Kazakhstanis are increasingly skeptical of close ties with both Russians and Chinese, profoundly limiting the ability of the former to recover the influence Moscow once had there and making it far more difficult for Beijing to move in and supplant it. Further complicating this situation is the fact that many ethnic-Kazakhs are convinced Russia is behind the rise in anti-Chinese attitudes in Kazakhstan and that China is behind anti-Russian ones—a view that is likely to negatively impact interethnic relations in this Central Asian country. But more broadly, Astana may be searching for new partners beyond these two paramount ones, either by promoting itself as a regional hegemon or by linking up with some other country farther away. That, in turn, could open the way for a truly complicated mix of foreign and domestic politics as Kazakhstan moves toward a future beyond President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule.
The Russian government is alarmed by all this because, if it loses its position in Kazakhstan, its ability to influence the rest of Central Asia and to work with China as an equal partner will be much reduced. Russian commentator Yaroslav Razumov argues that Kazakhstan today “is an ally but not a friend,” because “within Kazakhstan, Russophobic attitudes are intensifying.” That is not good news and it is unlikely to change anytime soon, he suggests. Instead, “Moscow must learn to live with this,” something few in the Russian capital are likely to be comfortable with (Profile.ru, July 18).
Anti-Russian articles are a staple of the Kazakh media, he alleges, while pro-Russian ones are rare. Indeed, many Kazakhstanis now say that Russia and its agents of influence are promoting anti-Chinese attitudes among Kazakhs in a last-ditch effort to maintain the position of the ethnic-Russian minority in the country and preserve Moscow’s leverage over the Kazakhstani government. Meanwhile, Moscow’s other proposals, including having Kazakhstan join some kind of political union with Russia, have backfired, Razumov contends. First of all, ethnic Kazakhs remember what Moscow did to them the last time they were part of a common state. And second of all, the Russian side has overpromised regarding the benefits to Kazakhstan of joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and then not delivered (see EDM, May 9, 2014; March 2, 2016; January 11, 2018; July 12, 2018). Some Kazakhstanis, Razumov suggests, are even questioning the utility for Kazakhstan of remaining in those institutions.
Kazakhstan’s population is also generally skeptical of Moscow’s ability to do anything to help them economically, he says. Russia is simply too technologically backward to be of much use. But it is Moscow’s political moves that have sparked the most anger, including the widespread belief among ethnic Kazakhs that the Russian special services were behind a 2016 effort to organize a coup against President Nazarbayev. Some local commentators even suggested, Razumov continues, that Moscow wanted to carry out “a Ukrainian scenario” in Kazakhstan.
It is clear, the Russian commentator says, that Moscow has “lost the initiative” and that it has a lot of work to do if it is to recover even what it had before. Yet, many Russian officials appear to have thought that Kazakhstan was ready to march in lock step with Russia forever. That is not the case, and the divergence is only going to grow as Kazakhstan drops the Cyrillic script in favor of the Latin alphabet and develops ties with others (see Commentaries, March 5; see EDM, March 20; July 12).
In such a situation, most observers of Central Asia would have predicted that China would be able to pick up the pieces. But that also has not come to pass. Instead, anti-Chinese attitudes have been intensifying right along with anti-Russian ones. The sources are somewhat different, but the results are just as dramatic, and China is worried. It has good reason to be, especially in light of events over the last few days.
Adil Kaukenov, a specialist on China in Astana, recently told CA Monitor that economic interests will overcome any popular attitudes and that Kazakhstan needs China if it is to develop. Moreover, he said, “Sinophobia” in Kazakhstan was “formed two to three generations ago,” under the Soviets, and eventually it will dissipate. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that fears of China’s enormous population as well as Chinese people’s greater economic possibilities and higher standard of living are currently keeping such feelings alive (CA Monitor, July 13).
But now, there is a new and potentially explosive factor: Chinese repression of its Muslim population in Xinjiang is growing worse (see EDM, January 8). Heretofore, this repression was directed primarily against the local Uyghurs; but Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh who fled from China to Kazakhstan, has attracted attention for describing the repression of Turkic peoples in that region. She has suggested that, after it deals with the Uyghurs, Beijing will turn its attention to the 1.2 million ethnic Kazakhs living in China (Azattyq.org, July 13; News.ru, Taz.de, July 17).
The Chinese authorities have already confined “approximately 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs in a corrective labor camp,” Sauytbay reported (Azattyq.org, July 13). This unprecedented act of repression is certain to lead to a new outburst of anti-Chinese feelings in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs in China fled there from the Soviet Union during collectivization and sedentarization in the 1920s and 1930s but have, nonetheless, maintained ties with extended family members back in their homeland.
For two decades, the Kazakhstani government has cast itself as a protector of Kazakhs abroad. It now must take a tough stand or lose credibility with the domestic population. And consequently, at a time when Beijing might have expected to gain real influence in Kazakhstan, the actions of Chinese police in Xinjiang are going to make that almost impossible in the near term. At the same time, Astana will be looking for friends and allies elsewhere, perhaps first in the West and then in the Muslim world. Whoever provides support to it now can expect to gain in the future.