
very good indeed. :)

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA
by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 09:28:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
question: how would YOU define the level of nationalism currently in Kazakhstan?

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA
by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 12:55:57 PM EST
Depends on what kind of nationalism you are asking about. Different ethnic minorities, of course, act nationalistically, trying to preserve their identities and stuff. Some are indeed very sensitive towards what they perceive as insults and attacks against their communities (Cottam and Cottam :)). Especially with the present language policy of the government. (They threaten to completely switch to Kazakh in all spheres of state administration soon. This will drive some bright non-Kazakh speaking or, rather, Kazakh non-speaking minds out of the apparatus. And we'll be left with fat lazy unintelligent individuals running the country...)

Very few people of non-Kazakh ethnicity feel strongly attached towards the country they currently live in. There is always this thought that Russia (or Ukraine, or Germany, or Belarus, or Poland, or Israel) will accept them as new citizens, if things go bad for them in Kazakhstan. However, I know of cases when people came back from those countries, unable to find "better life" there. And there are also young non-Kazakhs who are willing to learn Kazakh and pursue careers in Kazakhstan - their homeland (Motherland, in Russian) - hoping that wide-spread discrimination will not kick in in the country that prides itself in the tolerance and inter-ethnic solidarity that have been preserved by the people.

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey

by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Fri Apr 14th, 2006 at 04:12:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
well, I am glad to see you are learning your lessons in Political science very well.

Thank you for the clarification.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Fri Apr 14th, 2006 at 04:29:21 AM EST
Serik this is an excellent diary. I have few questions related to some things you mentioned in your diary. At one point you are saying

(The multiethnic composition of Kazakhstan implies that only a portion of the population - the ethnic Kazakhs - receives the disguised nationalistic messages of this nature. The rest look at other aspects of the President's governance in making judgements about his suitability for the position he occupies.)


Coming from a country (macedonia) where every nationalistic remark is being dissected and analysed from every possible aspect, and in particularly if such remark is given by some state official, I wonder how a multiethnic country as Kazakhstan  manages to coordinate the wishes of all the different nationalities that live in the country. Could you write something more on the composition the nationality groups in Kazakhstan and is that somehow reflected in the political life.
Has the ethnic diversity in the country ever threatened the stability of the political regime. Do you have some political parties that are representing particular minority group, and if you  are they powerful as to cause some changes in the current political system.
 As I've figured out from your diary your president is trying to balance between two/three powers, so is there strong russian lobby in Kazakhstan that might have some leverage over the president,which can eventually cause shift in the political system.
by pavlovska (transbluency(at)mailcity.com) on Tue Apr 18th, 2006 at 09:50:38 PM EST
Thanks, pavlovska!

These are very good questions, and, I think, they deserve a diary. So I promise to write one (in the nearest future) in order to address the issue of multi-nationality of Kazakhstan, which I have so far covered (I realize now) very superficially.

And I understand the salience of the question of nationalism to someone who comes from a former Yugoslav republic. I'll try to be insightful so as to find out what the reason of the "Kazakhstani success" is, with regard to the ethnic policy.

PS Sorry for replying quite late. I thought my diary was long dead. :)

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey

by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Sun Apr 23rd, 2006 at 10:42:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One more thing, I felt obliged to write this. I know that my comment here is off the topic, yet I have to mention it.
I believe that you have already seen Ali G's show i.e. Borat from Kazakhstan. Many people find his show very interesting but how would you comment on this from your perspective. I think that he has greatly damaged the Kazakhstan's reputation, but at the same time his show is a type of an advertisement of Kazakhstan. What's your opinion?
by pavlovska (transbluency(at)mailcity.com) on Tue Apr 18th, 2006 at 10:03:29 PM EST
Well, negative advertisement is still advertisement. :)

But you are not the first person to ask me about my attitude towards Ali G and his show. I still find him hilarious. And I get really annoyed when my fellow Kazakhstanis say he offends them, because I believe that one has to be above such things if he wants to convey the image of a self-confident person. I mean, if you know that's not true, why get all upset and stuff? No one really believes in everything that Borat tells about Kazakhstan. And those who do... well, why worry about their opinion?

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey

by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Sun Apr 23rd, 2006 at 10:50:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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